Commonwealth records in the collection of the National Archives include much information which is relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some of it is about day-to-day administration, particular events and people; some of it is about government policy and programs.
All of the National Archives offices hold some material on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but the most extensive holdings are in the Northern Territory, Victorian and National (Canberra) Offices. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers in Darwin, Melbourne and Canberra have relied on the Archives' holdings for a variety of important research: Land claim and native title research; the preparation of the High Court case (Kruger and Ors v The Commonwealth); tracing family and community ties; and preparing submissions to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families.
There is no single centralised collection of, or index to, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander records within the National Archives. Many of the records in the collection are not clearly identifiable as being about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The information can range from record items containing incidental or passing references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through to detailed case files about individuals. Other information might be contained in records on apparently unrelated subjects and will only be identified by checking the record itself. This is a characteristic of archival records everywhere, and it makes research based on archival sources an analytical and labour intensive process.
Archival research involves the study of unique, original documents. Consequently, the storage areas of the Archives, unlike those of most libraries, may not be browsed by researchers wishing to identify records that might be relevant. This means that researchers are entirely reliant on indexes and guides to locate material of relevance to their research. The Archives' role is to assist researchers to understand and use the indexes and other reference tools. The Archives does not undertake detailed research on behalf of researchers, nor does it interpret the records.
The databases, indexes, fact sheets and guides created and maintained by the Archives to help researchers identify relevant records are called finding aids. These are available to all in our reading rooms.
Three guides based on the Archives collection are of particular relevance. In 1993 the Archives published the guide compiled by Ros Fraser, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in Commonwealth Records: A Guide to Records in the Australian Archives ACT Regional Office. Also in 1993 the Archives, together with the Public Record Office of Victoria, produced a joint guide to records about Aboriginal people in Victoria titled My Heart is Breaking. A third guide, published in 1998, is also of relevance. Finding Families: The Guide to the National Archives of Australia for Genealogists contains a chapter on records about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
These guides are invaluable starting points for research, but they can be complex documents to use. Researchers interested in very specific inquiries, for example, about their families or a particular pastoral station or home will not find the 'answer' in them.
Three relevant fact sheets have also been issued. These are: The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, which provides a summary of the records of the Royal Commission; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, which gives information about the administration of Aboriginal affairs during the twentieth century, to provide a context for the records held by National Archives; and Memorandum of Understanding with the NT Aboriginal People, which describes the arrangements between the National Archives and Northern Territory Aboriginal groups to assist Aboriginal people obtain access to Commonwealth government records.
Given the major role that governments played in the lives of Aboriginal people, the extent and nature of information about Aboriginal people in government records is often highly personal and goes well beyond what was normally recorded about the white community. To release this material under the public access provisions of the Archives Act 1983 would constitute an unreasonable disclosure of the personal affairs of an individual as provided by section 33(1)(g) of the Act. However, because this is precisely the information which is needed for retracing family and community connections, the Archives acknowledges the need of the individuals concerned, or their representatives, to have unhindered access to these records.
While the Archives has the leading role in regulating access to records over 30 years old, the Archives does not have power to regulate access to records less than 30 years old. Commonwealth records less than 30 years old are known as 'closed period' records, reflecting the fact that they are closed to public access under the Archives Act. Access to these records may be sought by approaching the agency which created the records (or its successor) direct under the Freedom of Information Act, or by seeking permission from the agency for the discretionary release of the records.
All offices of the Archives provide a copying service. The copies most frequently provided are photocopies although photographic copies, microform and other copying can be arranged. A fee schedule is available in Fact Sheet 51.
For more information about the Archives' collection and how to use it we suggest that you contact the office of the Archives in your State or Territory by mail, telephone, facsimile or email. The addresses and contact information for each office of the Archives are given at the end of this Guide.