Indigenous Protocols


The Arts Law Centre receives a large number of enquiries from artists with concerns in dealing with Indigenous culture and art. Examples include;

  • Is it OK to use dots in my painting like Aboriginal artists do? Who should I talk to about this?
  • I want to do a reconciliation performance piece – how can I get Indigenous artists involved?
  • Is it alright to sample an old recording of Indigenous music that is held in an archival collection?
  • Are there any special ways of communicating with the Indigenous people I am going to meet with?

As a result of the growing interest in, and the appropriation of, Indigenous art and culture, at least two sets of protocols have recently been developed in Australia. The first, Respect, Acknowledge, Listen: Practical protocols for working with Indigenous Community of Western Sydney1 is published by Community Cultural Development NSW (the CCD Guide). The second is a series of protocols developed by the Australia Council (the Australia Council Protocols).

What are protocols?

As Angelina Hurley, the author of the CCD Guide, explains

Protocols can be classified as a set of rules, regulations, processes, procedures, strategies, or guidelines. Protocols are simply the ways in which you work with people, and communicate and collaborate with them appropriately…..Protocols are the standards of behaviour, respect and knowledge that need to be adopted. You might even think of them as a code of manners to observe, rather than a set of rules to follow…

The CCD Guide

While the CCD Guide was written in relation to the Indigenous communities in Western Sydney, the clear and practical information provided is useful for anyone working with Indigenous people. The CCD Guide offers simple principles and procedures to follow, starting with getting to know your Indigenous community. It explains the diversity of Indigenous communities – don’t assume that one size fits all and points out that there are different rules for different areas.

The need for consultation is something that we hear a lot about, but the CCD Guide makes it clear that Indigenous people have complained that much consultation has been tokenistic. Consultation should be woven through the fabric of any project involving Indigenous people and be based on a foundation of respect.

Angelina Hurley explains that getting permission is essential and that you should get as much permission and support from the members of the community as possible. The position and responsibilities of the Elders and traditional owners in providing permissions are elaborated upon.

Communication is a process which involves many facets including respect, good listening, patience, understanding, common language, confirmation, clarification and more. Hurley reminds us that reporting back and staying in touch with the community is an important part of the process.

The principles of confidentiality, integrity and trust are emphasized in the small section dealing with ethics and morals. Hurley doesn’t mince words. She clearly states that breaching the community confidentiality can have devastating consequences for your project.

The CCD Guide also sets out the correct procedures to follow, such as when there should be a Welcome to Country, acknowledgement of traditional owners and what to call people. It also makes the point that Indigenous artists, like all other artists, are entitled to payment for their work.

The Australia Council Protocols

Late last year the Australia Council published an excellent set of Indigenous protocol guides, written by Indigenous lawyers, Robynne Quiggin and Terri Janke, which provide information and advice on respecting Indigenous culture and heritage. There are 5 guides specific to the following Indigenous artforms:

  1. Song Cultures
  2. Writing Cultures
  3. Performing Cultures (Drama/dance)
  4. Visual Cultures and
  5. New Media Cultures2.

The Australia Council Protocols are each divided into two main sections. The first deals with the principles and protocols; the second provides a summary of the copyright issues relevant to the Indigenous art form discussed. The protocol section establishes a framework of principles for respecting Indigenous heritage and explains how to apply the following principles in practice:

  • Respect
  • Indigenous control
  • Communication, consultation and consent
  • Interpretation, integrity and authenticity
  • Secrecy and confidentiality
  • Attribution
  • Proper returns
  • Continuing cultures

Both the Australia Council Protocols and CCD Guide make good use of examples and case studies throughout and contain useful information about contact organisations and other protocol resource documents such as Doing It Our Way: Contemporary Indigenous Cultural Expression in NSW3and Valuing Arts, Respecting Culture4.

Arts Law welcomes the publication of the protocol guides which provide an important resource for all people working with Indigenous people, their communities and organisations, in the arts.

Where to obtain the guides:

Indigenous Protocol Guides

PO Box788
Strawberry Hills NSW 2012

Respect Acknowledge Listen

PO box512
LiverpoolNSW 2170

Robyn Ayres is a solicitor and Executive Director of the Arts Law Centre.


1 Hurley, Angelina, Community Cultural Development NSW, 2003,

2 Janke, Terri, Visual Cultures; New Media Culture, Writing Culture Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, Australia Council for the Arts, Cth of Australia 2002;

Quiggin, Robynne, Song Cultures, Performing Cultures, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, Australia Council for the Arts, Cth of Australia 2002;

3 Janke, Terri and Company and the Indigenous Arts Reference Group of the NSW Ministry for the Arts, Sydney NSW, 2002

4 Mellor, Doreen and Janke , Terri, National Association for the Visual Arts, Sydney NSW 2001.

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