Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander flags

The Aboriginal flag and Torres Strait Islander flag are among Australia’s official flags. But states and territories still hesitate to fly them next to the Australian national flag.

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Aboriginal flag

Early Aboriginal flag design

Aboriginal flag alternative from 1972 Aboriginal flag alternative. Black symbolises Aboriginal people, brown the land.

An early version of the Aboriginal flag was designed by the founders of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy [9] in April 1972.

It had a black top half, representing Aboriginal people, over a lower ochre-brown (some sources say red [1]) half, representing the land. A white spear joined both halves representing the movement of Aboriginal resistance and political struggles [9], the “warrior spirit” of Aboriginal people.

Meaning: The four white crescent shapes representing Aboriginal unity for land rights [2], the black rights struggle from the four corners of Australia [1], or Aboriginal people coming together in unified council [9].

In another interpretation this Aboriginal flag is thought to have been an entry in a national competition [3]. The barbed spear (which was couped at the base) represented the European invasion of the Australian continent on 26 January 1788. The four surrounding crescent shapes represented “Aboriginal elders discussing the invasion” [3].

Present-day Aboriginal flag

Aboriginal flag Present-day Aboriginal flag. Red symbolises the red earth, black the Aboriginal people and yellow the sun.
Web colour codes: red = #cc0000, yellow = #ffff00, black = #000000.

Aboriginal Elder Harold Thomas, a Luritja man from Central Australia, designed the Aboriginal flag in 1971. It was created as a symbol of unity and national identity for Aboriginal people during the land rights movement of the early 1970s.

Meaning: Yellow represents the sun (giver of life) and yellow ochre. Red represents the red earth (the relationship to the land) and the red ochre used in ceremonies. Black represents the Aboriginal people.

History: Aboriginal activist Gary Foley took the flag to the east coast of Australia where it was promoted and eventually recognised as the official flag of Australia’s First Peoples.

The Aboriginal flag was first displayed on 12th July 1971 on National Aborigines Day, at Victoria Square in Adelaide. It was also used at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972.

In June 1995, the Australian Government proclaimed the Aboriginal flag as an official ‘Flag of Australia’ under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953 [4]. Two years later Harold Thomas was recognised as the author of the artistic work under the Copyright Act 1968.

Many Australians are reconsidering the Australian flag and want to have it merged with the Aboriginal flag. Stephen Berry started one such initiative and called it the Sunburnt Flag.

Why is the Aboriginal flag not flown on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge?

I wasn’t the first one to suggest that the Aboriginal flag be flown on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. To date the bridge displays the Australian flag and the flag of the state of New South Wales.

My inquiry was answered by the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) which owns the bridge [7].

“The Australian Flag is permanently flown on the Sydney Harbour Bridge because… it is the one flag which is nationally and internationally recognised as the symbol of our identity as a nation.”

“The NSW State Flag is flown in recognition that the Harbour Bridge is one of our most significant assets. On at least two weeks of the year, however, the NSW State Flag is exchanged for the Australian Aboriginal Flag in recognition of the significant contribution of our Aboriginal people. These occasions include Reconciliation Week… and NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Observance Committee) Week…”

So—the NSW State Flag celebrates the bridge for 50 weeks a year, while the Aboriginal flag celebrates Aboriginal culture for two weeks a year. Now you know where the state government’s priorities are.

Fact On Survival Day 2013 (26 January), the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag were raised and flown together for the first time on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The flags were raised on the Harbour Bridge during the WugulOra ceremony. Previously the Aboriginal flag flew beside the flag of New South Wales.

Fact Asked “Should Australia adopt a new flag, free from the Union Jack”, 53.8% of surveyed Australians answered “yes”, 40.9% “no” [10].

But not all Aboriginal people agree to integrate the Aboriginal flag in a new Australian flag design. “Most Aborigines I know and talk to about this issue agree that our flag is a separate flag, a land rights flag, and must not be incorporated into any other flag design,” says Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association [6].

Aboriginal opinions about the flags

When considering flying the Aboriginal flag or not it helps understand what Aboriginal people think about the Australian flag:

“[The Australian flag] is the flag that has flown over every police station in which racist cops have murdered Aboriginal people, the flag that flies on top of the military vehicles that are enforcing apartheid and dispossession via the Northern Territory Intervention today, the flag of the Government that stole their children for generations and continues to steal them today with barely a word in the media, the flag of the Government that closes their schools and makes it illegal for children to learn their traditional languages. This is a shameful, blood-stained symbol of genocide.” [5].

Here’s what Yugambeh man Shaun Davies says about the Aboriginal flag:

“The Aboriginal Flag also employs very universal symbolism that almost all groups will find some affinity with, the red dirt for example is sacred to almost everyone, it used for painting, ceremony, etc, a clan of my people have a name that means ‘The Red Earth People’ in English, their lands are in the west, so for me the Aboriginal flag has always reminded me of a sunset. The black sky, and the sun I could give examples about for hours. The Aboriginal Flag to me appeals to the very foundation’s of Aboriginality, the bare core of our identity - it stretches a continent.” [11]

Torres Strait Islander Flag

Torres Strait Islander flag Torres Strait Islander flag. The colours represent the people, their environment and culture.
Web colour codes: green = #009966, blue = #000099, black = #000000, white = #ffffff.

The Torres Strait Islander flag has three horizontal stripes with green at the top and bottom and blue in between divided by thin black lines. A white dharri or deri (a type of headdress and a symbol for all Torres Strait Islanders) sits in the centre with a five pointed star underneath.

The flag was designed by the late Bernard Namok from Thursday Island in 1992 and adopted during the Torres Strait Islands Cultural Festival.

Meaning: The two green areas represent the two mainlands of Australia and Papua New Guinea [8], the blue is the blue of the Torres Strait waters, the black line and the dharri head dress stands for the people.

The five pointed star represents the five island groups: Top Western (Gudamaluilgal), Near Western (Malvilgal), Eastern (Meriam), Central (Kulkalgal), and Inner Islands (Kaiwalagai). Used in navigation, the star is also an important symbol for the sea-faring Torres Strait Islander people. The white colour of the star represents peace.

The flag can also be interpreted through the traditional name for the Torres Strait, ‘Zenadth Kes’ [8]: Zei meaning Australia, Naigai stands for Papua New Guinea, Dagum is the area in-between the two countries, Thowa Thdwa means land mass, Dhari is representing the islanders, and Star stands for the five regions (as above).

History: In June 1992 it was recognised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and in June 1995 the Federal Government proclaimed the Torres Strait Islander flag an official flag of Australia [4].

What is an “official flag”?

Official recognition doesn’t mean that these flags have equal status to the national flag, still less supplant it [4]. It does not create “nations within a nation”. It does mean that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags have legal status and protection.

Most importantly, the government’s decision tries to say to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: “You are a valued and unique part of the fabric of our nation.”

This means that Australia now had five flags given legal authority under the Flags Act:

  • National Flag (blue ensign)
  • Civil Ensign (red ensign, a civilian shipping flag)
  • Naval Ensign (white ensign)
  • Australian Aboriginal Flag
  • Torres Strait Islander Flag

On 14 April 2000, the Defence Force Ensign was gazetted as the sixth Australian official flag.

Fact The aspect ratio (or proportion) of the Australian flag is 1:2, while that of the Aboriginal flag and Torres Strait Islander flag is 2:3. [12]

Colour-in templates for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Flags

Use this one-page PDF to print a colour-in exercise for your class. Contains outlines for both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flag and a space where students can put their name.

Download colour-in template (PDF, 100K).