Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is an independent Australian Government statutory authority
Statutory authority
A statutory authority is a body set up by law which is authorised to enforce legislation on behalf of the relevant country or state. They are typically found in countries which are governed by a British style of parliamentary democracy. They are common in the UK, Australia, New Zealand etc but...

. It is Australia's premier institution for information about the cultures and lifestyles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is located on Acton Peninsula
Acton Peninsula
The Acton Peninsula is located on the northern shore of Lake Burley Griffin, in the centre of Canberra, the capital of Australia.It was created when the lake was artificially built by damming the Molonglo River and excavating around it to create the desired shape.The Royal Canberra Hospital used to...

 in Canberra
Canberra is the capital city of Australia. With a population of over 345,000, it is Australia's largest inland city and the eighth-largest city overall. The city is located at the northern end of the Australian Capital Territory , south-west of Sydney, and north-east of Melbourne...

, Australian Capital Territory
Australian Capital Territory
The Australian Capital Territory, often abbreviated ACT, is the capital territory of the Commonwealth of Australia and is the smallest self-governing internal territory...



W.C. Wentworth MP proposed the idea of an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) in 1959. The proposal was considered by a sub-committee of Cabinet in 1960. A working party was formed at the Australian National University
Australian National University
The Australian National University is a teaching and research university located in the Australian capital, Canberra.As of 2009, the ANU employs 3,945 administrative staff who teach approximately 10,000 undergraduates, and 7,500 postgraduate students...

 (ANU) to look into the possibility of setting up this organisation. The working party asked W.E.H. Stanner to organise a conference on Aboriginal Studies, to be held in 1961 at the ANU. The report on the conference indicated agreement that an Institute was needed.

The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies
Robert Menzies
Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, , Australian politician, was the 12th and longest-serving Prime Minister of Australia....

 appointed an Interim Council in 1961. The role of the interim Council was to plan for a national Aboriginal research organisation. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was established under an Act of Parliament in 1964. At the time, its mission was "to record language, song, art, material culture, ceremonial life and social structure before those traditions perished in the face of European ways."

AIAS had a twenty-two member Council and a foundation membership of one hundred and its work increased cross disciplinary interaction leading to 'Aboriginal studies' beginning.

Major changes occurred early in the 1970's. Aboriginal people were demanding a voice on Council, consultation with communities and projects relevant to the needs of Indigenous people. From then on Council has had Aboriginal membership.

Aboriginal Studies Press is the publishing arm of the Institute and was established in 1964, initially for white academics to publish works about Aboriginal people. It took until 1977 for the press to publish the first book written by an Aboriginal. That book was The two world of Jimmie Barker : the life of an Australian Aboriginal, 1900-1972.

The AIAS Film Unit had its beginnings in Sydney. The unit was moved to Canberra in 1975 with David and Judith MacDougall, ethnographic
Ethnography is a qualitative method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group...

 film makers heading up the team. Films produced by the unit include: Waiting for Harry directed by Kim McKenzie with anthropologist
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 Les Hiatt
Lester Hiatt
Dr Lester Richard Hiatt was a scholar of Australian Aboriginal societies who promoted Australian Aboriginal studies within both the academic world and within the wider public for almost 50 years....

, a prizewinning film and the most popular to be produced by the unit. Waiting for Harry starts out as a documentary of a funeral ceremony, capturing the mortuary rituals of the Burarra people. The film ends up as a record of the complexities surrounding both the rituals and the cultural processes which must take place in their own time and order. The unit was disbanded in 1991.

The Wentworth lecture has been presented since 1978 as a tribute to W. C. Wentworth for his role in establishing the Institute. Every two years, a lecture is presented by a prominent person in Aboriginal studies. A number of these have been given by Aboriginal people.

The Rock Art Protection Program (RAPP) commenced in 1986 following a request for such an initiative by the then Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Clyde Holding
Clyde Holding
Allan Clyde Holding Australian politician, was Leader of the Opposition in Victoria for ten years, and was later a federal minister.-Early life and education:...

. The aim of the RAPP was to protect Australian Indigenous rock art. Grants were approved by the Institute to fund various projects related to rock art protection.

The library, the bibliographic section and the resource centre (which looked after audiovisual material) were separate sections of the Institute up until 1980. By 1987 all three sections were combined under the Library. The Audiovisual Archives split from the library to become its own section in 1997.

The After 200 years project aimed to fill some of the gaps in the AIATS photographic collection. Aboriginal involvement in photographing and documenting the collection was a major part of the project. The project culminated in the publication of a book containing hundreds of photographs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Many of the photos in the book were taken and selected by Indigenous people. The book is arranged in groupings of photos by communities. This emphasises the diversity of the people and their ways of living in Indigenous communities.

The AIAS Act was replaced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Act in 1989. This new Act created a Research Advisory Committee and reduced the size of the Council to nine members.


The functions of AIATSIS under the Act are:

(a) to undertake and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies;

(b) to publish the results of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies and to assist in the publication of the results of such studies;

(c) to conduct research in fields relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies and to encourage other persons or bodies to conduct such research;

(d) to assist in training persons, particularly Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders, as research workers in fields relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies;

(e) to establish and maintain a cultural resource collection consisting of materials relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies;

(f) to encourage understanding, in the general community, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies;


The Council consists of nine members, four elected by the Institute's membership and five appointed by the Minister. One person appointed by the Minister is a Torres Strait Islander, four other people appointed by the Minister are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

Current AIATSIS Council Chairperson:
  • Professor Mick Dodson, AM, is a member of the Yawuru peoples the traditional Aboriginal owners in the Broome
    Broome, Western Australia
    Broome is a pearling and tourist town in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, north of Perth. The year round population is approximately 14,436, growing to more than 45,000 per month during the tourist season...

     area of the southern Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The first Aboriginal Chairperson of AIATSIS Council:
  • Mr Ken Colbung
    Ken Colbung
    Kenneth Desmond Colbung, AM, MBE , also known by his indigenous name Nundjan Djiridjarkan, was an Aboriginal Australian leader who became prominent in the 1960s. He was awarded an MBE and an AM for his service to the Aboriginal community.-Early life:Colbung was born on the Moore River Native...

    , AM, MBE a Nyoongar elder from WA.

The first Aboriginal woman to be Chairperson of AIATSIS Council:
  • Professor Marcia Langton
    Marcia Langton
    Marcia Lynne Langton is one of Australia's leading Aboriginal scholars. She holds the Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia...

    , OA, a descendant of the Wiradjuri
    The Wiradjuri are an Indigenous Australian group of central New South Wales.In the 21st century, major Wiradjuri groups live in Condobolin, Peak Hill, Narrandera and Griffith...

     and Bidjara nations.

Research Advisory Committee

The Research Advisory Committee is responsible for overseeing the quality, independence and ethics of AIATSIS research projects and programs, including research grants.

The committee vets applications made to AIATSIS for research grants and membership of the Institute. Recommendations are then made to Council in relation to research activities.

Membership of the committee numbers eleven. Three Council members are appointed by the Council and eight members of the Institute are elected by the members.

Ethical research

AIATSIS is a leader when it comes to research ethics. "Ethical research is about ensuring responsible conduct in research." Originally written in 2000, the AIATSIS guidelines for ethical research were updated in 2010. Many changes have occurred in the last 10 years, particularly in the area of intellectual property and the rights of Indigenous people. It is important that research projects include appropriate rights management.

Family history research and the Biographical Index

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Biographical Index had its beginnings in 1979 as a Biographical Names Register. The AIAS Council agreed to a proposal that Library staff commence work on a biographical names register. The aim of the register was to provide a record of the achievements of Aboriginal people and it was hoped that it would be seen as a "source of pride for generations to come".

Today the index continues to be updated, using references from both historical and contemporary works held by the AIATSIS library. Knowing who you are, where you come from and how you fit in is an important part of identity. The index is used as a research tool for people conducting family history research.

Due to funding changes the Family History Unit at AIATSIS is no longer able to answer requests for detailed family history searches from the public.

The Native Title Research Unit (NTRU)

The NTRU began in 1993 after an AIATSIS Council decision, following Mabo v Queensland in 1992.

The role of the NTRU is to provide advice and assistance on native title claims and to conduct research into the issues surrounding native title in general. Initially funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was the Australian Government body through which Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were formally involved in the processes of government affecting their lives...

 (ATSIC), currently the NTRU is funded by the Indigenous Programs Branch of the Dept. of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).

The NTRU runs an annual conference on native title and related topics. Current projects of the NTRU include The Commonwealth minimum connection threshold project. Where research is being conducted into policy, law and attitudes of stakeholders towards the government connection tests for negotiating native title consent determinations.

2012 is the 20th anniversay of the Mabo decision, the first successful native title claim.

The collections

The Library holds in its collections, printed materials in a range of formats. Including, manuscripts, journals, readers in language, dictionaries and grammars, books, rare books, maps, posters kits, microforms and CD ROMS.

The Audiovisual Archive holds collections of moving image, audio and photographs. Currently the archive has in approximate numbers, 45,000 hours of recorded sound, 650,000 photographic images, 1000 artefacts and 6 1/2 million feet of film.


Digitisation of material in the collections at AIATSIS is essential in preserving fragile unique items such as manuscripts, photographs, sound recordings and films. Access to the collections beyond the analogue formats is crucial for current and future generations.

2001 saw a pilot program for digitisation established in AIATSIS both for printed and audiovisual material. Originally funded by ATSIC, the program was extended with additional funding from Commonwealth agencies Department of Education Science and Training (DEST), and then Department of Innovation, Science and Research (DIISR).

Ten years later, work continues on digitising, metadata, access, conservation and preservation. One of the aims of the project is to digitise and preserve all of the audiovisual collection currently in analogue formats by 2025.

The building on Acton Peninsula

The architect, Howard Ragatt
Howard Raggatt
Howard Raggatt is an Australian architect, member of the firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall, and best known for the design of the National Museum of Australia, opened in 2001.-References:...

 of the firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall designed the building for the National Museum of Australia
National Museum of Australia
The National Museum of Australia was formally established by the National Museum of Australia Act 1980. The National Museum preserves and interprets Australia's social history, exploring the key issues, people and events that have shaped the nation....

 and also the building for AIATSIS. Both buildings reside on the Acton precinct. Controversy also surrounds this building with the claim that part of the rear of the building is a copy of pioneer architect Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier , was a Swiss-born French architect, designer, urbanist, writer and painter, famous for being one of the pioneers of what now is called modern architecture. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in 1930...

's 1920's Villa Savoye
Villa Savoye
Villa Savoye is a modernist villa in Poissy, in the outskirts of Paris, France. It was designed by Swiss architects Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, and built between 1928 and 1931....

. The building cost $13.7 million.

The building was officially opened in September 2001 with the Honourable W.C. Wentworth and Mr Ken Colbung
Ken Colbung
Kenneth Desmond Colbung, AM, MBE , also known by his indigenous name Nundjan Djiridjarkan, was an Aboriginal Australian leader who became prominent in the 1960s. He was awarded an MBE and an AM for his service to the Aboriginal community.-Early life:Colbung was born on the Moore River Native...

, in attendance. A smoking ceremony
Smoking ceremony
A smoking ceremony is an ancient custom among Indigenous Australians that involves smoldering various native plants to produce smoke which they believe has cleansing properties and the ability to ward off bad spirits....

 was performed by the Ngunnawal people
Ngunnawal people
The Ngunnawal people are the Indigenous Australian inhabitants whose traditional lands encompass much of the area now occupied by the city of Canberra, Australia and the surrounding Australian Capital Territory...

, the traditional owners of the land the building stands upon. As part of the celebrations, a friendship ceremony, known as Rom, was performed by the Anbarra people who came from Central Arnhem Land to participate in this important ceremony.


  • Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia
    Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia
    The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, society and culture , edited by David Horton, is an encyclopaedia published by the "Aboriginal Studies Press" at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 1994 and...

  • Australian Aboriginal Studies Journal. ISSN: 0729-4352

External links

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