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Tuesday, 2 October 1984
Page: 1069

(Question No. 1066)


Senator Jessop asked the Minister representing the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, upon notice, on 24 August 1984:

(1) Of the 600 Aboriginal tribes in Australia when Europeans first arrived, how many tribes now exist.

(2) Are there approximately 213 different dialects spoken by Aborigines today; if so, can it be assumed that there are only approximately 213 tribes remaining of the 600 original tribes.

(3) Can the land of tribes that are now extinct be claimed by Aborigines who are not traditionally associated with it.


Senator Ryan —The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) The concept of tribes to traditional Aboriginal society is problematic and probably relates as much to names given to identifiable groups by Europeans as to Aboriginal categories. However, there have been various estimates of these so -called tribes to the time of European settlement, 600 being an upper limit.

(2) The current estimate of the number of Aboriginal languages spoken at the time of European settlement is about 200. Of these, about 50 are now extinct, another 100 are in danger of extinction, and 50 languages are in a healthy state . The concept of 'language' is much more clearly defined that the concept of ' tribe' and an unequivocal relationship between languages and tribes cannot be asserted.

Aboriginal languages are structured in the form of overlapping families of languages, and linguistically it is very difficult to define a dialect in Aboriginal languages.

It could be a further exercise to attempt to determine a relationship between tribes and dialects.

With respect to affiliation to land, there are three categories of association known to exist:

(a) present day traditionally-oriented language groups with certain or relatively clear ancient association with land areas,

(b) people of mixed descent who have well established genealogical connections to language/land association groups, and

(c) Aboriginal people whose links with particular land areas are either difficult to establish or else are connected with developed or urban land.

It is thought that there may be a number of Aboriginal groups who left no descendants. This is, however, not known with any certainty. One such example is thought to be the Ngungawal group from Canberra.

(3) There are probably descendants of every so-called tribe in Australia who could claim ownership rights to their tribal land on the basis of traditional alignments. Such claims would very likely encompass the majority of Australia. Whether any such claims could or should be upheld is a matter of sustained current political and academic debate, and ultimately political and legal decision.