Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – Fact sheet 113

All offices of the National Archives hold some material about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but the most extensive holdings are in Canberra, Melbourne and Darwin. This fact sheet provides information about the administration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs during the 20th century and provides a context for the records held by the National Archives.

Administration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs

At Federation, the Constitution precluded the federal government from making laws for Indigenous Australians living in the states. As a result, the administration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs this century has primarily been a state responsibility, and surviving records relating to Aboriginal administration in the states are held by the various State Archives (but see below for Victoria).

The Commonwealth's involvement in Aboriginal affairs before 1967 arose largely from its administration of the Territories, particularly the Northern Territory.

On 1 January 1911 administration of the Northern Territory, which had a large Aboriginal population, transferred from the government of South Australia to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth retained responsibility for the Territory until 1978 when self-government was attained. Records held in the Canberra and Darwin offices document policy issues as well as the day-to-day lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during the period of Commonwealth administration.

Although the Australian Capital Territory had distinct Aboriginal communities living within its borders, the Commonwealth government reached agreement with the New South Wales government that these people would be administered under State Aboriginal legislation by the NSW Aborigines Protection Board (Aborigines Welfare Board from 1939). Relevant records are therefore held by the Archives Office of New South Wales.

In 1967, a referendum authorised amendments to the Constitution which gave the Commonwealth government power to legislate for Indigenous Australians living in the states. The Commonwealth assumed responsibility for Aboriginal affairs establishing the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1972, which was replaced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1990.

Records relating to the Northern Territory

Material about Northern Territory Indigenous people is held by the Archives in Canberra and Darwin.

Records held in the Canberra office have been described in the Archives' guide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in Commonwealth records: A Guide to Records in the Australian Archives, ACT Regional Office (compiled by Ros Fraser, AGPS, Canberra, 1993, 478pp). The guide has a comprehensive index which lists the names of Indigenous people identified in the records described in the guide. Records held in the Darwin office, which date largely from the 1920s, include population records, the Register of Wards, patrol officers' reports and records relating to pastoral property, health and education. The guide is currently out of print, but there are copies in all Archives reading rooms and in many State, local and university libraries.

Records relating to Victoria

For the period 1836 to 1859, records about the administration of Aboriginal affairs are held by the Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV). Those from 1860 to 1972 are largely, but not entirely, with the National Archives in Melbourne. The split is the result of 1975 Victorian legislation transferring responsibility for Aboriginal affairs to the Commonwealth. Records that had already been deposited with the PROV remained there; those not already deposited were transferred by the state Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs to the Commonwealth.

'My Heart is Breaking': A Joint Guide to Records about Aboriginal People in the Public Record Office of Victoria and the Australian Archives (compiled by M Deverall and I Macfarlane, AGPS Canberra, 1993, 191pp) describes the records held by each institution

Other states

Records about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in other offices of the Archives are not as extensive as those described above and tend to belong to general record series about matters such as employment, welfare and education rather than discrete series about Indigenous people.

These records can be found by using a variety of finding aids available in the Archives' reading rooms, including the online database RecordSearch. Reference staff are available to assist with inquiries.

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

The records of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody are held by the Archives and some are available for public access. The records have been listed in the guide, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: The Royal Commission and its Records, 1987–1991 (Peter Nagle and Richard Summerrell, 1996, 92pp).

For more information

Records about Northern Territory Aboriginal people

Information about special arrangements the Archives has adopted to assist Northern Territory Aboriginal people obtain access to open period (those over 30 years old) Commonwealth records about themselves and family members are available.

Guides to records

A general guide to family history records held by the National Archives is Finding Families: The Guide to the National Archives of Australia for Genealogists, (compiled by Margaret Chambers, National Archives of Australia & Hale and Iremonger, 1998, 330pp). This guide and the other guides to the collection referred to in this fact sheet are available for use or purchase from any office of the Archives.

Addresses and contact information

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014