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Important cultural concepts

The following concepts are helpful when developing a cultural support plan.

Australia’s first peoples, First Nation peoples

There are two distinct groups of Indigenous peoples in Australia, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people. These two groups are ethnically distinct with different histories, languages, customs, traditions and rituals. It is very important to acknowledge that an individual person has the right to identify with one or more cultures to which they belong.

Example: Nulla is both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. His father’s family descends from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait Islands and his mother’s family is Aboriginal and descends from Dalby. Therefore ,when cultural heritage is recorded in ICMS for Nulla, he should be identified as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Clan group

The clan is a local descent group, larger than a family but based on family links through a common ancestry, tribe, nation and family/community groups. The clan is a subset of a nation. While there are shared connections, each clan group may have separate aspirations and should be regarded as a discrete group.

It is important that children are aware of who their clans are so they have an understanding of who they are related to by blood and also by kin. This understanding will also help them to decide who they can have intimate relationships and children with.


  • Clancy is both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. He was born and raised in Rockhampton.  
  • Clancy’s mother is Aboriginal. His maternal grandmother was born in Mt Isa and lived on Palm Island. His maternal grandfather was born in Hervey Bay. 
  • His father’s family descends from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait Islands.

This means, when asked how he identifies culturally, Clancy may provide the following narrative:

‘I have blood connections to the Kalkadoon people of Mt Isa through my maternal grandmother’s family and to the Butchulla people of Hervey Bay through my maternal grandfather’s family. I have a historical connection with the Aboriginal community of Rockhampton due to the amount of time that my mother and grandparents have lived in the region. I am a Torres Strait Islander through my paternal family, which is from Thursday Island.’

There are different islands and language groups within the Torres Strait. This should be explored with Clancy’s family to ensure Clancy remains connected to his family members.

Compatible person

A ‘compatible person’ is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person who is not related by blood to the child but has a knowledge and understanding of the child’s community and language group and is able to support the child in remaining connected to their family, community and language group.

To explore who may be a compatible person with whom to place the child, we need to talk with the parents of the child, significant Elders and extended family or organisations (as nominated by the family). If the child or family has consented to the involvement of an independent person, the independent person may assist the family to provide this information.

Example: In the Mt Isa community, a number of children were placed in the care of an Aboriginal worker from the local health service who had family links to the community but was not related to the children.


Culture consists of accepted and traditionally patterned ways of being, knowing and behaving. It encompasses common understanding, shared values, goals and practices by members of a group or community, and includes land, sea, customary beliefs, spirituality, language, stories, identity and ways of living and working.

Having or maintaining a strong sense of culture relies on Elders, parents and families passing on cultural knowledge to succeeding generations. Culture can include, but is not limited to, family structure, law/lore system, communication style, art, craft, music, spirituality, religion, customs and dietary habits. Culture can influence values and beliefs, norms, thinking style, problem-solving style, family loyalties and responsibilities.

Cultural lens

A cultural lens is a way of viewing the values, norms, attitudes and behaviours from the perspective of another culture. This perspective can influence (and may hinder) our understanding of other cultural groups, as they can be unconsciously compared to our own.

It is important to understand your own culture and how it shapes your cultural lens so you can explore and understand someone else’s culture.


A significant Elder is someone who has a connection to the child through blood in the hierarchy of the family system (for example, a grandmother/grandfather, aunty/uncle); or someone who has a personal connection with the child or family who the family has accepted as part of their family structure due to a long-term association and respect for that person—although they may not be blood related.

A community Elder is someone who may be part of a local Elders group, such as traditional owners or a historical group, who may or may not have a personal and biological connection to a child or family (such as when multiple clan groups make up a community). In some cases, the family may not want members from these Elder groups to be involved in discussion, as they may not necessarily know the child or family or have any connection with them.

Example: Nancy has a close connection with her grandmother’s friend Mary. Although she is not a biological relative, Nancy refers to her as Aunty Mary. Recently, when Nancy’s grandmother was sick, Aunty Mary provided extra help and support to Nancy, such as transport and meals. Nancy considers Aunty Mary to be a significant Elder as they have a strong connection and she is someone who Nancy feels safe with. Aunty Mary is acknowledged by the family as someone who is able to provide advice and support in relation to decision-making processes when required.

While Nancy and her family are aware of the Elders in their community, they may not feel close to these people like they do with Aunty Mary. They will say hello and show respect for them as Elders of their community, but Nancy and her family may not like to involve these people in discussions with Child Safety due to the personal nature and sensitivities of those discussions.

Island group

This refers to coastal groups such as Torres Strait Island groups, Tasmanian Island groups and Australian Island groups, for example, Stradbroke Island (Noonucal), North Keppel (Kanome), Tiwi and Melville.

Example: The Torres Strait Islands are divided into 5 major island clusters: the Top Western Group (Boigu, Buru, Dauan and Saibai); the Near Western Group (Badu, Mabuiag, Moa and Nagir); the Central Group (Warraber, Iama, Zegey and Masig); the Eastern Group (Murray, Darnley and Stephen); and the Inner Group (Muralug, Waiben, Kiriri, Tuined, Mori and Ngurupai).

Language groups

At the point of colonisation, there were at least 250 Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia and as many as 750 dialects. Language groups are defined by the dialects spoken by a culturally distinct group of people within different clan groups and community groups. People from one clan could speak up to 4 different languages within an island or language group.

We need to be aware that English may be the second or third language people use.

Example: In the Torres Strait, three distinct languages besides English are spoken:

  • Meriam Mir, related to the language of Papua New Guinea, is the language of the Eastern Torres Strait.
  • Kalau Lagau Ya, made of a number of dialect variations of Kalau Lagau Ya, Kalua Kawau Ya, Kulkalgau Ya and Kaiwaligau Ya, is the language of the Western and Central Islands of Torres Strait.
  • Creole is the third ‘Indigenous’ language of the Torres Straits. It developed around the 1880s and is also known as Blaikman Tok, Broken/Brokan and Yumplatok.

Mob/community group

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, the term ‘mob’ refers to strong connections and cohesive ties within a particular group, place or country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may belong to more than one community, including where they come from, where their family is, and where they currently live or work.

When completing these fields in the cultural support plan, it is important to accurately record how the family describe their mob or community groups, completing the child’s information first and then the parents’ information.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may be transient and move regularly between communities or belong to many communities. They will be best placed to tell you their cultural identity.

Example: On Clancy’s maternal side his:

  • grandmother moved from Mt Isa to Palm Island as a child, and lived there until she moved to Rockhampton to raise Clancy’s mother
  • grandfather was born in Hervey Bay
  • grandparents lived in Rockhampton, raising Clancy’s mother.

Clancy was born in Rockhampton and has lived there all his life.

This means that Clancy may consider his mob or community group to be:

  • the Kalkadoon people of Mt Isa where his grandmother’s people come from
  • the Aboriginal community on Palm Island, due to his grandmother being brought up there from a young age
  • the Butchulla people of Hervey Bay, where his grandmother’s people come from
  • the Aboriginal community of Rockhampton, due to the historical connections that his grandparents and mother have to Rockhampton and the family being accepted as part of the Aboriginal community.


Self-determination is the process by which a person or community controls their life. In the context of child protection, it is also the process by which they participate in and lead the decisions affecting the care and protection of their child to promote the continuity of family and community relationships.

Self-determination can mean something different for every individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person and community, so the most appropriate approach is to respectfully engage with them and seek their views.

Skin group

Skin group refers to the ‘moity system’. An Aboriginal person is born into a family and given a particular skin group that will follow a maternal or paternal line. In particular, skin groups govern the daily interaction and communication between the differing skin groups and may pre-determine who a person can marry.

They may also determine the customs and traditions they will follow and hold in trust for future generations—these are specially held by their skin groups. These customs are still practised in some communities and even in urban communities. It is important that these practices are adhered to, to ensure that young people do not have relationships with people who have blood connections to them. This is still seen to be taboo in Aboriginal culture.


A totem is a natural object, plant or animal that is inherited by members of a clan or family as their spiritual emblem. … Totems are believed to be the descendants of the Dreamtime heroes … (Uncle Graham Paulson, Australians Together (n.d.)

Totems have particular spiritual religious significance. In some instances it is considered a cultural taboo to note this information. Under no circumstances should totems be recorded unless permission has been given by the correct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person responsible for passing on that knowledge. This may be a family member, Elder or community member of significance to each of the parents and the child.

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