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Torres Strait Islanders

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Torres Strait Islanders
Queensland State Archives 5750 Villagers with Hon J C Peterson and party Poid Torres Strait Island June 1931.png
Total population
Total: 38,700 (TSI only), plus 32,200 (TSI and Aboriginal Australian);[1] of these, 4,514 on the Islands[2]
Torres Strait Island languages, Torres Strait Creole, Torres Strait English, Australian English
Related ethnic groups

Note difficulties with census counts.[1]
Map of Torres Strait Islands
Map of Torres Strait Islands

Torres Strait Islanders (/ˈtɒrɪs-/)[3] are the indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait Islands, which are part of the state of Queensland, Australia. Ethnically distinct from the Aboriginal people of the rest of Australia, they are often grouped with them as Indigenous Australians. Today there are many more Torres Strait Islander people living in mainland Australia (nearly 28,000) than on the Islands (about 4,500).

There are five distinct peoples within broader designation of Torres Strait Islander people, based partly on geographical and cultural divisions. There are two main Indigenous language groups, Kalaw Lagaw Ya and Meriam Mir. Torres Strait Creole is also widely spoken, as a language of trade and commerce. The core of Island culture is Papuo-Austronesian and the people traditionally a seafaring nation. There is a strong artistic culture, particularly in sculpture, printmaking and mask-making.


Torres Strait Islanders as a percentage of the population in Australia, 2011 census
Torres Strait Islanders as a percentage of the population in Australia, 2011 census

Of the 133 islands, only 38 are inhabited. The Islands are culturally unique, with much to distinguish them from neighbouring Papua New Guinea, South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Today the society is multicultural, having attracted Asian and Pacific Island traders to the beche-de-mer, mother-of-pearl and trochus shell industries over the years.[4]

In the 2016 Australian Census, there were 4,514 people living on the Islands, of whom 91.8% were Torres Strait Islander or Aboriginal Australian people. (64% of the population identified as Torres Strait Islander; 8.3% as Aboriginal Australian; 6.5% as Papua New Guinean; 3.6% as other Australian and 2.6% as "Maritime South-East Asian", etc.).[2] In 2006 the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had reported 6,800 Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait area.[5]

People identifying themselves as of Torres Strait Islander descent in the whole of Australia in the 2016 census numbered 32,345, while those of both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal descent numbered a further 26,767 (compared with 29,515 and 17,811 respectively in 2006).[6]

There are five Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal Australian communities living on the coast of Queensland, mainly at Bamaga, Seisia, Injinoo, Umagico and New Mapoon on the Northern Peninsula area of Cape York.[7]


Until the late 20th century, Torres Strait Islanders had been administered by a system of elected councils, a system based partly on traditional pre-Christian local government and partly on the introduced mission management system.[8]

Today, the Torres Strait Regional Authority, an Australian government body established in 1994 and consisting of 20 elected representatives, oversees the islands, with its primary function being to strengthen the economic, social and cultural development of the peoples of the Torres Strait area.[9]

Further to the TSRA, there are several Queensland LGAs which administer areas occupied by Torres Strait Islander communities:

Indigenous peoples

Torres Strait Islander people are of predominantly Melanesian descent, distinct from Aboriginal Australians on the mainland and some other Australian islands,[11][12] and share some genetic and cultural traits with the people of New Guinea.[13]

The five-pointed star on the national flag represents the five cultural groups;[13] another source says that it originally represented the five groups of islands, but today (as of 2001) it represents the five major political divisions.[14]

Pre-colonial Island people were not an homogeneous group and until then did not regard themselves as a single people. They have links with the people of Papua New Guinea, several islands being much closer to PNG than Australia, as well as the northern tip of Cape York on the Australian continent.[14]

Sources are generally agreed that there are five distinct geographical and/or cultural divisions, but descriptions and naming of the groups differ widely.

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica: the Eastern (Meriam, or Murray Island), Top Western (Guda Maluilgal), Near Western (Maluilgal), Central (Kulkalgal), and Inner Islands (Kaiwalagal).[13]
  • Multicultural Queensland 2001 (a Queensland Government publication), says that five groups may be distinguished, based on linguistic and cultural differences, and also related to their places of origin, type of area of settlement, and long-standing relationships with other peoples. these nations are: Saibailgal (Top Western Islanders), Maluilgal (Mid-Western Islanders), Kaurareg (Lower Western Islanders), Kulkalgal (Central Islanders) and Meriam Le (Eastern Islanders).[14]
  • Torres Shire Council official website (Queensland Government): Five major island clusters – the Top Western Group (Boigu, Dauan and Saibai), the Near Western Group (Badu, Mabuiag and Moa), the Central Group (Yam, Warraber, Coconut and Masig), the Eastern Group (Murray, Darnley and Stephen), and the TI Group (Thursday Island, Tabar Island, Horn, Hammond, Prince of Wales and Friday).[4]

Ethno-linguistic groups include:


There are two distinct Indigenous languages spoken on the Islands, as well as a creole language.[11]

The Western-central Torres Strait Language, or Kalaw Lagaw Ya, is spoken on the southwestern, western, northern and central islands;[15] a further dialect, Kala Kawa Ya (Top Western and Western) may be distinguished.[4] It is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages of Australia.

Meriam Mir is spoken on the eastern islands. It is one of the four Eastern Trans-Fly languages, the other three being spoken in Papua New Guinea.[15]

Torres Strait Creole, an English-based creole language, is also spoken.[4]


Ritual face mask from a Torres Strait Island (19th century).
Ritual face mask from a Torres Strait Island (19th century).

Archaeological, linguistic and folk history evidence suggests that the core of Island culture is Papuo-Austronesian. The people are agriculturalists[citation needed] as well as engaging in hunting and gathering. Dugong, turtles, crayfish, crabs, shellfish, reef fish and wild fruits and vegetables were traditionally hunted and collected and remain an important part of their subsistence lifestyle. Traditional foods play an important role in ceremonies and celebrations even when they do not live on the islands. Dugong and turtle hunting as well as fishing are seen as a way of continuing the Islander tradition of being closely associated with the sea.[16] The islands have long history of trade and interactions with explorers from other parts of the globe, both east and west, which has influenced their lifestyle and culture.[17]

The Indigenous people of the Torres Strait have a distinct culture which has slight variants on the different islands where they live. Cultural practices share similarities with Australian Aboriginal and Papuan culture. Historically, they have an oral tradition, with stories handed down and communicated through song, dance and ceremonial performance. As a seafaring people, sea, sky and land feature strongly in their stories and art.[18]

Post-colonisation history has seen new cultural influences on the people, most notably the place of Christianity. After the "Coming of Light" (see Religion section), artefacts previously important to their ceremonies lost their relevance, instead replaced by crucifixes and other symbols of Christianity. In some cases the missionaries prohibited the use of traditional sacred objects, and eventually production ceased. Missionaries, anthropologists and museums "collected" a huge amount of material: all of the pieces collected by missionary Samuel McFarlane, were in London and then split between three European museums and a number of mainland Australian museums.[19]

In 1898–9, British anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon collected about 2000 objects, convinced that hundreds of art objects collected had to be saved from destruction by the zealous Christian missionaries intent on obliterating the religious traditions and ceremonies of the native islanders. Film footage of ceremonial dances was also collected.[20] The collection at Cambridge University is known as the Haddon Collection and is the most comprehensive collection of Torres Strait Islander artefacts in the world.[18]

During the first half of the 20th century, Torres Strait Islander culture was largely restricted to dance and song, weaving and producing a few items for particular festive occasions.[19] In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers trying to salvage what was left of traditional knowledge from surviving elders influenced the revival of interest in the old ways of life. An Australian historian, Margaret Lawrie, employed by the Queensland State Library, spent much time travelling the Islands, speaking to local people and recording their stories, which have since influenced visual art on the Islands.[21]


Mythology and culture, deeply influenced by the ocean and the natural life around the islands, have always informed traditional artforms. Featured strongly are turtles, fish, dugongs, sharks, seabirds and saltwater crocodiles, which are considered totemic beings.[17]

Torres Strait Islander people are the only culture in the world to make turtleshell masks, known as krar (turtleshell) in the Western Islands and le-op (human face) in the Eastern Islands.[18]

Prominent among the artforms is wame (alt. wameya), many different string figures.[22][23][24]

Elaborate headdresses or dhari (also spelt dari[25]), as featured on the Torres Strait Islander Flag, are created for the purposes of ceremonial dances.[26]

The Islands have a long tradition of woodcarving, creating masks and drums, and carving decorative features on these and other items for ceremonial use. From the 1970s, young artists were beginning their studies at around the same time that a significant re-connection to traditional myths and legends was happening. Margaret Lawrie's publications, Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait (1970) and Tales from the Torres Strait (1972), reviving stories which had all but been forgotten, influenced the artists greatly.[27][28] While some of these stories had been written down by Haddon after his 1898 expedition to the Torres Strait,[29] many had subsequently fallen out of use or been forgotten.

In the 1990s a group of younger artists, including the award-winning Dennis Nona (b.1973), started translating these skills into the more portable forms of printmaking, linocut and etching, as well as larger scale bronze sculptures. Other outstanding artists include Billy Missi (1970-2012), known for his decorated black and white linocuts of the local vegetation and eco-systems, and Alick Tipoti (b.1975). These and other Torres Strait artists have greatly expanded the forms of Indigenous art within Australia, bringing superb Melanesian carving skills as well as new stories and subject matter.[18] The College of Technical and Further Education on Thursday Island was a starting point for young Islanders to pursue studies in art. Many went on to further art studies, especially in printmaking, initially in Cairns, Queensland and later at the Australian National University in what is now the School of Art and Design. Other artists such as Laurie Nona, Brian Robinson, David Bosun, Glen Mackie, Joemen Nona, Daniel O'Shane and Tommy Pau are known for their printmaking work.[21]

An exhibition of Alick Tipoti's work, titled Zugubal, was mounted at the Cairns Regional Gallery in July 2015.[30][31]

Music and dance

For Torres Strait Islander people, singing and dancing is their "literature" – "the most important aspect of Torres Strait lifestyle. The Torres Strait Islanders preserve and present their oral history through songs and dances;...the dances act as illustrative material and, of course, the dancer himself is the storyteller” (Ephraim Bani, 1979). There are many songs about the weather; others about the myths and legends; life in the sea and totemic gods; and about important events. "The dancing and its movements express the songs and acts as the illustrative material".[32]

Dance is also major form of creative and competitive expression. "Dance machines" (hand held mechanical moving objects), clappers and headdresses (dhari/dari) enhance the dance performances.[26] Dance artefacts used in the ceremonial performances relate to Islander traditions and clan identity, and each island group has its own performances.[33]

Artist Ken Thaiday Snr is renowned for his elaborately sculptured dari, often with moving parts and incorporating the hammerhead shark, a powerful totem.[33][34]

Christine Anu is an ARIA Award-winning singer-songwriter of Torres Strait Islander heritage, who first became popular with her cover version of the song "My Island Home" (first performed by the Warumpi Band).[35]

Religion and beliefs

The people still have their own traditional belief systems. Stories of the Tagai[definition needed] represent Torres Strait Islanders as sea people, with a connection to the stars, as well as a system of order in which everything has its place in the world.[36] They follow the instructions of the Tagai.

One Tagai story depicts the Tagai as a man standing in a canoe. In his left hand, he holds a fishing spear, representing the Southern Cross. In his right hand, he holds a sorbi (a red fruit). In this story, the Tagai and his crew of 12 were preparing for a journey, but before the journey began, the crew consumed all the food and drink they planned to take. So the Tagai strung the crew together in two groups of six and cast them into the sea, where their images became star patterns in the sky. These patterns can be seen in the star constellations of Pleiades and Orion.[37]

Some Torres Strait Islander people share beliefs similar to the Aboriginal peoples' Dreaming and "Everywhen" concepts, passed down in oral history.[38]

From the 1870s, Christianity spread throughout the islands, and it remains strong today among Torres Strait Islander people everywhere. Christianity was first brought to the islands by the London Missionary Society mission led by Rev. Samuel Macfarlane, who arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871 accompanied by South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers. Clan elder and warrior, Dabad greeted them on their arrival. Ready to defend his land and people, Dabad walked to the water’s edge when McFarlane dropped to his knees and presented the Bible to Dabad. Dabad accepted the gift, interpreted as the "Light", introducing Christianity to the Torres Strait Islands. The people of the Torres Strait Islands adopted the Christian rituals and ceremonies and continued to uphold their connection to the land, sea and sky, practising their traditional customs, and cultural identity referred to as Ailan Kastom.[39]

The Islanders refer to this event as "The Coming of the Light", or "Coming of Light"[40] and all Island communities celebrate the occasion annually on 1 July.[41] However the coming of Christianity did not spell the end of the people's traditional beliefs; their culture informed their understanding of the new religion, as the Christian God was welcomed and the new religion was integrated into every aspect of their everyday lives.[40]

In the 2016 Census, Australia's Indigenous and non-Indigenous population were broadly similar with 54% (vs 55%) reporting a Christian affiliation, while less than 2% reported traditional beliefs as their religion, and 36% reported no religion. A total of 20,658 Torres Strait Islander (out of a total of 32,345 population in Australia) and 15,586 of both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal identity (out of 26,767) reported adherence to some form of Christianity.[42]

Traditional adoptions

A traditional cultural practice, known as kupai omasker, allows adoption of a child by a relative or community member for a range of reasons. The reasons differ depending on which of the many Torres Islander cultures the person belongs to, with one example being "where a family requires an heir to carry on the important role of looking after land or being the caretaker of land". Other reasons might relate to "the care and responsibility of relationships between generations". There has been a problem in Queensland law, where such adoptions are not legally recognised by the state's Succession Act 1981,[43] with one issue being that adopted children are not able to take on the surname of their adoptive parents.[44]

On 17 July 2020 the Queensland Government introduced a bill in parliament to legally recognise the practice.[45]

Notable Torres Strait Islanders

See also


  1. ^ a b "3238.0.55.001 - Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2016". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 31 August 2018. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  2. ^ a b "2016 Census QuickStats: Torres Strait Island (R)". Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  3. ^ "Torres Strait. Oxford Dictionary Online". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 August 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d "About the Torres Strait". Torres Shire Council. Queensland Government. Retrieved 26 December 2019.
  5. ^ "Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples". Australia Now. Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Archived from the original on 8 October 2006. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  6. ^ "2071.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, 2016". Australian Bureau of Statistices. 31 October 2017. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  7. ^ "About the Torres Strait". Torres Strait Shire Council. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  8. ^ Jeremy Beckett (1990). Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-0-521-37862-8. Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  9. ^ Kelly, John (22 June 2001). "Evaluation of the Torres Strait Regional Authority" (PDF). Office of Evaluation and Audit. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island local government" (PDF). Report of the Local Government Reform Commission. State of Queensland. July 2007. pp. 59–65. ISBN 978-1-921057-10-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 July 2008. Retrieved 31 March 2008.
  11. ^ a b "The people and history of the Torres Strait Islands". BBC News. 24 August 2015. Retrieved 27 December 2019.
  12. ^ "Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies". Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  13. ^ a b c "Torres Strait Islander peoples". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 26 December 2019.
  14. ^ a b c Shnukal, Anna. "Torres Strait Islanders" (PDF). From: Brandle, Maximilian (ed.) Multicultural Queensland 2001: 100 years, 100 communities, A century of contributions, Brisbane, The State of Queensland (Department of Premier and Cabinet), 2001. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ a b "Indigenous Fact Sheet: Torres Strait Islanders" (PDF). Australian Government, Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 May 2006. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  16. ^ Smyth, Dermot (2002). "Appendix B: The Indigenous Sector: An Anthropological Perspective". In Hundloe, Tor (ed.). Valuing Fisheries. University of Queensland Press. pp. 230–231. ISBN 0702233293. Retrieved 4 November 2012.
  17. ^ a b "Art in the Torres Strait Islands". Japingka Aboriginal Art. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  18. ^ a b c d "Art Sets. Art of the Torres Strait Islands". New South Wales Art Gallery. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  19. ^ a b "Torres Strait Islands". Australian Art Network. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  20. ^ "BBC Two - Hidden Treasures of..." BBC. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  21. ^ a b Robinson, Brian (2001). "Torres Strait Islander printmaking". Retrieved 7 January 2020 – via Centre for Australian Art: Australian Prints + Printmaking. Conference paper, [from] Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing
  22. ^ Brij V. Lal; Kate Fortune, eds. (2000). The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. University of Hawaii Press. p. 456. ISBN 978-0-8248-2265-1. Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  23. ^ Alfred Cort Haddon, along with one of his daughters, the pioneers in the modern study of Torres Strait string figures
  24. ^ A string figure bibliography including examples from Torres Strait.
  25. ^ Whitford, Maddie (13 April 2020). "Producers reflect on profound experience walking with Indigenous artists on country". ABC News. Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  26. ^ a b "Dance machines & headdresses". Awakening: Stories from the Torres Strait. Queensland Government. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  27. ^ Lawrie, Margaret Elizabeth (1970). Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait/collected and translated by Margaret Lawrie. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.
  28. ^ Lawrie, Margaret Elizabeth (1972). Tales from Torres Strait. St Lucia Qld: University of Queensland Press.
  29. ^ Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits (1898); Hodes, Jeremy. Index to the Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits; Haddon, Alfred C. (Alfred Cort), 1855–1940; Ray, Sidney Herbert, 1858–1939. Linguistics (1901), Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, University PressCS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  30. ^ "Alick Tipoti: Zugubal". Cairns Art Gallery. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  31. ^ Tipoti, Alick (2015), Butler, Sally (ed.), Alick Tipoti : Zugubal : ancestral spirits, Cairns Regional Gallery, ISBN 978-0-9757635-6-8
  32. ^ Wiltshire, Kelly (27 October 2017). "Audiovisual Heritage of Torres Strait Singing and Dancing". AIATSIS. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  33. ^ a b "Ken Thaiday". Art Gallery NSW. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
  34. ^ "Dr Ken Thaiday Senior". Australia Council. 15 May 2019. Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  35. ^ Keenan, Catherine (18 January 2003). "Frog princess". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  36. ^ "8 interesting facts about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders". World Vision. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  37. ^ "Spirituality and religion among Torres Strait Islanders". Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority. 25 July 2018. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  38. ^ "The Dreaming". Common Ground. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  39. ^
    CC-BY icon.svg
    This Wikipedia article incorporates text from ‘The Coming of the Light’ Celebrating 150 years of Christianity in the Torres Strait 1 July 2021 (28 June 2021) published by the State Library of Queensland under CC-BY licence, accessed on 29 June 2021.
  40. ^ a b "Aboriginal Christians & Christianity". Creative Spirits. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  41. ^ Burton, John. "History of Torres Strait to 1879 – a regional view". Torres Strait Regional Authority. Archived from the original on 15 May 2009. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
  42. ^ "2071.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016: Religion in Australia, 2016". Australian Bureau of Statistices. 28 June 2017. Retrieved 5 January 2020. [Include "Religion" table download from this page, "Table 8 Religious Affiliation by Indigenous Status, Count of persons(a)"]
  43. ^ "Succession Act 1981". Queensland Legislation. 25 May 2020. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  44. ^ Rigby, Mark (4 June 2020). "Torres Strait Islanders fear time running out for legal recognition of traditional adoptions". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  45. ^ Rigby, Mark (16 July 2020). "Torres Strait Islander adoption practices bill introduced to Queensland Parliament". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 16 July 2020.
  46. ^ Resilience the driving force behind Sam Powell-Pepper's draft bid
  47. ^ AFL Record. Round 9,2009. Slattery Publishing. pg 75.
  48. ^ Moore, Tony (28 November 2017). "Labor one seat closer as first Torres Strait Islander woman elected to Parliament". Brisbane Times. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  49. ^ "History: Winners by Artist: Christine Anu". ARIA Awards. Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA). Archived from the original on 19 May 2011. Retrieved 18 May 2009.

Further reading

External links

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