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TORRES STRAIT ISLANDS HISTORY AND CULTURE. Talya Collins, Corrine Conneely, and Jodie Costas. Aboriginal histories and cultures. Australian Identity. Torres Strait Islands Flag

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torres strait islands history and culture


Talya Collins, Corrine Conneely, and Jodie Costas

Aboriginal histories and cultures. Australian


Torres Strait Islands Flag

The Torres Strait Islander Flag is an official flag of Australia, along with the Australian National Flag and the Australian Aboriginal Flag.

The Torres Strait Islander Flag stands for the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders. It is flown to celebrate and promote greater understanding of Indigenous peoples and their culture (Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 2000).

This flag was designed as a symbol to represent identity and unity of the Torres Strait islander people and each piece of the flag was designed to symbolize their culture.

Green: Represents the land

Blue: Represents the sea

White: Represents peace

Black: Represents the Indigenous peoples

The Dhari or headdress represents Torres Strait Island people and the five pointed star represents each of the 5 major Island groups. The star was included to highlight the seafaring traditions of the Torres Strait (ATSIC, 2000).

The Torres Strait stretches for 150km between Cape York and the coast of Papua New Guinea, north of Queensland. The strait occupies over 100 Islands, reefs and sandbanks ( Stuart, 2011). Although the Torres Strait Islands lie between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) , it is the country of PNG that Torres Strait Islander people identify with (Lui, 1996).

Torres Strait Islanders are not mainland Aboriginal people and often are misidentified. They are separate in many factors such as origin history and way of life (Maximillan, 2001).

91% of Torres Strait Islanders traditional area is open ocean. The sea is known to be central to their sense of identity having determined their way of life, subsistence practices and ceremonial life (Lui,1996). The sea remains the source of inspiration for many of their songs, stories and is treated with a high amount of respect.

“Map of Torres Strait Islands” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009)

“Shark Dance” (Native Title, 2012)

Torres Strait Islander flag” (ABC TV, 2012)


After world War Two, a mass amount of Torres Strait islanders migrated to the Australian mainland. Many of these people migrated voluntarily as they were seeking work or better life opportunities for their families. Others were forcibly removed from the Islands as threat which is evidence of the unfair circumstances experienced in the Torres Strait. Other Islanders migrated because of environmental circumstances, such as evacuation required during flooding (Watkin, 2009).

In recent years the most significant event in the recognition of Indigenous rights in the Torres Straits and Australia, was the decision on the Mabo Land case which started in 1982 and ran for 10 years ( Lui, 1996). KoiliMabo is a very well known Torres Strait Islander who with the help of four other Islanders from Murray Island in the eastern Torres Strait, initiated the case in the high court of Australia to rectify that the people of the Murray Island are the traditional owners of the lands and have the distinct rights to their traditional land (Lui, 1996). In June 1992 the court ruled “the Meriam people of Torres Strait Islands are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands” (Eddie Mabo and Others VSState of Queensland, High Court of Australia, cited in Lui, 1996). The outcome from this issue allows the traditional owners of the land the rights to their land giving the Indigenous people some power. It allows the nation to address traditional land ownership.

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Torres Strait Islanders do have similarities to mainland Aboriginals but they also have their own cultural aspects and stories dependent of their location and experiences. Leah Lui (1996) explained " what makes us Torres Strait Islanders is our languages, dances, our songs, our myths, legends and ceremonies. And although these have changed we have adapted as we came into contact with Pacific Islanders and missionaries". Torres strait Islanders are their own people and their cultural makeup differentiates them from mainland Aboriginals. Overall Torres Strait Islanders are mainly christen people, however over time their Christian beliefs have been woven into their cultural practices (Lui, 1996).

Traditionally Islanders formed three major groups. These groupings were based on similarities and differences in way of obtaining food, ritual practices and the geophysical features of the islands. The basic division however, was between East and West on the basis of language (Lui,1996). LanguageThere are two traditional languages spoken in the Torres Strait:Kalaw Lagaw Ya- This is similar to Aboriginal languages and is spoken on western, central and northern islands. Individual dialects are also found on each of the islands.Meriam Mir - This is the language of the eastern islands (including Mer) and is derived from Papuan languages. Individual dialects are also found on each of the islands.

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Spirituality, beliefs and traditionsOne of the main ceremonies which brings them together to celebrate their culture is the tombstone unveiling ceremony. When someone passes away in their culture it initiated the performance of certain rite. The tombstone ceremony involves the public unveiling of the tombstone which is then blessed by a priest ( Lui,1996). The unveiling is followed by feasting and traditional dancing to celebrate the occasion. It is symbolic of the final resting place for the spirit of the deceased and the end of mourning. The performance of the ceremony continues today on the islands and the mainland.

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ABC TV. (2012). Torres Strait Islander flag [Image]. Retrieved from

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission(2000) retrieved

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (2012). The Torres Strait Islands Flag. Retrieved from

Charles Stuart University (2011). Social Justice and Human Rights Issues: A Global Perspective. Retrieved from

Commonwealth of Australia. (2009). Map of Torres Strait Islands [Image]. Retrieved from

Lui, L (1996) Cultural Identity and Development in the Torres Strait Islands. Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, New Delhi. Retrieved from

Native Title. (2012). Shark dance[Image]. Retrieved from

Maximilian, B. (2001). Multicultural Queensland 2001: 100 years, 100 communities, A century of contributions. Brisbane, Queensland: The State of Queensland (Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Watkin, Felecia (2009) My island home: a study of identity across different generations of Torres Strait Islanders living outside the Torres Strait. PhD thesis, James Cook University. Retrieved from