Indigenous People in Australia: Indigenous Protocols

RDI Network
November 2021
6 min read

Cultural protocols provide a framework for working with, and improving relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Strong relationships provide a foundation for more effective programs. This section outlines cultural protocols for practitioners to consider when working with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples or organisations.
There are hundreds of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations in Australia. In addition to diverse geography, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples differ by language, culture, and spirituality. Because of this, cultural protocols can vary. We have summarised protocols and associated ethical principles based on the resources listed below. The summary and links provided are an entry point, and require us to engage in our own place and person specific research and consider working with agency experienced working with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. Examples of protocols, or how they might be demonstrated are provided for each sub-heading.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been custodians of land, knowledge and lore for tens of thousands of years. As a researcher, respect includes valuing the historical and continuance of this connection. It extends to having regard for the rights, welfare, knowledge, perceptions and beliefs, skills, and cultural heritage of individuals and communities involved in research.
Respect can be demonstrated by:

  • Proper consultation with, and consent from, appropriate cultural authorities
  • Acknowledgement of Country, Traditional Custodians and Elders
  • Respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social structures, timelines, and decision-making procedures in designing research or programs
  • Use of interpreters
  • Culturally contextualised and appropriate communication pieces

Colonialism and imperialism removed much of the control Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had over their lives, community, culture and Country. A decolonised approach recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to own and govern their cultural heritage. This extends to control as to how they are portrayed in research and media. 
Protocols that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ control may look like:

  • Providing as much information as possible on the project and agenda of the research and researchers
  • Engagement early in the research process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people set the direction or influence what, how, where and when research is done, and how research regarding cultural heritage is communicated
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective on the research focus is prioritised, rather than the external researcher interpretation
  • Reframing of research focus from a strengths perspective

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be acknowledged or credited with their contribution to research and their cultural material. Participants should also determine if they want to be identified, and how they want to be described or identified.
Attribution may look like:

  • Documented permission from participants on what will be shared, and how information or stories will be shared, where it will be shared and how they will be acknowledged (based on their wishes)
  • Ensuring cultural knowledge is attributed to people and Country
  • Recognising Indigenous rights to cultural and intellectual property

Beneficence / reciprocity
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’  kinship networks determine their shared obligations and responsibilities to each other, while relationships to Country determine Caring for Country activities. Research should recognise the contributions of all partners’ contributions, and ensure the benefits from research are equitable. As discussed earlier, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander control over what research is conducted means it is more likely to be relevant and beneficial.
Researchers or practitioners should also be clear on the benefits they derive from the research.
Beneficence or reciprocity could be progressed by:

  • Discussing the time burden and anticipated outcomes (both positive and negative) from the research and research process
  • Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on how research findings will be used
  • Employing Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander research staff and engaging with other service providers who provide existing services to people or communities
  • Reimbursing Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people for their time and expenses related to the research where appropriate
  • Sharing findings with partners and wider stakeholders in accessible formats. For example, through use of visuals or translated written text, through presentations or yarning circles.
  • Following up with partners after the research is completed on how outcomes have or have not progressed
  • Integrating other activities into the research process (e.g. training, celebration)

Secrecy and confidentiality
Some customary material may be unsuitable for publication or sharing under traditional customs or law. The use of sensitive materials should be via approval only, approvals should be prominently displayed. Researchers and practitioners should also consider the gendered nature of some knowledge. For example, some knowledge is relevant only to women or only to men. These nuances should be discussed with partners.
Secrecy and confidentiality extend to individuals’ personal privacy. National guidelines provide a basis for protocols concerning personal privacy. 
Images of deceased people can be offensive for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Approval should be sought before using images and researchers and practitioners should consider their communication policy to consider these sensitivities. For example, agencies may need to include a message that communications may include images of deceased people.
Secrecy and confidentiality could be supported by:

  • Following NHMRC guidelines on research ethics
  • Engagement with Elders or leaders, and confirming what and how information will be shared.


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