Torres Strait Islanders are one of two distinct Indigenous groups of Australia, with the other being Aboriginal peoples. The Torres Strait Islands are located between the northern Cape York Peninsula and the borders of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. There are at least 274 islands in the Torres Strait, with 18 of these being home to present-day communities. There are two distinct traditional languages: Meriam Mir (spoken in the Eastern Islands) and Kala Lagaw Ya (spoken in the Western and Central Islands). Torres Strait Creole, a mixture of traditional languages and standard Australian English, is also spoken by most Islanders.
Many Torres Strait Islanders have relocated for work and education, and today about 80% of Australians of Torres Strait Islander descent live on the mainland, with large communities in north Queensland towns such as Townville, Mackay and Cairns. Although located away from the Torres Strait Islands, Islanders on the mainland maintain a strong sense of culture and identity, as seen in the works of Torres Strait Islander artists held in the Art Gallery of NSW collection.
Historically, Torres Strait Islanders have an oral culture, and stories are communicated through song, dance and performance. The sea, land, sky and waterways are central to many creation stories that predate colonisation and have a significant presence today.
Cultural practices in the islands can be linked to Papua New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia, and are characterised by a strong ceremonial life. The practice of making performance regalia and dance objects is a distinctive and celebrated part of Islander culture - illustrated on the Torres Strait Island flag. Torres Strait Islanders have a vibrant artistic culture, with printmaking, weaving and mask-making some of the most distinct mediums of contemporary Islander cultural expression.
Torres Strait Islanders are the only culture in the world to make turtleshell masks, known as krar (which translates to turtleshell) in the Western Islands and le-op (which translates to human face) in the Eastern Islands. These striking objects have attracted anthropologists and ethnographers to study the region. In 1898-99, the British anthropologist and ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon undertook an expedition to the Torres Strait Islands, collecting approximately 2000 objects, including examples of traditional pre-Christian material culture. Today, the Haddon Collection at Cambridge University in the UK is regarded as the most comprehensive, representative and well-documented collection of Torres Strait Islander material culture in the world. It is a key point of reference for many contemporary Torres Strait Islander artists and arts practitioners who view the process of reconnecting with culturally significant objects and stories as a way of continuing the culture of our region.
The Torres Strait Island flag
The flag was created to represent the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders. It was designed by the late Bernard Namok of Waiben (Thursday Island) in 1992. The use of green represents the land, black the people, and blue the sea. The white five-pointed star symbolises peace, the five major island groups and the navigational importance of stars to the seafaring people of the Torres Strait.
The flag is emblazoned with a white dhari, the distinctive feathered headdress worn by Torres Strait Islander men in ceremony and performance. The dhari is traditionally made from frigate bird and Torres Strait pigeon feathers but is now made from a wide variety of material including heavy cardboard, plywood, chicken feathers and cane.
Key moments in history
The islands are named after Spanish captain and pilot Luís Vaz de Torres, who sailed through the strait in 1606 on his way to Manila in the Philippines. This was the first recorded European navigation of the region. In 1770, after briefly passing through the islands, Captain James Cook claimed the eastern part of Australia for Britain at Bedanug (Possession Island). In 1879, the Torres Strait Islands were annexed by Queensland, then a British colony. In 1901, after the federation of Australia, they were incorporated under the Commonwealth of Australia.
The Torres Strait Islands experienced significant social, cultural and political change when members of the London Missionary Society arrived at Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871, during what has become known in the islands as the ‘Coming of Light’. As Islanders were introduced to Christianity, many cultural activities and items were changed or banned under the influence of Christian missionaries. Torres Strait Islanders accepted and incorporated Christianity into their existing political and cultural structures, and annual celebrations for the Coming of the Light take place on 1 July in island and mainland Islander communities.
Undoubtedly one of the most significant events of Torres Strait Islander and Australian history has been the Mabo case. In 1992, land rights campaigner Eddie Koiki Mabo, along with James Rice and David Passi, was successful in overturning the legal doctrine terra nullius, gaining legal recognition of traditional ownership of Mer (Murray Island) on behalf of the Meriam people. A historic case that lasted 10 years, the Mabo High Court decision changed the legal and political landscape of Australia, and was a significant advancement for rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as it acknowledged our unique connection with the land. The date of 3 June, which marks the landmark decision in 1992, is celebrated annually by Torres Strait Islanders.
Questions and activities
Locate the Torres Strait Islands on a map of Australia. Make your own map showing all the islands of the Torres Strait. Find Erub (Darnley Island), where Ken Thaiday, Destiny Deacon and Ellen José come from. Find out the different names for the islands. Why do you think there is more than one name for each island?
Draw the Torres Strait Islander flag and identify the symbol in the centre. Look at pictures of important marine animals such as the hammerhead shark, tiger shark, dugong and turtle. Make models of these creatures using different materials and display them in class.
Find out about the climate, seasons, flora and fauna in the Torres Strait Islands. Learn about different weather events, such as seasonal winds and their names that are specific to this region. In small groups, develop a soundtrack for a windy day using percussive instruments. Play the score back to your class.
Watch the 2012 film Mabo. Research and write a brief report that explains how significant you think the Mabo case was for Indigenous and other Australians. Discuss your ideas with members of your class.