Visiting Aboriginal Communities

If you are a health service provider, contact the Health Action Team prior to arrange a community visit. The Health Action Team will be able to provide you with further contact details if required and can also provide up to date information regarding government and community activities which may be relevant to your visit. This is particularly relevant for Sorry Business (often at short notice) following the death of a community member that will preclude a wide range of interaction within the community.

If you just wish to visit the community you should contact the Shire Council.

Seek advice to ensure your visit does not clash with significant events such as funerals, tombstone openings, cultural or social events and wet season conditions.

Traditional Owners 

Each area of Cape York has different traditional owners. You should find out who the traditional owners of the area you are visiting are and be prepared to acknowledge them as such.

Acknowledgment of Traditional Owners and Elders

The traditional practice of acknowledging Traditional Owners and seeking permission to enter the land and sea has always been in place in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies.

Acknowledgement: “I/We would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this Land on which I/We stand today” 

Understanding community structures

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities generally feature an extended kinship system that is traditionally interconnected with the land, sea and waterways. An awareness and understanding of the diversity within different language and kinship groups in the community is vital to the development of strong working and living relationships.

Communities may comprise of people with diverse connections to the land and surrounding waters.

Therefore, it is important when acknowledging Traditional Owners / Custodians to know who are the Traditional Owners / Custodians of the land and/or surrounding waters on which you are meeting.
Be aware that there may be conflict in the community as to Traditional/Custodial ownership of the land and/or waterways.

It is important to gain an understanding of the community social structure. Information may be obtained from the Health Action Team.

Understanding Kinships

Kinship is biological, marriage is non-biological. Kinship is about all the relationships that are professional, personal and family that you will have throughout your life.

Kinship is social order, governance, world view and it’s the preferred way of doing things. Kinship is culture, which isn’t static. Having a basic understanding of the kinship network and the roles and responsibilities of people within this network can help you greatly in your own role as a health professional within the community.

Do not be discouraged by the complexity of kinship, just being aware of it and how it is used. 


Each community has its own traditional language with some having many dialects.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices following the death of a community member

‘Sorry Business’ is a term used during the time of mourning following the death of an Aboriginal or person. They may also use the terminology ‘Bad or Sad News’. The term can also refer to the past practice of forcibly removing children from their families. The intensity of mourning is reflective of the importance of the family or person who has passed. The mourning process enables healing for the family and community involved.

The death of an Aboriginal person impacts on the whole community, however the experience of Sorry Business or Bad News can vary within each community. Commonly the name of the deceased is not used for some time or the deceased person is called by another name.

In some communities, photographs or stories of the deceased are not to be used without the express permission of relevant family members.

‘Tombstone Openings’ are a time for celebration and symbolise the point that brings closure for the family of the deceased through the celebration of the person’s life. There is a lengthy mourning process from the time of the person’s death. This culminates with the unveiling of the tombstone ceremony followed by feasting and dancing. This process usually takes place about one or two years after the funeral; however some families may take longer to prepare for this event.

Avoidance Relationships

In traditional Aboriginal societies, some people cannot talk directly to certain people within their family group. 

Traditional Places 

There are some rules relating to behaviour in homelands, for instance, it may be forbidden to enter areas that have special significance.

These areas are not signed, so people need to take special care and ask not only about going to homelands but about what things they should not do or do when there. This may mean, for example, that fishing or swimming in certain waterholes is out of bounds. 

Stay on community roads and don’t go making your “own track” through the community.

Taking photographs

Be courteous and always ask people if it is appropriate to take their photograph. Taking photographs of children will require the permission of their parents or guardians. Avoid walking around the community taking random photographs. Be aware of any sacred sites around the community that will be off limits to you. Taking photographs of these sites without permission is strictly forbidden. If you are considering using your photograph/s for publicity purposes you must also obtain written permission from the subjects.

Seasonal Considerations

  • The region is subject to seasonal cycles with heavy monsoon rains in the summer months. The region has two distinct seasons with the Wet and Dry Seasons
  • Wet Season is January to April
  • Dry Season is May to August
  • The temperatures start to rise around September and the summer rains start around October leading into the Wet Season

Environmental considerations

  • When visiting any remote community, you should be aware of other environmental factors such as extremes of temperature and insect borne diseases including Dengue and Ross River Fever. You may need to consider taking water, sunscreen, hat and insect repellent with you on your travels
  • You will also need to find out if there are any quarantine restrictions applicable to the community you are visiting
  • Telecommunications can vary from region to region and in some cases mobile phone or internet coverage is non-existent
  • Beware of dogs in community. Take a stick if you feel unsafe. Do not pat or feed dogs. Do not run over dogs in community
  • Do not touch or try to ride horses in community
  • Do not drive at excessive speeds or blow your car horn incessantly at horses or dogs in community
  • Beware - the seas, rivers and creeks in Cape York are crocodile country