National surveillance data indicate marked differences between Indigenous and other Australians in the prevalence of many sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Young Indigenous people bear a particularly high burden of these infections. A collaboration of university researchers, Indigenous health workers and young Indigenous people conducted 45 field interviews to examine how young Indigenous Australians keep themselves healthy and protected against STIs. Our findings emphasise the complexity of health behaviours, where individuals are rarely always ‘risky’ or always ‘safe’, as well as subtle gender differences in health practices. Preventive strategies employed by the young people were contingent on beliefs and knowledge about sexual partners, the type of relationship, the context of the sexual encounter and access to condoms. Tangible strengths such as young Indigenous people's commitments to condoms and STI screening should be celebrated and bolstered to enhance their ability to protect themselves against adverse health outcomes and enhance their resilience against STIs. Focusing on strengths helps to counter the deficit model of health commonly deployed in Indigenous health research and draws attention to health issues facing young Indigenous people and their communities, without reinforcing negative stereotypes or focusing solely on individual risk behaviour. We provide concrete recommendations for health promotion and education. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.