Australia's Aborigines are becoming a strong force in the country's diverse society and culture.
For people right around the world, Australia is synonymous with Aboriginal history and culture. And so it might be a little surprising to learn that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders make up just 2% of Australia's population - or 353,000 people. For a people so few in number to be so well-known and appreciated internationally says a lot about the strength and vibrancy of indigenous Australian culture.
Not so well known is the fact that Australia has two very distinct native peoples. In addition to the Aborigines, who make up the majority of the indigenous population, there are the Torres Strait Islanders, who come from the lands of the Torres Strait, between the tip of Cape York in northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Ethnically and culturally, the two populations are very different, but together form a rich part of modern Australian society.
As with so many indigenous populations, the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia over the past 210 years has often been a brutal and tragic one. The European colonization of Australia could have led, ultimately, to the annihilation of its original inhabitants. Instead, Australia's indigenous peoples have endured, overcoming a litany of wrongs to emerge as a strong and vibrant community, retaining many traditions and also making the most of new opportunities. Just twenty-five years ago, there were only seventy-five indigen.ous students in higher education institutions in Australia; today, there are more than 7,000 - an impressive achievement in the space of only one generation. Of course, there are still many inequities to address, most visibly in the areas of indigenous health, housing and access to education. The Australian Government is working with regional governments, local communities and the elected representatives of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) to address these problems. At the same time, indigenous communities are tackling the challenge of ensuring their cultural and religious heritage is passed on to younger generations.
One of the most positive signs of a new era in relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians has been the creation of a new social movement, known as the "reconciliation movement". The concept of reconciliation is a very important one for the whole country, as it aims to deal with the legacy of the past, and at the same time increase understanding and appreciation of indigenous peoples' culture and current aspirations. On 28 May, more than 200,000 Australians walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to express their support for reconciliation.
Visitors to Australia will see clear signs that indigenous cultures are making their mark nationwide. More indigenous people now live in cities and towns than in the countryside, and you can find traditional foods (known as "bush tucker") on the menus of city cafes and restaurants; some breathtaking indigenous art in galleries; and indigenous dance companies, musical groups and theatre productions on stages around the country. The world will also get the chance to see some of Australia's finest sportspeople competing at the Sydney Olympics in September - hopefully including indigenous athletes Cathy Freeman, Karl Vander-Kuyp, Nova Perris-Kneebone and Patrick Johnson. The Aboriginal flag will be flying proudly around the Olympic Stadium.
You can find out plenty more about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at www.atsic.gov.au or www. aiatsis.gov.au.