Torres Strait Islanders

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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 TorresStraitIslandsMap.png
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, and 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 Australian Census 2011 demographic map - Australia by SLA - BCP field 0048 Indigenous Persons Torres Strait Islander Persons.svg
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 the 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.

Ethno-linguistic groups found on Wikipedia:


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). Face mask torres strait.JPG
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 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 culture, 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 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. The London Missionary Society mission led by Rev. Samuel Macfarlane arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871, establishing its first base in the region there. The Islanders refer to this as "The Coming of the Light", or "Coming of Light" [39] and all Island communities celebrate the occasion annually on 1 July. [40] 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. [39]

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. [41]

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, [42] with one issue being that adopted children are not able to take on the surname of their adoptive parents. As of June 2020, the Queensland Government has not yet implemented its election promise, made in 2017, to acknowledge the practice in law. [43]

Notable Torres Strait Islanders

See also

Related Research Articles

Indigenous Australian art Art made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia

Indigenous Australian art includes art made by Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, including collaborations with others. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, bark painting, wood carving, rock carving, watercolour painting, sculpting, ceremonial clothing and sand painting; art by Indigenous Australians that pre-dates European colonisation by thousands of years, up to the present day.

Torres Strait Islands archipelago north of Australia

The Torres Strait Islands are a group of at least 274 small islands which lie in Torres Strait, the waterway separating far northern continental Australia's Cape York Peninsula and the island of New Guinea. The islands span an area of some 48,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi), but the total land area of the islands comprises just 566 km2 (219 sq mi).

Murray Island, Queensland Town in Queensland, Australia

Murray Island is the only town on Meer Island in the Torres Strait Island Region, Queensland, Australia. The island is part of the Murray Island Group in the Torres Strait. The town is on the north-west coast of the island and is within the locality of Mer Island. The island is of volcanic origin, the most easterly inhabited island of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, just north of the Great Barrier Reef. The name Meer/Mer/Maer comes from the native Meriam language. In the 2016 census, Murray Island had a population of 453 people.

The Mabuiag, or Mabuygiwgal, are an Indigenous Australian group of Torres Strait Islander people united by a common language, strong ties of kinship and survived as skilled hunter–fisher–gatherers in family groups or clans living on a number of Torres Strait Islands including Mabuiag Island, in the Torres Strait in Queensland, Australia. They are ethnically Melanesian.

Aboriginal Australians Indigenous Australians who live on the Australian mainland, Tasmania, and Tiwi Islands

Aboriginal Australians are the various Indigenous peoples of the Australian mainland and many of its islands, such as Tasmania, Fraser Island, Hinchinbrook Island, the Tiwi Islands, and Groote Eylandt, but excluding the Torres Strait Islands.

Mabuiag Island Town in Queensland, Australia

Mabuiag is one of the Torres Strait Islands in Queensland, Australia. Mabuiag Island is also a town and locality in the Torres Strait Island Region local government area. In the 2016 census, Mabuiag Island had a population of 210 people.

Saibai Island Suburb of Torres Strait Island Region, Queensland, Australia

Saibai Island is an island of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, located in the Torres Strait of Queensland, Australia. The island is situated north of the Australian mainland and south of the island of New Guinea. The island is a locality within the Torres Strait Island Region local government area. The town of Saibai is located on the north-west coast of the island. In the 2016 census, Saibai Island had a population of 465 people.

Meriam or the Eastern Torres Strait language is the language of the people of the small islands of Mer, Waier and Dauar, Erub, and Ugar in the eastern Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. In the Western Torres Strait language, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, it is called Mœyam or Mœyamau Ya. It is the only Papuan language in Australian territory.

Moa Island (Queensland) Suburb of Torres Strait Island Region, Queensland, Australia

Moa Island, also called Banks Island, is an island of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago that is located 40 kilometres (25 mi) north of Thursday Island in the Banks Channel of Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. It is also a locality within the Torres Strait Island Region local government area. This island is the largest within the "Near Western" group. It has two towns, Kubin on the south-west coast and St Pauls on the east coast, which are connected by bitumen and a gravel road. In the 2016 census, Moa Island had a population of 448 people.

Coconut Island (Queensland) Town in Queensland, Australia

Coconut Island, Poruma Island, or Puruma in the local language, is an island in the Great North East Channel near Cumberland Passage, Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. One of the Torres Strait Islands, Coconut Island is 130 kilometres (81 mi) northeast of Thursday Island. Administratively, Coconut Island is a town and Poruma Island is the locality within the Shire of Torres.

Yam Island (Queensland) Suburb of Torres Strait Island Region, Queensland, Australia

Yam Island, called Yama or Iama in the Kulkalgau Ya language or Turtle-backed Island in English, is an island of the Bourke Isles group of the Torres Strait Islands, located in the Tancred Passage of the Torres Strait in Queensland, Australia. The island is situated approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of Thursday Island and measures about 2 square kilometres (0.77 sq mi). The island is also the locality of Iama Island within the Torres Strait Island Region local government area. In the 2016 census, Iama Island had a population of 319 people.

Yorke Island (Queensland) island on Torres Strait in Queensland, Australia

Yorke Island, or Masig in the Kalau Lagau Ya language, is a coral cay island of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, situated in the eastern area of the central island group in the Torres Strait, at the top end of the Great Barrier Reef and northeast of the tip of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, Australia.

Darnley Island (Queensland) Town in Queensland, Australia

Darnley Island or Erub in the native language, is an island formed by volcanic action and situated in the eastern section of the Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. It is one of the Torres Strait Islands and is located near the Great Barrier Reef and just south of the Bligh entrance. The town on the island is also called Darnley but the locality is called Erub Island, both being within the local government area of Torres Strait Island Region.

There are three languages spoken in the Torres Strait Islands: two indigenous languages and an English-based creole. The indigenous language spoken mainly in the western and central islands is Kalaw Lagaw Ya: a language related to the Pama–Nyungan languages of the Australian mainland. The other indigenous language spoken mainly in the eastern islands is Meriam Mir: a member of the Trans-Fly languages spoken on the nearby south coast of New Guinea and the only Papuan language spoken on Australian territory. Both languages are agglutinative; however Kalaw Lagaw Ya appears to be undergoing a transition into a declensional language while Meriam Mìr is more clearly agglutinative. Yumplatok, or Torres Strait Creole, the third language, is a non-typical Pacific English Creole and is the main language of communication on the islands.

Stephens Island (Torres Strait) locality in Queensland, Australia

Stephen Island, called Ugar in the native language, is an island in an easter island group of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, located in the eastern section of Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. The island is within the locality of Ugar Island within the local government area of the Torres Strait Island Region.

Indigenous Australians are people who are descended from groups that lived in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation. They include the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia. The term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is preferred by many; First Nations of Australia, First Peoples of Australia and First Australians are also increasingly common terms.


Kaurareg is the name for one of the Indigenous Australian groups collectively known as Torres Strait Islander peoples. They are lower Western Islanders, based on the Muralag group. In common with the other peoples of the Torres Strait Island, they commanded impressive sailing outrigger canoe technology, traded throughout the Straits, fishing and trading with other Torres Strait Island groups. Similarly, they also regularly visited the Australian mainland of Cape York Peninsula, and retained ceremonial, marriage and trading alliances with several Aboriginal Australian groups there. Subject to reprisals after being blamed for an incident in which a Western schooner and its crew were destroyed, their numbers rapidly diminished with the onset of white colonisation and administration. After World War II, descendants of the Kaurareg began to return to their traditional islands, and lay claim to native title over several of them.

Dauan Island Town in Queensland, Australia

Dauan Island is an island in the Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia; it is also known as Cornwallis Island. Dauan is also gazetted as a town and a locality in the Torres Strait Island Region local government area.

Saibo Mabo was an Australian bishop in the Anglican Church of Australia. He served as an assistant bishop in the Anglican Diocese of North Queensland from 2002 to 2015, and as National Bishop to the Torres Strait Islander people during that time.

Ken Thaiday, known as Ken Thaiday Snr, is an artist from Erub, one of the Torres Strait Islands. He is known for his headdresses, masks, shark totems and kinetic sculptures, which connect to his island traditions and culture.


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Further reading