Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestries

Examining the ancestry of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the 2021 Census

Released
28/06/2022

Key points:

  • The Census collects information on Ancestry and Indigenous Status. Each are separate concepts that measure different forms of identity and serve different purposes.
  • Ancestry (ANCP) measures a place or cultural group often related to where a person’s parents, grandparents or previous generations were born and should not be used in place of Indigenous status in analysis of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.
  • Indigenous status (INGP) provides the response to whether people identified as being an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person in the Census. Indigenous status should be used for analysis and reporting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Census.
  • The 2021 Census introduced mark boxes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestries in the Ancestry question on the Census form, affecting how people responded compared to previous censuses.

More information on ancestry in the Census, including how it is collected and how to understand the data, is available in Understanding and using Ancestry data.

Ancestry

Ancestry is a self-assessed measure of a person’s ethnicity and cultural background. It can be used in conjunction with the person’s and their parents' countries of birth to provide an indication of the ethnic background of first and second generation Australians. Respondents are instructed to provide up to two responses to the ancestry question. The first two responses to the ancestry question are recorded and counted.

Four ancestry variables are created from responses to the ancestry question on the Census form.

  • Ancestry multi response (ANCP)
  • Ancestry 1st response (ANC1P)
  • Ancestry 2nd response (ANC2P)
  • Ancestry one or two response indicator (ANCRP)

For more information on the collection of Ancestry, see the Ancestry Statistical Standard.

Improvements to the ancestry question in the 2021 Census

The 2021 Census included improvements to the response categories of the ancestry question to increase the inclusiveness and usability of the Census form for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These improvements were also intended to increase awareness of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestries as available response options. Feedback during the 2021 Census topic consultation process indicated that revising the response categories for ancestry may increase the relevance of the Census to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The 2021 Census form included new mark boxes of ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’ ancestries to improve engagement and participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These categories appeared under a list of the most common ancestry responses from the 2016 Census. For people who completed the Census online and who identified as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person at the Indigenous status question, these new response categories were displayed at the top of the list.

    2021 Ancestry response option order for people who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in the Indigenous status question

    Ancestry question on the Census form, What is Person 1's ancestry? Aboriginal first

    2021 Ancestry response option order for people who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in the Indigenous status question

    The image shows an example of the ancestry question in the 2021 Census. It allows the respondent to select two ancestries, either through mark boxes displaying the most common ancestries from the 2016 Census, or through two text boxes listed 'Other ancestry (please specify)'

    2021 Census ancestry results

    The changes to the ancestry response categories in the 2021 Census resulted in a significant increase in people selecting an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander ancestry.

    As a result, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestry data from the 2021 Census is not directly comparable to previous censuses. It should also not be compared with results from the Indigenous status question as they measure different concepts.

    In 2021, ‘Aboriginal’ made the top 10 ancestry responses for the first time, with 741,307 people (2.9%) reporting this ancestry, up from 144,173 people (0.6%) in 2016.

    (a) Based on Ancestry multi response (ANCP).

    (b) Based on Place of usual residence. Includes no usual address and migratory, offshore and shipping.

    (c) Includes Other Territories.

    Torres Strait Islander ancestry was reported by 67,124 people (0.3%), up from 15,243 people (0.1%) in 2016.

    (a) Based on Ancestry multi response (ANCP).

    (b) Based on Place of usual residence. Includes no usual address and migratory, offshore and shipping.

    (c) Includes Other Territories.

    In total, 779,344 people reported having Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander ancestries in 2021.

    (a) Based on Ancestry multi response (ANCP).

    (b) Based on Place of usual residence. Includes no usual address and migratory, offshore and shipping.

    (c) Includes Other Territories.

    The ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’ mark boxes were only included in the 2021 Census. In prior censuses, they were included on the Interviewer Household Form (IHF). This is the Census form used in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Nearly all (94.0%) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who completed their Census with the IHF in the 2016 Census selected Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander as their ancestry. The response was only 13.6% when using Census forms that did not have these ancestries listed as response options.

    In 2016, almost half (46.9%) of the IHFs were completed in the Northern Territory. Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in Northern Territory were much more likely to report Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestries (64.7%) than those in other States and Territories in 2016. However, in 2021 responses in the Northern Territory were close to responses in other States and Territories (see graph below). This suggests addition of the response categories in the 2021 Census resulted in more people reporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestries.

    Source: Indigenous status (INGP), Ancestry multi response (ANCP).

    Indigenous status

    Indigenous status is a separate concept to Ancestry and is used for analysis and reporting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Census. The Indigenous status (INGP) variable provides the response of whether people identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in the Census. It is used as the basis for official Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population estimates (Estimated Resident Population, or ERP). Indigenous status in Census counts and ERP are both used in measuring progress against Closing the Gap targets.

    The standard Indigenous question

    The Census form uses the ABS standard question for Indigenous status (SIQ). The SIQ is used in all ABS data collections that collect Indigenous status. It is also used across a wide range of government agencies for national reporting and by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. When the SIQ was introduced in 1996, people of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin could identify as such for the very first time. It has remained unchanged since it was introduced.

    The SIQ is based upon the Commonwealth working definition (1) which states 'An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.' However, the SIQ only includes the elements of descent and identification. It does not include the third element of the Commonwealth definition, namely that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ‘is a person who is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives’, as it is usually not practical to collect information on community acceptance in a survey or administrative data collection setting.

    The method for collecting Indigenous status information in the Census is through self-identification. The SIQ does not require people to prove their Indigenous Status. See Indigenous Status Standard, 2014 for more information. For more information about this variable and how it is collected, see the Census Dictionary.

    2021 Census Indigenous status results

    In 2021, the number of people in Australia who identified as being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander at the Indigenous status question was 812,728, or 3.2% of the population. Of these people:

    • 742,882 (2.9%) identified as Aboriginal
    • 33,765 (0.1%) identified as Torres Strait Islander
    • 36,083 (0.1%) identified as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

    See graph below for the count of people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in the Indigenous Status question by state and territory.

    (a) Based on Place of usual residence. Includes no usual address and migratory, offshore and shipping.

    (b) Includes Other Territories.

    Source: Indigenous status (INGP).

    How Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people respond to the ancestry question

    Most (89.1%) people who identified as being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander at the Indigenous status question reported an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander ancestry in 2021. This suggests much of the increase in the count of ‘Aboriginal' and/or 'Torres Strait Islander' ancestries in 2021 was driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who selected these ancestries for the first time in 2021 due to the increased availability of these response options on the form.

    Top reported ancestries for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by Indigenous status, Census 2021
                                                                              Indigenous Status (INGP)
     AboriginalTorres Strait IslanderBoth Aboriginal and Torres Strait IslanderTotal Aboriginal and Torres Strait IslanderNon-IndigenousTotal(a)Total(a) Count
                                                                          Percent (%)
    Australian Aboriginal89.18.184.285.60.22.9741,307
    Torres Strait Islander0.482.673.27.10.00.367,124
    Total Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander89.284.990.589.10.23.1779,344
    Australian35.526.213.834.131.129.97,596,753
    English16.813.56.516.235.133.08,385,928
    Irish4.13.01.63.910.19.52,410,833
    Scottish3.12.51.43.09.28.62,176,777
    German1.71.50.71.64.34.01,026,138
    Italian1.31.20.61.34.74.41,108,364
    Australian South Sea Islander0.51.00.90.50.00.07,228
    Maori0.50.80.40.50.70.7170,057
    Chinese0.51.00.40.55.95.51,390,639
    Total(b)100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100.025,422,788

    (a) Includes Indigenous status not stated.

    (b) Includes not stated and not applicable responses.

    Source: Ancestry multi response (ANCP), Indigenous status (INGP).

    People who identify as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in the Indigenous status question of the Census may or may not select Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander as their ancestry. There are many possible reasons for this.

    “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be recognised in Australia, and these items not only count our people but capture the diversity and uniqueness of the community. In the 2016 and 2021 Census I worked in the Remote Area Management Team, where you ask these questions of thousands of people; some people laugh when you ask them the Indigenous Status question, whether they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin, as they have just introduced themselves as the Traditional Owners of the land, however they understand the importance of their people and community being counted. When the questionnaire arrives at the Ancestry question unique stories appear. It enables people to dive in depth into their heritage, it allows the freedom for people to include their language or tribal groups if they wish, and some tell stories of their ancestors married into European or Asian families. These stories can often be tragic regarding stolen generation, and some of them can be a triumph of love over adverse legislation and mindsets at the time. These questions create an important conversation around self and cultural identity, and the diversity of our First Nations.”

    - Northern Australia Remote Area Management Team Leader

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may have a number of different cultural backgrounds, such as Irish, Chinese or Australian South Sea Islander, that they choose to identify as their ancestry.

    “When I answer the Indigenous Status and Ancestry questions, I look at what is my identity and where my ancestors are from. Myself I identify as with my family of birth Aboriginal, as my father is Aboriginal, and American as my mother is American. My ancestry is also Aboriginal, but also Scottish, German and Puerto Rican as this is where my birth grandparents are from.” 

    - ABS Staff member

    Some people answer the questions on behalf of others, which can make the decision on how to respond even more complex:

    “My approach to responding to the ancestry question is very different to how I respond to the Indigenous Status question. I always identify my Indigenous heritage in the Indigenous status question as I am strongly connected to my culture, my community and my country and understand the importance of ensuring this representation within the broader Australian population.

    As my Indigenous heritage comes from my Mother’s side, I feel questions like ancestry are an opportunity to reflect my Father’s heritage and to be fully representative of who I am by ensuring I acknowledge both sides in my response. I am fortunate enough to have grown up with strong connections to both sides so take it as an opportunity to represent both fully through questions like the ancestry one in Census as most other statistical collections are limited to responses about the Indigenous status or look for other diversity information that does not allow me to speak to my ancestry.

    Interestingly though as a parent of a young child with heritage that is Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, as well as another country (through my father) I often find it challenging in how to most appropriately reflective his ancestry given the limited choices. My approach has always come back to connection and thus my response for him to this question has been to align the response to the ancestry that he is most connected to. But I can envision that this will become very difficult for him as he gets older in terms of how he will continue to represent himself and his ancestry.”

    - Anonymous

    Similarly, people who do not identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander may select Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander as their Ancestry. There are many possible reasons for this, including when a person knows that a relative identifies as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person but they choose not to identify (2).

    Sources

    1. Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 1981. Report on a review of the administration of the working definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Department of the Parliamentary Library, 2003. Defining Aboriginality in Australia, Canberra. Commonwealth of Australia.
    2. Watt, E. & Kowal, E 2019. To be or not to be Indigenous? 'Understanding the rise of Australia's Indigenous population since 1971', Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42:16, 63-82, DOI:10.1080/01419870.2018.1546021