What's the appropriate term: Aboriginal . . . . First nation

What's the appropriate term?

What's the appropriate term? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Aborigine, Indigenous, Black, Blackfella, First Australians, First Nations People. . .

Terms have different meanings to different people and are wrapped in the history and politics of the time.

But what’s the appropriate term? There's not a unanimous view, but some are considered more appropriate to use than others. It's helpful to understand why that's the case.

Ultimately it's important to be respectful of the preferences of individuals, families, or communities, and allow them to define what they are most comfortable with.

In this web site there are quotes from many historical sources. The terms used vary. When quoting from sources the terms used are those in the source text (even though they may be inappropriate if used today).

1. 'Aboriginal' and 'Torres Strait Islander' peoples

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups prefer to be known by these titles over any others. 'Aboriginal' and 'Torres Strait Islander' refer to different groups of peoples. Aboriginal refers to the original peoples of mainland Australia. Torres Strait Islander refers to the original peoples of the 274 islands located north of Australia, in the Torres Strait. The term Aboriginal has been in the English language since at least the 19th century, formed from the 16th century term, Aborigine, which means "original inhabitants". It derives from the Latin words 'ab' (from) and 'origine' (origin, beginning). The word was used in Australia to describe the original inhabitants of the land as early as 1789. Since colonisation it has been employed as the common name to refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When referring to either 'Aboriginal' or 'Torres Strait Islanders', however, it's important to include 'People' at the end, as in isolation the terms could be considered adjectives, and not humanised.

2. Aborigine

The term 'Aborigine' was commonly used up until about the 1960s but is now generally regarded as outdated and inappropriate. This is in part because 'Aborigine' is a noun, while 'Aboriginal' is an adjective sometimes employed as a noun. The distinction is important as the term 'Aboriginal' recognises that there are hundreds of diverse Aboriginal groups and languages throughout the nation, not just one mob. 'Aborigine' also has connotations of colonial Australia, and the injustices afflicted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from that time on.

3. Indigenous

In Australia, ‘Indigenous’ has become a popular, catch-all term to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While this can be practical, it is important to recognise why some people take issue with this approach. The true definition of ‘Indigenous’ means 'belonging or occurring naturally in a particular place' (Oxford Dictionary). It is used throughout the globe to describe all first peoples (native people) and even flora and fauna. Because of these global interpretations, it does not respect the unique and diverse cultures of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. It also risks reducing distinct cultures into a homogenous group. But context is important. For example, many well regarded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, academics and organisations use the term 'Indigenous' or 'Indigenous Australians’. If the audience you serve is confident that you understand and are respectful of the diverse, rich cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the term can still be used appropriately.

4. Black

The word 'blacks' often appeared in colonial media in the headlines of negative stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This term is considered outdated and highly offensive by many people across Australia. The expression is used, though, by Aboriginal and Torrest Strait Islander people amongst ourselves. However, many would find it offensive for a person who is not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to use this expression. The context of the use of this term is integral to deeming how appropriate its use may be.

5. Blackfella

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often use the word 'Blackfella' amongst themselves, but one should be very careful using the term as a whitefella, as some people might take offence.

6. First Australians

In recent years, 'First Australians' has emerged as a name that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first peoples of Australia. Where 'Aboriginal' and 'Indigenous' fail to represent the unique cultures of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, using the name 'First Australians' can overcome this. While its use is less popular than many of the other terms described above, many have recognised it as their preferred term for respectfully referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, some take issue with the reference to 'Australia', as it compromises sovereignty for the first people that existed before 'Australia' came to be.

7. First Nations People

'First Nations' recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the sovereign people of this land. It goes further than 'First Australians' as it recognises various language groups as separate and unique sovereign nations. It is widely used to describe the First Peoples in Canada and other countries across the globe. Over recent years, the use of this term has grown in popularity. It is a better choice than many outdated and offensive terms described above.

Based on: https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/aboriginal-or-indigenous





Across Australia, local terms are used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe people from a particular region. If you are referring to people within a particular region, it may be appropriate to use the local term.

Aome local terms are:

"Anangu" - people from South-West Central Australia. Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Nyangatjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra Nations

"Koorie" - people from NSW and Victoria, some parts of TAS

"Murrie" - people from Queensland and some parts of NSW

"Nunga" - people from the southern region of South Australia

“Noongar” - people from the South-West region of WA

"Palawa" - people form from TAS

Video: You can't ask that

Indigenous Australians talk about terms in use; what's appropiriate; what they use.

See the first 5 minutes of the episode.





Examples of terms in texts

In this web site there are quotes from many historical sources. The terms used vary. When quoting from sources the terms used are those in the source text (even though they may be inappropriate if used today).

Examples are:

Thus it is today that the Aborigines know that the Great Spirit is in all things and speaks through every form of Nature. Thalung speaks through the voice of the wind; he rides on the storm; he speaks out from the thunder. Thalung is everywhere, and manifests through the colour of the bush, the birds, the flowers, the fish, the streams; in fact, everything that the Aboriginal sees, hears, tastes, and feels-there is Thalung.

David Unaipon 1930

The Aboriginal people in Australia today-full-blood and part blood-do not want the sympathy of white people with an attitude such as Smith's. We have had enough of this in the past.

What we want is good education, respect, pride in our ancestry, more job opportunities and understanding.

It seems people such as Smith carry a guilt complex of past mistreatment, and would want to now stop the truth from being revealed, and hence control Aboriginal advancement.

If Australians would delve into our social history in a truthful manner they would be horrified at the result of the investigation.

The story is not a nice one and Aboriginals have suffered as a consequence.

All our lives Aboriginals have lived in a secondary position to the white Australian.

I no longer wish for this situation. Therefore I, and approximately 250,000 others like me, claim our ancestry. We are Aboriginal Australians-proud of our country and our race.

Charles Perkins 1968

10.2.2 Our existing knowledge of Aboriginal occupation thus shows that it is extremely misleading to imply that Aboriginal people can be categorised as another minority ethnic group. Any immigration which hypothetically occurred so long ago that the time scope is almost impossible to conceive is in vast contrast to one which commenced only 202 years ago. While migration is undeniably a central part of non-Aboriginal experience, it is not a significant part of Aboriginal history or consciousness. In fact, Aboriginal people may have occupied the same area for longer than any other people in world history. Aboriginal people therefore have an ancient history of having occupied the land we now call Australia.

When war was declared I tried to join up but they wouldn't take me because I only had one good eye, so I tried to support the fund raising as much as I could... there were some very good people in Nullagine at the time and they didn't draw a distinction with us being Aboriginal or anything like that. They classed us like them, they didn't class us as bush blackfellas.

It was a good time for me and I enjoyed it, but I still felt torn between the white people and the Mulbas. I knew that if I let on to the white people that my heart was really with the Mulbas, I'd be falling out with them. It was very hard to be a blackman and a whiteman. It seemed you had to choose one way or the other, no-one would let you be both. The problem was, if you chose to be a Mulba you and your family never had any rights at all and you could kiss any hopes of getting on goodbye. Yet if you chose to be a whiteman, you had rights, but you couldn't mix with everyone. It was very, very hard.5

Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody National Report Volune 2 Chapter 10 1991

Within months of the ‘First Fleet’ arrival at Sydney Cove in 1788 there was ‘open animosity’ as Indigenous people protested against ‘the Europeans cutting down trees, taking their food and game, and driving them back into others’ territories’. Bitter conflict followed as Aboriginal people engaged in ‘guerilla warfare – plundering crops, burning huts, and driving away stock’ to be met by ‘punitive expeditions of great ferocity in which bands of Aborigines encountered were indiscriminately killed’ (Bickford 1988 page 57).

The Native Institution at Parramatta, the first of many such schools for Aboriginal children, was opened by Governor Macquarie in 1814. Designed to distance the children from their families and communities, provide them with the ‘benefit’ of a European ‘education’ and inculcate the diligent subservience thought desirable in servants and the working class, it was quickly boycotted by Indigenous families. By 1820 it had closed and other attempts were similarly short-lived.

Early missionary activity similarly failed to attract the support of Aboriginal people to whom a settled agricultural lifestyle and study of the Bible had little relevance. In the meantime, as the non-Indigenous occupation extended throughout New South Wales, Indigenous people were forced from their lands to the fringes of European settlements.

In the 1870s the destitution and vulnerability of Aboriginal people moved the missionaries to renewed efforts. They successfully lobbied the government to reserve lands for their use and appealed for public support resulting in the establishment of missions at Maloga and Warangesda. In 1881 a Protector of Aborigines was appointed. He recommended that reserves be set aside throughout the State to which Aboriginal people should be encouraged to move.

In 1883 the Aborigines Protection Board was established to manage the reserves and control the lives of the estimated 9,000 Aboriginal people in NSW at that time. The Board took over the reserves at Maloga and Warangesda. After the Australian Capital Territory was established in 1911 the Board compelled all Aboriginal people in the Territory (including those who had been granted land for farming) to move to the Egerton Mission Station at Yass. When that mission closed two years later the residents became fringe-dwellers on the outskirts of Yass until another forced move to Hollywood Mission in 1934. The few Aboriginal children who lived in the ACT came under the control of the NSW Protection Board.

By 1939 there were over 180 reserves in NSW. ‘In most cases they were small with housing consisting of humpies made from iron roofing’ (Learning from the Past 1994 page 14). They were of two kinds. ‘Managed reserves’, also called stations, were usually staffed by a teacher-manager and education of a sort, rations and housing were provided. Unmanaged reserves provided rations but no housing or education and were under the control of the police.

Bringing them Home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997