Diversity and identity

Diversity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contexts relates to the very many Language Groups and to the diversity within those groups.
Just as there is no country in the world where geographical formations are exactly the same, there is no one cultural group in the world where everyone is the same. There is always diversity within a population, and the ability to respect, recognise and value this diversity is fundamental to achieving balance. People may hold a stereotypical picture of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person; something they have been told while growing up, from illustrations in books and from the media. However, each individual is unique. Differences between people can refer to Country/Place, language, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, level of education and so on. Underneath the individual differences though, lies identity as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and the heritage we all share. Embracing and celebrating each other’s diversity as individuals does not take away from our identity as Indigenous people.

Identity and reconciliation

Understanding the diversity of cultural identities in Australia is an essential element of achieving reconciliation.
As Ian Anderson says, ‘I inhabit an Aboriginal body, and not a combination of features which may or may not cancel each other’ (n.d.). For an Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander child, it may not be quite so straightforward and I am reminded of Lindsay Kate, and a conversation with her grandfather. It goes like this: ‘But Grandpa, how will people know I’m Aboriginal?’ ‘Well, my girl, it’s a matter of who your relations are, who grows you up and who knows you. It has to do with who you are and what you feel; it has do with family, and a lot to do with community and friends. It has to do with the kinds of things we do as Aboriginal people – not with what you look like’ (Connor, Moyle, Smith & Price 1997). As teachers, it is important to be aware of the three-part commonwealth definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity, and it is even more important to appreciate the lived diversity and complexity of this identity.
According to the commonwealth’s basic legal definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is someone:
  • who is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
  • who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, and
  • who is accepted as such by the community in which they live, or have lived.
Nevertheless, there is no single ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander’ identity. There is, in reality, great diversity both between and within distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander linguistic-cultural groups, and the experience of what it means or feels like to be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian can vary deeply at the individual level. Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are often characterised by the media and considered by the lay public as one homogeneous group, you will see in a number of the resources in this topic that stereotypes of what constitutes being an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person can invite discrimination, intolerance and exclusion, which is why an understanding of identity and diversity is important to reconciliation. It is for similar reasons that the term ‘Indigenous,’ often used to refer to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, is considered a contentious term by some. That is, not only does it have scientific connotations which have been used historically to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of the flora/fauna rather than human population of Australia, so too does it problematically serve as a universal label for what are, in reality, highly diverse identities.


Anderson, I, quoted on Share our Pride, Reconciliation Australia, viewed 30 August 2016, <http://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/first-australians/>. Connor, L, Moyle, D, Smith, S & Price, K 1997, Signposts... to Country, Kin and Cultures, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne.


Suggested readings for Topic 1, Indigenous identities.
Due, C & Riggs, W 2011, Representations of Indigenous Australians in the Mainstream News Media, Post Pressed, Mt Gravatt, Queensland. Ferrari, J 2009, 'Aboriginal leaders seek role in national curriculum', Perth Now Sunday Times, 25 October, viewed 30 August 2016 <http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/aboriginal-leaders-seek-role-in-national-curriculum/story-e6frg12c-1225791165159> Kime, K & Ragusa, A 2016, ‘Back’ to Country? Socio-Cultural Identity and the Relationship between Revering and Re-fashioning Landscapes and People, Fusion Journal Issue 10, Land dialogues: interdisciplinary research in dialogue with land, pp. 453-461, viewed 1 March 2017 <http://www.fusion-journal.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2016/12/24-Kime-Ragusa.pdf>. Langton, M & Australian Film Commission 1993, "Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television ..." : an essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things, Australian Film Commission, North Sydney. Morgan, M 2015, 'Comment: The anointing of Indigenous 'leaders' uses logic of its own', NITV News, 24 July, viewed 30 August 2016 <http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2015/07/24/comment-anointing-indigenous-leaders-uses-logic-its-own>. Peters-Little, F 2002, ‘The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role for White Filmmakers Making Black Films’, Art Monthly, May. Read, P 2000, Belonging: Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne.

Indigenous leaders

Activity: Analyse the role of the media.
How does the media identify/decide who is an Indigenous “leader”?
  1. Review the SBS article: The anointing of Indigenous ‘leaders’ http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2015/07/24/comment-anointing-indigenous-leaders-uses-logic-its-own
  2. Discuss: 'When an Indigenous person is interviewed on the television news, audiences assume they are a leader'.

Face the facts

Activity: Brainstorm your current knowledge of Indigenous Australia, ideally at the beginning of semester.


Chapter 1: Questions and answers about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples The Australian Human Rights Commission (2012) ‘Face the Facts’ https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/race-discrimination/publications/2012-face-facts


Craven  & Price (2011) suggest a Before/During/After (BDA) reading activity based on the ‘what I know, what I want to know, and what I learned’ strategy (http://www.nea.org/tools/k-w-l-know-want-to-know-learned.html) using 5 steps:
  1. Brainstorm and list in a ‘Before’ column everything they want to know about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  2. After brainstorming, read ‘Face the Facts’, writing new information they find in a ‘during’ column. Importantly, ‘When students locate information in the text that agrees with the information they wrote in their ‘before’ column, they place a tick next to those statements to indicate that their background knowledge was correct’ (Craven & Price, 2011, p. 50).
  3. Summarise the information they have learned in the ‘after’ column.
  4. Conduct a whole group discussion.
  5. Each student identifies three questions they want to follow up with further research.


Craven, R & Price, K 2011, 'Misconceptions, stereotypes and racism: Let's face the facts' in Craven, R (ed), Teaching Aboriginal Studies, Allen & Unwin.

Perspectives in media reporting

Activity: Compare and contrast recollections and perspectives of the 'Wreck of the Georgette'.


Watching from the cliffs above was Sam Isaacs, an Aboriginal stockman who worked for the Bussell family on their Margaret River property. He galloped his horse to the homestead and raised the alarm. With ropes in hand, 16-year-old Grace Bussell returned with Sam to see what they could do to help. By this time, most of the remaining passengers had been crammed aboard the third lifeboat.

A news account

1. A journalist with the Inquirer and Commercial News takes up the story: The boat swamped, they were all in the water, and in the greatest danger, when, on the top of the steep cliff appeared a young lady on horseback. Those who were present have told me that they did not think that a horse could come down that cliff, but down that dangerous place this young lady rode at speed; there were lives to be saved, and, with the same fearless and chivalrous bravery that urged Grace Darling to peril her life for fellow creations, and gave her a name in all English history thereafter, Grace Bussell rode down that cliff, urged her horse into boiling surf, and out beyond the second line of roaring breakers, till she reached the boat where the women and children were in such peril. Her horse stumbled over the rope and she was nearly lost, but managed to get alongside the boat, and then with as many women and children clinging to her and the horse as possible, she made for the shore and landed them. A man was left on the boat, and he could not get to shore till Miss Bussell sent her black servant on horseback to aid him. So furious was the surf that it took four hours to land 50 people, and every boat engaged was capsized. Full story: www.abc.net.au/backyard/shipwrecks/wa/georgette.htm

A storybook dramatisation

2. Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck:Cover of Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck Extract from the cover of Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck (Gillespie 2011) Sixteen-year old Grace Bussell was hailed as a hero for her part in rescuing the passengers and crew of the Georgette from drowning. She was called Australia’s own Grace Darling. But the rescue would never have been possible without the guidance and leadership of Sam Isaacs, an Aboriginal stockman. (The Royal Humane Society awarded Bussell a silver medal for her bravery. Isaacs was awarded a bronze medal at a time when it was rare for Aboriginal people to receive any kind of official recognition.)


  1. Has media reporting changed over time? If so, why? If not, why?
  2. Why does Isaacs not receive the same accolades as Bussell?
  3. How might this be reported today?
  4. Conduct an internet search to see what you can find out about Sam Isaacs.


Gillespie, M 2011, Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck, Fremantle Press, WA.

Representation on TV

Activity: Review programs on NITV (National Indigenous Television).
Watch two programmes aired on NITV and write a personal reflection and analysis of the issues raised through NITV programs.
  • Watch a news program and one other program scheduled on NITV, Channel 34, (free to air).
  • Read the web page for NITV focusing on the background and team members.
  • Reflect on your own personal feelings about the issues raised, the way the issues are raised and how the issues are presented in both programs watched.
  • Write a personal reflection and analysis which stories your journey (more than a description of what you have watched).
  • Share your thoughts with your peers and discuss any differences you observed between the ways Indigenous peoples are represented on mainstream television and NITV.

Use 'Big Paper' learning

Activity: Use writing and silence as tools to help students explore a topic in-depth.


Using text for a conversation with peers slows down thinking process and gives an opportunity to focus on the views of others. This strategy also creates a visual record of students’ thoughts and questions that can be referred to later in a course. Using the Big Paper strategy can help engage shy students who are not as likely to participate in a verbal discussion. After using this strategy several times, students’ comfort, confidence, and skill with this method increases. Source: https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/teaching-strategies/big-paper-building-silent-con
  1. In pairs or a group of 3 you should have a big piece of paper or online space to work on (chat for example).
  2. Each person chooses a colour to use (a texta colour or text colour if you are working online).
  3. Then use the stimulus piece provided below to get started.


Watch the short film 'A time for reflection' and discuss why it can be said that the media demonises Aboriginal people. http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/469111875729/a-time-for-reflection
  • You will need to work in silence, all communication is done in writing, there will an opportunity for discussion at the end of this activity.
  • You will be commenting on the stimulus piece, and asking questions of each other in writing on the Big Paper for 15 minutes. The written conversation must start on the text but can stray to wherever you take it. If someone in the group writes a question, another member of the group should address the question by writing on the Big Paper. You can draw lines connecting a comment to a particular question.
  • Only one of you can write on the Big Paper at the same time. 
  • Start now- remember you are in silence. Look/read your stimulus piece in silence and start commenting for the next 15 minutes.
  • After 15 minutes has passed, and still working in silence, leave your partner/group and view the other pairs/groups Big Papers. You can write comments or further questions for thought on other Big Papers.
  • Silence is broken. Return to your own Big Paper.
  • You can discuss any comments with your pair/group and then join a bigger group discussion.
Discuss: What did you learn from doing this activity?


  1. Little paper: With “Little Paper,” the “stimulus” (question, excerpt, quotation, etc) is placed in the centre of a regular sized piece of paper. Often teachers select 4-5 different “stimuli” and create groups of the same size. Each student begins by commenting on the “stimuli” on his/her little paper. After a few minutes, the little paper is passed to the student on the left (or right). This process is repeated until all students have had the opportunity to comment on every little paper. All of this is done in silence, just like the Big Paper activity. Then students review the little paper they had first, noticing comments made by their peers. Finally, small groups have a discussion about the questions and ideas that strike them from this exercise.
  2. Gallery walk: The Big Paper activity can also be structured as a gallery walk. With this structure, Big Papers are taped to the walls or placed on tables, and students comment on the Big Papers in silence, at their own pace. Sometimes teachers assign students, often in pairs or trios, to a particular Big Paper and then have them switch to the next one after five or ten minutes.

Representation of Indigenous people

Assessment objective

Prepare an essay that explores the following statement:

Stuart Hall argues that “ … national identities are not things we are born with, but are formed and transformed within and in relation to representation” (The Question of Cultural Identity, p. 612).


DescAssessmentribe how a particular national (or ethnic) identity is represented in one or more screen texts. (You can choose your own or make a selection from the list below.) Defend your opinion of whether your chosen text(s) strengthen, challenge or otherwise transform dominant (hegemonic) representations of this identity. You might like to consider and comment on the following points:
  • Whose perspective is informing the Indigenous identity? Does the portrayal rely or use any of the following: stereotyping, iconising, mythologising?
  • Does the film employ Indigenous actors to play Indigenous people?
  • How are Indigenous roles cast (principal, lead, minor etc)?
  • What is the film’s treatment of belief systems? For example, belonging to land as opposed to land belonging to people; connection with spirit; The Dreaming as valid as ‘God’s Creation’.
Suggested films:
  • Bitter Springs, 1950: Tommy Trinder (Chips Rafferty) is called in to smooth things out when Wally King encroaches upon significant Aboriginal land.
  • Jedda, 1955: is probably Charles Chauvel’s best film, as well as his last. It is historic both for being the first colour feature film made in Australia, but more importantly, because it is arguably the first Australian film to take the emotional lives of Aboriginal people seriously; http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/jedda/
  • Dust in the Sun, 1958: when a police officer taking an Aboriginal prisoner to trial is attacked and injured by other Aboriginal people, it sets off a tragic chain of events.
  • Come out Fighting, 1973: an Aboriginal boxer has to choose between his promising career as a boxer, his Aboriginal friends, and students campaigning for Aboriginal rights.
  • Journey among women, 1977: the setting is colonial Australia, where a judge’s daughter assists a group of female convicts, who are living in inhumane conditions, to escape. They team up with an Aboriginal girl, who shows them how to survive in the forest. When one of the women is raped and killed, the group seeks revenge.
  • The Dreaming, 1988: a doctor treats an Aboriginal person who becomes ill after visiting a sacred cave without permission. The doctor then finds herself having disturbing dreams and finds herself involved in a 200-year-old mystery.
You can find other films at http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/indigenous-film


Hall, S n.d., The Question of Cultural Identity, Blackwell Publishers, viewed 7 March 2017, <http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Hall-Identity-Modernity-1.pdf> Screen Australia 2010, The Black List: film and TV projects since 1970 with Indigenous Australians in key creative roles, Sydney, NSW.

Review media or text

Assessment objective

Write a critique of no more than 750 words using the following format and present it to a tutorial group.
  • Title
  • Date of production (film)/publication (book)
  • Director (film)/Author (book)
  • Main actors (film)/characters (book)
  • Synopsis: a brief outline or general view of the film
  • Critique: your critical comments about the film/book
  • Overall rating (provide scale, e.g. 1-5, 1 = poor and 5 = excellent),


Review criteria

A book/film review is noAssessmentt simply a summary of the plot. It should be a critical evaluation of the book/film and contain your own reaction to it. When you review a book/film you should ask yourself the following questions:
  • What is the book/film about (main theme, issues raised, etc)?
  • Who is the audience the book/film is aimed at (students, academics, general)?
  • Is the level of language suitable for this audience (style)?
    • Was it easy to read/watch or did it overuse jargon?
  • What is the author’s/film-maker’s background?
    • Is she/he qualified to write/present on this topic?
  • What were your reactions to the book/film - the characters and events?
    • Were the issues raised dealt with appropriately or satisfactorily?
  • What are the worldviews reflected in the film?
    • Is there a dominant worldview in the book or film?
    • What is your analysis of these dominant and dominated worldviews?
  • Is the book/film reflective of mono or multiculturalism?
    • How are these portrayed?
    • What are the impacts of cultural diversity in our contemporary society?
Image: Video still from YouTube (Charlie's Country)

Topic review

Indigenous identities

This topic explored representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity. It also emphasised the understanding that diverse cultural identity in Australia is an essential element of achieving reconciliation, including the recognition that embracing and celebrating each other’s diversity as individuals does not take away from the common identity Indigenous peoples share. The importance of considering perspectives is also emphasised for in the past, the achievements and perspectives of Indigenous peoples have, to differing extents, been overlooked leaving a great sense of undeserved injustice. The portrayal of Indigenous identity in the media has been touched on in this topic as something for educators to critically reflect on.

Questions for review:

  • Consider whether your knowledge of Indigenous Australia has influenced your understanding of reconciliation.
  • Would you consider including NITV programs in your curriculum? Why/why not?
  • Do you think the way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities have been portrayed in the media impacts on reconciliation today?

Choose one Focus Area of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers where you could apply the knowledge and skills you have gained from Topic 1, such as:

2.4 Understand and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Demonstrate broad knowledge of, understanding of, and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and languages. (Graduate level)Professional knowledge

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (Graduate teachers)

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