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Torres Strait Islanders

Torres Strait Islanders are of Melanesian origin, proud of their own distinct cultural identity, traditions, languages and history. Like most island and coastal dwellers the Islanders are true seafarers, navigating by the stars with a superb knowledge of islands and reefs, weather, tides and currents.

The size of communities varies according to the ability of the islands to sustain groups of people. Communities could be as small as twenty and as large as 800 people. Island society is life based on farming (where soil was fertile), hunting, fishing and gathering food from the sea.

Three languages are spoken amongst the Islanders: Kala Kawa Ya (Top Western and Western), Kala Lagau Ya (Central) and Meriam (Eastern) dominate, with Torres Strait Islander Kriol having emerged after the arrival of the missionaries.

Torres Strait is named after a Spanish captain, Torres, who sailed through the Strait in 1606 on his way to the Philippines. The Torres Strait is located between Cape York and Papua New Guinea and is made up of about 100 islands of which 15 are inhabited and administered by Community Councils.

The Torres Strait is divided into five major island clusters, the Top Western Group (Boigu, Dauan and Saibai), the Near Western Group (Badu, Mabuiag and Moa), the Central Group (Yam, Warraber, Coconut and Masig), the Eastern Group (Murray, Darnley and Stephen), and the TI Group (Thursday, Horn, Hammond, Prince of Wales and Friday).

In seagoing canoes they created a network of trade routes between islands and from New Guinea to Cape York Peninsula to ensure supplies of food, weapons, canoes, cassowary feathers, ochre, ceremonial and domestic objects. Torres Strait Islanders traded pearl shell, cone shell, turtle shell and stone.

Archaeological evidence currently indicates that people have lived on Torres Strait islands for at least 2 500 years.

Today an estimated 30 000 Torres Strait Islanders live all over Australia; while about 8 500 live on the Islands.

Although the majority of the Islanders live on the mainland, Torres Strait Islanders are fiercely proud of their identity wherever they live and maintain links with family, home islands, languages and culture.

For more information:

Torres Strait Regional Authority
Footprints Before Me: Torres Strait Island Communities

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