Records about Indigenous Australians

A row of beds being 'made' in the Retta Dixon Home dormitory.
An interior view of the Retta Dixon Home for Aboriginal children in Darwin, 1958 (A1200, L28772)

Australian Government records held by the National Archives include a lot of information relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their histories.

The National Archives holds three main groups of records that are relevant to Indigenous people. They concern:

  • Aboriginal affairs
  • administration of the Northern Territory
  • other functions of the Australian Government

Aboriginal affairs

Until the 1967 referendum, the Australian Government could only make laws and implement policies and programs concerning Indigenous people in Commonwealth territories, not the states. (Read more about why in administrative history, below.)

This means that National Archives Aboriginal affairs records from before the 1970s only relate to Indigenous people in:

  • the Northern Territory – which the Australian Government administered from 1911 to 1978
  • Victoria – when Victoria handed over functions relating to Aboriginal people to the Australian Government in 1975, it also passed over its Aboriginal affairs records dating back to 1860

This Aboriginal affairs material includes welfare records similar to that held in other state archives and departments. There are, however, few case files in the Northern Territory for individual Aboriginal people.

Northern Territory administration

There is material relating to Indigenous people in records about the administration of the Northern Territory. These records are held in either Canberra or Darwin and relate to a wide range of functions, including:

  • education
  • experimental farming
  • filmmaking
  • health
  • mining
  • missions
  • pearl fishing
  • prisons
  • railways
  • World War II evacuations from Darwin

Other Australian Government functions

Indigenous people are referred to in other records relating to the activities of the Australian Government from Federation to today – although their Aboriginality is not always identifiable from the records.

Some parts of the National Archives collection that include more specific references to Indigenous people include material about:

  • British nuclear testing at Maralinga, South Australia
  • Commonwealth and state conferences on Aboriginal affairs in the 1930s
  • social security files such as applications for pensions in precedent cases
  • ASIO files for individuals such as Faith Bandler, Harold Blair, Dexter Daniels and Pastor Doug Nicholls
  • service records for men and women who serviced in the Australian defence forces

Administrative history

A side profile image of Charles Perkins speaking beside the Aboriginal flag.
Charles Perkins, Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, speaking at the Aboriginal Embassy Anniversary in 1982 (A6135, K29/1/82/35)

Three important factors influenced the Australian Government's role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs after Federation in 1901:

  • the transfer of the Northern Territory to Australian Government control in 1911
  • the inclusion of section 51(xxvi) in the Constitution, which meant that from 1901 the Australian Government could not make special laws for Aboriginal people in the states
  • an amendment to the Constitution in 1967 that removed the above provision

From Federation until 1967, the Australian Government could only make special laws for Aboriginal people in Commonwealth territories, primarily the Northern Territory from 1911. Aboriginal administration in the states was controlled by the state governments under various legislation.

A succession of departments was responsible for Northern Territory administration between 1911 and Territory self-government in 1978. Aboriginal affairs was one of a range of responsibilities held by these departments. The departments included:

  • Department of External Affairs, 1911–16 (CA 7)
  • Department of Home and Territories, 1916–28 (CA 15)
  • Department of Home Affairs, 1928–32 (CA 24)
  • Department of the Interior, 1932–51 (CA 27 and CA 31)
  • Department of Territories, 1951–68 (CA 60)
  • Department of the Interior, 1968–72 (CA 31)

In the 1967 referendum over 90% of voting Australians endorsed changes to sections of the Constitution that related specifically to Aboriginal people, s. 51(xxvi) and s. 127. The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967 formalised the referendum results.

These changes meant that for the first time the Australian Government could take the responsibility for Aboriginal affairs throughout Australia. From then and through the 1970s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs have been the responsibility of:

  • Council of Aboriginal Affairs and Office of Aboriginal Affairs, 1967–72 (CA 1396)
  • Department of Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, 1971–72 (CA 1407)
  • Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 1972–90 (CA 1476)

Finding records about Indigenous Australia

To help find records about themselves or their family, the National Archives compiled a list of key resources.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019