Open Access

When Worlds Collide in Legal Discourse. The Accommodation of Indigenous Australians’ Concepts of Land Rights Into Australian Law


The right of Australian Indigenous groups to own traditional lands has been a contentious issue in the recent history of Australia. Indeed, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders did not consider themselves as full citizens in the country they had inhabited for millennia until the late 1960s, and then only after a long campaign and a national referendum (1967) in favour of changes to the Australian Constitution to remove restrictions on the services available to Indigenous Australians. The concept of terra nullius, misapplied to Australia, was strong in the popular imagination among the descendants of settlers or recent migrants and was not definitively put to rest until the Mabo decision (1992), which also established a firm precedent for the recognition of native title.

This path to equality was fraught and made lengthy by the fact that the worldviews of the Indigenous Australians (i.e. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) and the European (mainly British and Irish) settlers were so different, at least at a superficial level, this being the level at which prejudice is typically manifested. One area where this fact is particularly evident is in the area of the conceptualisation of property and especially the notion of land “ownership” and “use”.

In this paper, we will focus on these terms, examining the linguistic evidence of some of the Australian languages spoken traditionally by Indigenous Australians as one means (the only one in many cases) of gaining an insight into their worldview, comparing it with that underlying the English language.

We will show that the conceptualisations manifested in the two languages are contrasting but not irreconcilable, and indeed the ability of both groups of speakers (or their descendants in the case of many endangered Australian languages) to reach agreement and come to develop an understanding of the other’s perspective is reason for celebration for all Australians.

Publication timeframe:
4 times per year
Journal Subjects:
Philosophy, other