Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural appreciation

This course is from Interaction's ready2comply range. FYou can click here for an overview of the course navigation options or scroll down if you are ready to get started.


People accessing this module should be aware that the content may include names and images of deceased persons. We treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and beliefs with respect. We acknowledge that to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, it is distressing and offensive to show images of people who have died.


We would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we live and work.

We would also like to pay respect to the Elders of this land, both past and present, and extend that respect to the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be participating in this course.

Prelude Waterhole

This course follows a series of waterholes that we will visit to grow your awareness and appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their culture.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures can claim to be the oldest continuous living culture on the planet. Researchers now believe that Indigenous Australians have lived on the mainland for over 60,000 years and on the Torres Strait islands for more than 10,000 years.

Cultural awareness is the first step towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural competency, which refers to an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.

Aboriginal People

The term Aboriginal has traditionally been applied to the Indigenous inhabitants of mainland Australia, Tasmania, and other adjacent islands. The use of the term is becoming less common, with names preferred by the various groups becoming more common.

Aboriginal peoples have been specifically identified as a group of people who share, in common, biological ancestry back to the original occupants of the continent. Aboriginal peoples are the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and nearby islands and the descendants of these peoples.

Despite similarities in culture and history, there are many different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.

Prior to European colonisation in 1788, the Aboriginal population was distributed similarly to the current Australian population, with the majority living in the southeast, centred around the Murray River. It is estimated that there were approximately 700,000 Aboriginal people living in small semi-nomadic family groups, with each group living in a defined territory, systematically moving across a defined area following seasonal changes.

Membership within each family group was based on birthright, shared language, and cultural obligations and responsibilities, emphasising social and spiritual activities rather than material possessions.


Today, there are just over half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. This makes up around 2.7 per cent of the Australian population.

  • This 2.7 per cent is comprised of approximately 90 per cent Aboriginal and 6 per cent Torres Strait Islanders, with approximately 4 per cent of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin.
  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that there will be between 907,800 and 945,600 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by the year 2026. The population aged 25-54 is projected to increase from 235,900 in 2011 to between 336,100 and 337,800 in 2026.
  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is the fastest-growing population group in Australia. Between 1991 and 2006 the population increased by an average of 2.6 per cent annually, compared with 1.2 per cent for the total Australian population.

Let’s attempt a short quiz

This quiz is designed to help you get a feel for your existing knowledge and will not be marked!

Waterhole complete

You have completed the Prelude waterhole. Click the Next arrow to progress to the Reconciliation waterhole.

Reconciliation Waterhole

Reconciliation is about building better relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community for the benefit of all Australians. Reconciliation allows us to work together to solve problems and generate success that is in everyone's best interests. It includes:

  • raising awareness and knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders history and culture
  • changing attitudes that are often based on myths and misunderstandings
  • encouraging action where everyone plays their part in building a better relationship between us as fellow Australians

Reconciliation Action Plan

A Reconciliation Action Plan specifies actions for encouraging a respectful work culture and building stronger relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our organisation and in the community. All employees have a role to play in helping achieve objectives for reconciliation. Our vision for reconciliation is to:

Ensure that we build relationships with and provide opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees and the broader community and develop mutual respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees through a work environment that is respectful and open to diversity.

Our Reconciliation Action Plan is divided into four reportable sections.

Click the waterholes to learn about each section.

National Reconciliation Week

National Reconciliation Week is celebrated across Australia from 27 May to 3 June each year. The dates commemorate two significant milestones in the reconciliation journey - the anniversaries of:

  • the successful 1967 referendum and
  • the High Court Mabo decision.
  • The week is a time for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures and achievements and to explore how each of us can join the national reconciliation effort.

Waterhole Complete

You have completed the Reconciliation waterhole. Click the Next arrow to progress to the Culture waterhole.

Culture waterhole introduction

Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterises an institution, organisation, or group.


Despite the similarities in culture and history, there are many different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples identify themselves with names from the specific region in Australia they have inhabited.

Click here to view an Indigenous Language Map.

Aboriginality is defined by relationships - not skin colour. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders refer to their nation when identifying themselves: 'I am a Dharawal man' or 'I'm an Eora woman'.

Today, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is defined as a person who:

  • is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent;
  • identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; and
  • is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.

Professor Larissa Behrendt.

'I am often asked:

"How often do you visit Aboriginal communities?"

and I reply...

"Every day, when I go home."

Galarrwuy Yunupingu

'You can only be a proud Aboriginal person if you carry your own learning and cultural lifestyle with you.'


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people everywhere, like all cultures, are evolving contemporary cultural forms and practices. 75 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now live in urban and regional environments, which does not mean that they are removed from their culture. The people maintain strong links to 'traditional' culture, including ongoing contact with country (traditional land), family and communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music

Music is a powerful element of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and is part of everyday life as well as being a vital part of sacred ceremonies. Traditional music is still practiced and performed widely - and there is also a very strong and lively contemporary music scene.

Music plays a major role in traditional Aboriginal societies and is intimately linked with a person's ancestry and country (the animals, plants and physical features of the landscape). It is traditionally connected with important events such as the bringing of rain, healing, wounding enemies, and the winning of battles.

(Photo of tAli-Mills performing Waltjim Bat Matilda at the 2010 IMAs, courtesy of musicnt.com.au)

Tom Lewis, actor, musician, Indigenous consultant.

'Dust Echoes is one way that we are bringing everyone back to the same campfire - black and white. We are telling our stories to you in a way you can understand, to help you see, hear and know. And we are telling these stories to ourselves, so that we will always remember, with pride, who we are.'

Spirituality of Land and Sea

Land and the sea are fundamental to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The land is the core of all spirituality. This relationship and the spirit of 'country' are central to the issues that are important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people take responsibility and care of the land:

  • Land is 'home' 
  • Land is mother
  • Land is steeped in culture

'The land owns us'

Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara elder and Traditional Owner of Uluru, explains how the connectedness of every living thing to every other living thing is not just an idea but a way of living. This way includes all beings as part of a vast family and calls us to be responsible for this family and care for the land with unconditional love and responsibility.

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For Torres Strait Islander people, the link between the land, sea, and Island Custom is strong, enduring and fundamental to the way of life in the Torres Strait. In traditional times, Island Custom played a major role in determining social, political and economic structures with individual communities.

'The Coming of the Light'

The Coming of the Light festival marks the day the London Missionary Society first arrived in Torres Strait. The missionaries landed at Erub Island on 1 July 1871, introducing Christianity to the region. There were many disadvantages of missionary influences, such as the destruction of traditional cultural religious practices. But there were also positive consequences. Christianity provided a shared identity with the focus on unity that was reinforced through inter-island church meetings, festivals and church openings.

Today, for many Torres Strait Islanders, 'The Coming of the Light' is commemorated on the first of July each year and is regarded as National Torres Strait Islander Day.


Why are Elders important in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures?

Elders perform a vital and honoured role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They are admired and respected as keepers and enforcers of lore, stories and culture. They guide communities today as they have done for generations. Because of their cultural knowledge, wisdom and strength, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are as strong and diverse today as they have been in the past.

In some instances, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people above a certain age will refer to themselves as Elders. However, it is important to understand that in traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, age alone does not necessarily mean that someone is a recognised Elder.

Culture exercises

Let’s attempt a set of exercises to help with your understanding. For each exercise, please select the most appropriate definition from the options provided and please try again if you make an incorrect selection.

Betty is the Manager of a busy team in the State office. John, a work colleague, asks Betty for a week's leave to attend to 'sorry business'.

John explains that his Mother's Uncle has passed away and that he needs to return to his land to attend the funeral.

'Sorry business' can take some time and supervisors should be sensitive and consider the request for leave for bereavement purposes favourably. In some instances, this may require flexible working conditions or leave without pay options.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags

Most Australians can identify the flags of the Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islanders. Click on each of the flags now, to learn a little more about their history.

Welcome to Country

Welcome to Country ceremonies acknowledge the traditional custodians of a particular area or region, demonstrating respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture and their heritage.

It is undertaken by a Traditional Owner of the land and symbolises the consent of the traditional landowners for the event to take place on their land by welcoming the event and people in attendance to their country and giving safe passage.

Acknowledgement of Country

An Acknowledgement of Country demonstrates respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and traditional custodians of the land and acknowledges their continuing relationship and connection with the land and water.

Generally, Acknowledgement of Country takes place at the beginning of a meeting and is undertaken by the chair or speaker.

Click here to view guidelines for conducting a Welcome to Country or Acknowledgment of Country.


You are supervising an employee, Alan, who identifies as being of Indigenous heritage. Alan is active with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employee Network (IEN) and is happy to talk about his culture and family with the other team members. Alan uses the regular team meetings to discuss upcoming events such as National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week.

At a weekly team meeting Alan asks to start all formal team meetings with an Acknowledgement of Country. You ask for further information regarding the process and the background and agree to Alan's request.

After the team meeting another team member, Suzie, approaches you to discuss the Acknowledgement of Country. Suzie feels that it is inappropriate for Alan to “force” Indigenous matters on all staff members and requests that the Acknowledgment of Country not be conducted.

Is Alan acting in an inappropriate manner by requesting to undertake an Acknowledgment of Country?

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Are you obligated to undertake an Acknowledgment of Country because you have an Indigenous team member?

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What resources could you provide to Suzie to address her concerns?

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What are the benefits of including an Acknowledgement of Country?

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Waterhole complete

You have completed the Culture waterhole. Click the Next arrow to progress to the Communication waterhole.

Communication cues waterhole

In this waterhole, we will investigate some important cues and considerations when communicating with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, for example:

  • If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don't look you in the eye when spoken to, are they being rude?
  • If an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person doesn't answer a question, are they being impolite?

Asking questions

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, information is often obtained by asking indirect questions. Unlike direct questions, indirect questioning includes making statements and seeking agreement or disapproval. Another form of indirect questioning is to provide information and request feedback at a later time. For example, John would like to know if Adam is comfortable at his workstation...

  • Direct question: Adam, are you comfortable at your workstation?
  • Indirect question: Not everyone likes the workstation setup, maybe we need to rework the design?

Which do you think is the preferred question in this example?

Scenario: Judy is the manager of a team of 12 employees

At the weekly team meeting Judy notices that Peter, a new member of her team who is Aboriginal, isn't contributing to the group discussion. What could Judy do to involve Peter in the discussion?

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Judy should provide a number of ways for her team to take part in team meetings. This could include asking team members to see her individually after the meeting or setting up a feedback email/box in the team area. Judy should be mindful not to draw attention to Peter when introducing the new processes but rather focus on the benefits of improved opportunities for communication.

Most importantly, Judy should speak to Peter and ask if there is something that she or the team could do to make him feel comfortable participating in team meetings. Judy should also ensure that her team members undertake Cultural Awareness and Respect Training to gain a better understanding of Peter's culture and his communication style.

Waterhole complete

You have completed the Communications waterhole. Click the Next arrow to progress to the Government Policies waterhole.

Government Policies Waterhole

All Australians are bound by a collective past and present. Australia's history explains the current situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In 1606 Spaniard Luis Vaez de Torres was credited as discovering the Torres Strait Islands however it is likely that Chinese, Malay and Indonesian traders had explored the islands before him. It was not until the 1860s, when there was a discovery of pearl shell, that the Islands received an influx of people from all over the region who settled primarily on Thursday Island (Wyben/Waiben).

Stolen Generations

I've asked my granny if she thought she was rescued. She replied:

"I didn't need rescuing from my mother's love."

Che Cockatoo-Collins (Footballer)

'I grew up feeling alone, a black girl in a white world and I resented them for trying to make me white but they couldn't wash away thousands of years of dreaming.'

Aunty Rhonda Collard, member of the Stolen Generation

Timeline of Significant Events

Click each of the Year tabs on this dialogue box to overview some of the significant events relating to reconciliation.


The Commonwealth Electoral Act is amended to give the vote to all Aboriginal people.


The Commonwealth Referendum passes. This ends constitutional discrimination, and all Aboriginal people are now counted in the national census.


The first census to include Aboriginal people.


The Whitlam Government introduces a policy of self-determination. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established. The “Aboriginal Embassy' is pitched outside Parliament House in Canberra. The Whitlam Government freezes all applications for mining and exploration on Commonwealth Aboriginal Reserves.


Federal Parliament passes the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act.


A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody begins.


The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act passes through Federal Parliament. The Council is formed. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody presents its Report and Recommendations to the Federal Parliament.


The High Court of Australia rules in the Mabo case that native title exists over particular kinds of land and that Australia never was terra nullius or 'empty land'.


The Federal Government establishes the Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in response to issues of discrimination and disadvantage highlighted by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's National Inquiry into Racist Violence.


The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families is established in response to efforts made by key Indigenous agencies and communities.


The Wik Decision. The High Court found that pastoral leases did not necessarily extinguish native title (as earlier ruled) and that both could co-exist but where there was conflict, native title rights were subordinate to the rights of the pastoral leaseholder.


The 700-page report of the 'Stolen Children' Nation Inquiry 'Bringing Them Home' was tabled in Federal Parliament.


National Recognition Week and People's Walk for Reconciliation.


Abolition of ATSIC.

Formation of National Indigenous Council.


Apology to Australia's Indigenous People. The apology in the Australian Federal Parliament on 13 February 2008 to the Stolen Generations of Australia became a defining moment in the nation's history.


On the 26 May 2017 during the National Constitutional Convention, 250 First Nations Delegates’ from across Australia came together to agree that in Australia sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished. From this agreement, “the Uluru Statement from the Heart” was formed.

Waterhole - Uluru Statement from the Heart

Put simply, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation from First Nations Peoples to consider legal and structural reforms to redesign the relationship between First Nations Peoples and the Australian population. The Statement calls for two changes:

  1. Voice to Parliament, which needs to be enshrined in the Constitution of Australia to ensure it remains a permanent part of our democracy.
  2. A Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In May 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made a commitment to establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament that the Australian Constitution guarantees.

Why do we need to change the Constitution?

Constitutional enshrinement can only be achieved through a referendum.

This means the constitution cannot be altered without 'the approval of the people'.

All Australians of voting age will have the opportunity to vote to enshrine a First Nations Voice into the Australian Constitution.

How will a Voice to Parliament help First Nations people?

Many of the concerns First Nations people face are varied and complex. The issues are bound to factors such as cultural differences, remote locations, poverty, English as a second or third language, and failed and racist past government policies.

A Voice will mean the Government will have better quality information about First Nations issues - by First Nations people. First Nations people understand the issues affecting their communities and are best placed to contribute to the solutions.

Resource allocation will be more accurately targeted. Better laws will improve outcomes across all social measurements, including health, housing, criminal justice, and education.

Let’s take a moment to reinforce some key points.

Click the Next button when you are ready to load the first question in our knowledge check.

Waterhole complete

You have completed the Government Policies waterhole. Click the Next arrow to progress to the Living Standards waterhole.

Living Standards Waterhole

'It is not credible to suggest that one of the wealthiest nations in the world cannot solve a health crisis affecting less than three per cent of its citizens.'

Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

What is the cause of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality gap?

Over the last 50-years the health of Australians has improved significantly due to major advances in medical care and rising prosperity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, however, have not shared the same benefits.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have less access to essential health services than non-Indigenous Australians. Too often they don't get the health care they need, when and where they need it. A particular problem facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is the relative lack of access to primary health care.

Overcrowded, poor-quality housing in many communities, limited access to healthy food, and the absence of access to Primary Health Care are major contributors to illnesses that should be preventable and that tend to become chronic problems.

Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions, kidney disease, and eye and ear problems are massive challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A variety of factors have resulted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing a deplorable health status compared to non-Indigenous settlers.

These include:

  • colonial dispossession
  • land alienation
  • forcible relocation
  • loss of language
  • disruption of families
  • treaties
  • international law
  • indigenous cultural lore
  • suppression of Indigenous cultural practices, values and beliefs
  • violations of Indigenous inherent sovereignty and the right to self-determination

Closing the gap

The objective of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement) is to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and governments to work together to overcome the inequality experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and achieve life outcomes equal to all Australians.

Key targets of the Closing the Gap agreement are listed below:

  1. Everyone enjoys long and healthy lives
  2. Children are born healthy and strong
  3. Children are engaged in high-quality, culturally appropriate early childhood education in their early years
  4. Children thrive in their early years
  5. Students achieve their full potential
  6. Students reach their full potential through further education pathways
  7. Youth are engaged in employment or education
  8. Strong economic participation and development of people and their communities
  9. People can secure appropriate, affordable housing that is aligned with their priorities and need
  10. Adults are not overrepresented in the criminal justice system
  11. Young people are not overrepresented in the criminal justice system
  12. Children are not overrepresented in the child protection system
  13. Families and households are safe
  14. People enjoy high levels of social and emotional wellbeing
  15. People maintain a distinctive cultural, spiritual, physical, and economic relationship with their land and waters
  16. Cultures and languages are strong, supported, and flourishing
  17. People have access to information and services enabling participation in informed decision-making regarding their own lives.

Click here for further information

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience much higher levels of unemployment than non-Indigenous Australians.

There is a clear link between unemployment and other aspects of disadvantage. Unemployment is linked to:

  • poor health
  • poor living standards
  • low self-esteem
  • imprisonment and substance misuse

Factors that can make it difficult for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to obtain work include:

  • lack of relevant training
  • lack of exposure to the mainstream workforce
  • the culture of work organisations and the expectations of organisations
  • the challenges involved in balancing family and community obligations with the demands of full-time work
  • poor health

Barriers often stem from cultural differences and a lack of knowledge of recruitment processes by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander jobseekers. These can result in under-prepared work resumes, inappropriately addressing key selection criteria or a lower level of interest from candidates if there are no other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in the organisation. Many of the barriers faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be understood and overcome through useful strategies for recruiting and retaining employees.

Waterhole complete

You have completed the Living Standards waterhole. Click the Next arrow to progress to the Celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture waterhole.

Celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture waterhole

There have been many successful and influential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people involved in various fields such as sport, arts, politics, media and lore.

David Unaipon (1872 - 1967) was a Ngarrindjeri man, inventor and writer. He based his helicopter design on the principal of a boomerang. David Unaipon's portrait is depicted on the Australian $50 note, along with drawings from one of his inventions and an extract from his original manuscript, Legendary Tales of Australian Aborigines.

Prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Click the navigation arrows as they appear to display Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian of the Year and Young Australian of the Year recipients…

2009 Mick Dodson (ANU Professor of Law)

1998 Cathy Freeman (World champion athlete)

1992 Mandawuy Yunupingu (Singer with Yothu Yindi)

1984 Lowitja O'Donoghue (Aboriginal health worker and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chairperson)

1979 Neville Bonner (First Aboriginal Senator)

1978 Galarrwuy Yunupingu (Aboriginal leader and land rights advocate)

1971 Evonne Goolagong Cawley (Tennis champion)

1968 Lionel Rose (World champion boxer)

Young Australian of the Year... 2007 Tania Major (Indigenous youth advocate)

1997 Nova Peris (Olympic gold medalist)

1990 Cathy Freeman (World champion athlete)

1982 Mark Ella (Australian Rugby Union captain)


The content of this course was originally developed by Interaction Training Pty Limited in conjunction with the Australian National University. Design elements have been reproduced by Interaction with permission from the Workforce Design and Strategy Section at DIMA. We would like to join them in acknowledging assistance provided by the department's Indigenous Employees Network (IEN) and Reconciliation Ambassador Network (RAN) and The Australian National University.

We would like to thank all image contributions to this course. In particular, we would like to thank:

  • The National Archives of Australia - (www.naa.gov.au) - Images of 'Prominent Indigenous Australians' used courtesy of the National Archives of Australia except the image of Cathy Freeman (1998) courtesy of: Ian@ThePaperboy.com
  • The Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia - www.bangarra.com.au
  • The Stylin' Up HipHop & R'n'B Music and Dance Event
  • The Torres Strait Regional Authority - Photos by George Serras.


This is a generic course, so before we continue, we need you to confirm your understanding that if any policies specific to your workplace conflict with those presented in this course, then you must apply your local workplace policies and procedures rather than those presented here.

Click here to confirm that you have read and understand the above prior to continuing the course.


You have now visited and completed all the waterholes to complete your journey. You can exit the course and save your work by clicking the Save and Exit button below.

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