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Appropriate words & terminology for Aboriginal topics

Which words should you use, which avoid? Use this guide to talk or write respectfully about First Nations topics and avoid offending First Nations people.

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A guide to appropriate terms & words when talking or writing about First Nations topics

Writing respectfully about Aboriginal topics can be a minefield – there are many words that have the potential to offend Aboriginal people.

The reasons for offence are many: Dark associations of past treatment, derogative use by non-Aboriginal people, implied meanings, stereotyping, segregation – the list goes on.

For example, the word 'government' is heavily loaded with negative connotations due to past (and fairly recent) policies that traumatised Aboriginal people.

'The Government' is a strong word that offends due to past actions [from which] we carry hurt.

— Rebecca

The basics

Some basic guidelines include:

  • Always capitalise. No matter which term you settle on, always capitalise the term (see also the video below).
  • Be specific. Use the name of the community, or the nation of a person, rather than generic terms.
  • Acknowledge diversity. Use plurals to indicate you are aware of diversity: peoples, nations, cultures, histories, perspectives, etc.
  • Use present tense. First Nations cultures and peoples exist right now. Only use past tense for things that are history.
  • Emphasise strength. Use language that resonates with strength and empowerment, rather than need and deficiency.
  • Avoid stereotypes. Be very aware of common myths and stereotypes and avoid them at all costs.

It’s also always good to ask [for the right term]. Blackfullas will tell you, if you are willing to listen.

— Jack Latimore, Birpai man and Indigenous affairs journalist at The Age
Tip

There is a growing preference for 'First Nations' as a more encompassing term, because it is generic and also acknowledges the diversity of Australia’s First Peoples.

"First Peoples" alone could suggest there is only one group. And some see the British explorers as "First Australians" as the name "Australia" only came into being after it was selected by a non-Aboriginal person.

Below is a detailed guide with examples that helps you use appropriate First Nations terminology, listing the preferred words for common expressions and terms.

By writing inclusively you avoid marginalising people who are already marginalised. Make your language accessible and meaningful to a wide audience. Ask yourself: are you talking with empathy or distance?

Respecting First Nations protocol is one step towards reconciliation.

Which words should I use? Appropriate First Nations terminology

Here's a short 4-minute motivation from Yota Yota woman Summer May Finlay as to why proper terminology is important:

Names

Using the right names
Instead of these words…use these…because...
Aborigine/s

aborigine/s (with no initial capital)

Aboriginal/s

Blacks

Yellafellas

Coloured

Native

ATSI, A&TSI
(acronyms for 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander')
Language group, e.g.:
Koori (NSW)
Murri (QLD)
Yolngu (NT)
Anangu (Central)
Noongar (WA) etc.

First Nations

First Peoples

Aboriginal people(s)

Aboriginal person

Aboriginal Australians

Torres Strait Islander people

Torres Strait Islander person

First Australians
First Nations is used worldwide to refer to indigenous peoples and is also emerging as a term in Australia.

'Aboriginal' which in Latin means ‘from the beginning’ and other such European words are used because there is no Aboriginal word that refers to all Aboriginal people in Australia.

Always capitalise 'Aboriginal' to show your respect.

The more specific the better: Aboriginal language group names such as ‘Koori’, ‘Murri’ or ‘Noongar’ are always more appropriate for the areas where they apply. It implies also a connection to country: "We like to be acknowledge[d] by the spirit of our grounds, e.g. Karrna, Narunnga, not 'Aboriginal people'." (If you were in Munich for the Oktoberfest, you wouldn't talk to a 'European' either, it would be a 'Bavarian'.)

The term 'Native' conjures up an image not appropriate to modern times. 'Aborigine', 'Aborigines' and 'Aboriginals' are terms widely used within historical texts and colloquially, but do not adequately describe the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal Australians.

Consider using 'New Australians' instead of 'other Australians' to avoid us-them concepts.

'Indigenous people(s)' is less and less acceptable.

Ayers Rock

The Olgas
Uluru

Kata Tjuta
Uluru is the Aboriginal name for this significant site in Central Australia which should be respected and recognised. This recognition of Aboriginal Australia is fundamental to social justice.

I am not an Australian, I am a Euahlayi/Gomeroi Dthane [man].

— Michael Ghillar Anderson, Head of State of the Euahlayi Peoples Republic
The title page of the act mentions the word 'Aboriginal' three times.
An extract of the first page of the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act 1939 shows how the term 'Aboriginal' (as a noun) is omnipresent in (often discriminating and racist) legislation of the time. It is no surprise that First Nations people don't like you to use this term now.

Labels & groups

Avoid classifications
Instead of these words…use these…because...
Transitional

Traditional

Contemporary

Modern

Urban

Rural

Isolated or remote

Real

Part-Aborigine
First NationsCategorising or classifying people and assuming that there are real differences between Aboriginal people of different areas is offensive.

Also, the implication that ‘urban’ Aboriginal people are less Aboriginal than ‘traditional’ or ‘transitional’ people is most offensive.

A real problem is the ‘real Aborigine’ syndrome – the idea that the ‘real’ Aboriginal people live in remote areas, and that only ‘traditional’ Aboriginal people and cultures are ‘really Aboriginal’.
Tribe

Horde

Band

Clan

Moiety

Traditional owners
First Nations

Aboriginal people/s

Aboriginal nations

Aboriginal communities

Mob/s

Family groups

Language groups

Culture groups

Traditional custodians

Sovereign people
‘Nation’ refers to a culturally distinct group of people from a culturally defined area of land, e.g. Ngarrindjeri Nation, Kaurna Nation. Note 'nations' is not supported by all (it's more common for American Indians), they prefer to be identified by their language or country. ‘Mob’ may not be appropriate for non-Aboriginal people to use unless this term is known to be acceptable to Aboriginal people.

‘Tribe’ is a European word that tends to impart western preconceptions developed from colonial experiences.

‘Horde’ is a more technical word used by anthropologists, but its common usage also has derogatory connotations.

The terms ‘band’, ‘clan’ and ‘moiety’ are usually used by anthropologists and are less practical for teaching.

While 'traditional owners' (often abbreviated as 'TO') emphasises the connection to land, 'traditional custodians' expresses better the concept that Aboriginal people don't own the land, but it owns them. The words are often capitalised. Consider using 'Sovereign people', as 'owner' is a Western concept.
Chief

King

Queen
Elder

Senior people

Community Elder

Traditional custodian

Senior lore person

Community spokesperson
Aboriginal people did not, and do not have chiefs, kings or queens. These were colonial labels used to raise up individuals for the authorities to deal with and to simplify the complex Aboriginal societal structures. These labels usually included an element of mockery.

'Elders' are men and women that Aboriginal communities respect for their wisdom and knowledge of culture, particularly lore. Male and female Elders, who have higher levels of knowledge, maintain social order according to traditional lore. You can also use 'senior lore person' or 'senior dance person' to be more specific about their area of expertise. Check with the community if this is appropriate.

The word ‘Elders’ should be written with a capital letter as a mark of respect.
Aboriginal leader[use their job title]

Spokesperson

Head of…

Representative

Leader of the… group

etc.
When you use ‘Aboriginal leader’ it reinforces a false homogenous view of Aboriginal people. Check with the particular Aboriginal group or collective who their elected leader or speaker is, and if it's a 'speaker' identify them as such. Don't determine 'Aboriginal leaders' on their behalf. Best to use the person's job title, better yet, ask them how they would like to be described.
Nomadic, nomads, nomadism

Walkabout

Wandering

Hunter-gatherer

Farmer, agriculturalist
Seasonal occupation

Seasonal movement

Communal movement

Rotational/cyclical occupation

Looking after the country/the land
Nomadism has been associated with lack of belonging to the land and the myth that Aboriginal people didn't have permanent structures. The extension of the doctrine of terra nullius was based on this kind of distinction. The preferred suggestions imply intimate knowledge of, caring for, and belonging to, the land, while avoiding limiting categories such as "hunter-gatherer". The suggestions also express that seasonal movements are purposeful, rather than random.

Focus is on describing actual practices, not simply finding the best label.

'Walkabout' is a derogative term, used when someone doesn’t turn up or is late.
Primitive

Simple

Native

Prehistoric

Stone age
First Nations

Complex and diverse societies

Efficient resource managers

Aboriginal Australian society
Previous terms are offensive because they imply Aboriginal societies are not as 'advanced' as European societies. The terms are based on the 'progress' model of history which many people now question, and on the idea of evolution from 'lower' to 'higher' (Western) forms of social organisation. The better terms recognise how effective and sophisticated Aboriginal resource management and social organisation can be.

Culture & spirituality

References to culture and spirituality
Instead of these words…use these…because...
DreamtimeThe Dreaming

The Dreamings
‘The Dreaming’ or ‘The Dreamings’ are mostly more appropriate as they describe Aboriginal beliefs as ongoing today. Many people use ‘Dreamtime’ inappropriately to refer to the period of creation. However, sometimes the use of 'Dreamtime' is appropriate if it includes the present time.
ReligionSpirituality

Spiritual beliefs
The word ‘religion’ tends to refer mainly to western religions. Note, however, that many Aboriginal people are religious in terms of mainstream religions, and often combine these beliefs with Aboriginal spirituality.
Myths

Mythology

Folklore

Legends

Story

Stories
Cultural stories

Creation/Dreaming stories

Ceremonial stories

Historical stories

Spiritual stories

Teachings from the Dreaming/s

Spiritual beliefs

Songlines

Legends (Torres Strait Islander people only)
Words such as ‘myth’, 'mythology' or ‘story’ convey the impression that information from the Dreaming is not true or is trivial, only happened in the distant past, or are fairy tales rather than creation stories. But for Aboriginal people they are true and express "deep and meaningful stories of their ancestors and their ancestral spirits". Dreaming stories inform about law, family relationships, relationships to the land and sea, food gathering etc.

You can use 'Songlines' "because [a creation story] comes in song and dance and ceremony and speech and togetherness and Spirit and with oneness".

It is appropriate to use ‘The Legends’ when referring to Torres Strait Islander culture. ‘Creation Stories’ or ‘Dreaming Stories’ convey more respect for Aboriginal Australian people’s beliefs. Capitalising these terms conveys more respect.
CorroboreeCeremony

Celebration

the local language word

Aboriginal dance
'Corroboree' is a colloquial term that belongs to the Botany Bay dialect ‘Korabra’ and has been generalised to explain all Aboriginal ceremonies. Some Aboriginal people use this term and such usage needs to be respected.

"Ceremony" and "celebration" are useful general terms to use in the context of the classroom.

When possible, use the local language group's word, for example, the Pitjantjatjara word is Inma, the Kaurna word is Palti, the Ngarrindjeri word is Ngikawallin, the Narrunga word is Gurribunguroo, the Yolngu word is Bungul, the Western Arrarnta word for women’s ceremony is Nthapa, and the Eastern Arrernte word for men’s ceremony is Urnteme.
Traditional law

Law
Lore

the local language word

Traditional lore
Aboriginal lore describes the knowledge and practices that are as important to an Aboriginal community as Western laws are to New Australians. Lores vary from group to group, just as laws vary between countries. Use "law" to refer to Australian law and avoid "traditional law" to avoid confusion between the "law" and "lore".
Primitive artFirst Nations artReferences to Aboriginal culture and peoples which imply a primitive or savage viewpoint are now completely unacceptable.

Another word to look out for is 'country'. As you might already know, First Nations people have an intricate and powerful connection to land. For this reason, many choose to capitalise 'Country', almost akin to religious Western people capitalising 'God'.

Strength & empowerment

Strength and empowerment
Instead of this…use this…because...
The programme helps Aboriginal people with the problems in their community.The programme supports Aboriginal people in this community to achieve their goals.Rather than perpetuating that Aboriginal peoples have 'problems' that need solving, convey that their ability to achieve and find their own solutions.

History

References to history
Instead of these words…use these…because...
Pre-history

Prehistoric

Pre-settlement

Discovery

Stone Age
First Nations (Australian) histories

Pre-invasion histories

Invasion histories

Post-invasion histories

Pre and post contacts
Using 'histories' emphasises the diversity of First Nations' historic experiences.
‘Pre-history’ is a term used by some archaeologists and historians and originally denoted the time period before European history was recorded in writing.
The term suggests that Aboriginal people did not have a history before European invasion, because it is not written and recorded.

It also denies a place for Aboriginal people in history. This is still reflected in those schools today which begin a study of Australian history in 1770 or 1788.


Using the term 'invasion' recognises what happened when Captain Cook arrived in Australia, rather than the romanticised notion of 'discovery' or '(peaceful) settlement'.

Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for 40,000 years…Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s…

Since the beginning of time…
40,000 years (or any other number) puts a limit on the occupation of Australia and thus tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions. Many Aboriginal people see this sort of measurement and quantifying as inappropriate.

‘Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s’ reflects the beliefs of many Aboriginal people that they have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time.
Captain Cook discovered AustraliaCaptain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of ‘New Holland’Aboriginal people lived in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived; hence it was impossible for Cook to ‘discover’ Australia. Most Aboriginal people find the use of the word ‘discovery’ offensive.
SettlementInvasion

Colonisation

Occupation
‘Settlement’ has a peaceful implication and ignores the reality of Aboriginal frontier wars, massacres and Aboriginal peoples’ lands being stolen from them.

From an Aboriginal perspective, Australia was was invaded, occupied and colonised. Aboriginal peoples’ lands were stolen from them, and countless died in the many wars they fought against the invaders. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a ‘settlement’ is a UK-centric, rather than an Australian, point of view.
Skirmish

Encounter

Killing
MassacreUsing 'skirmish' or related terms hides the fact that many incidents where Aboriginal people died were extremely violent and included men, women and children.


Use 'massacre' if an act resulted in the killing of "a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition) and where "6 or more people died" (Part of University of Newcastle's Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872 project's definition of a 'massacre').


Councils have started to recognise the term 'massacre' as appropriate for memorial inscriptions.
[insert explorers' names] were the first men to [cross/reach/find]…[insert explorers' names] were the first European men to [cross/reach/find]…Aboriginal men, women and children had crossed/reached/found Australia's landmarks for thousands of years before European explorers.
WalkaboutGone missing

Disappeared

Cannot be found
‘Walkabout’ for many Aboriginal people is a contentious word and considered an archaic colonial term. Its use by non-Aboriginal people is considered inappropriate.
Groups such as Reconciliation Queensland Inc advise against its use when discussing Aboriginal culture.

Examples for inclusive writing

Best way to write
Instead of writing this…write this...
The Government’s new strategy will support increased business with Aboriginals.The Government’s new strategy will support increased business with First Nations peoples.
Most Australians continue to see Aboriginal people…Most non-Aboriginal Australians continue to see Aboriginal people…
Ambiguous use of 'people' and 'peoples'At the time of European invasion, there were approximately 600 First Nations peoples.

( ‘Peoples’ is used to describe the groups of First Nations people, each with their own language, cultural practices and beliefs.)

At the time of European invasion, there were between 300,000 and 1 million First Nations people living in Australia.

(‘People’ refers to more than one person.)
...involving them in policy making decisions…...involving members of the First Nations community in policy making decisions…
If you people need…If the First Nations community needs…
First settlers in Australia...First Europeans in Australia...

Offensive terms not to be used anytime

25%, 50% Aboriginal, Abo, ATSI , Blacks, Boong, Coconut, Coloured, Coon, Darky, Full-blood, Gin, Half-caste, Inferior, Jacki Jacki, Lubra, Mixed blood, Native, Nigger, Part-Aboriginal, Primitive, Quarter-caste, Savage, Sooty, Stone Age, Them, Them people, Those folk, Those people, Uncivilised, You people.

See also: "Using the right words: appropriate terminology for Indigenous Australian studies", in: Teaching the Teachers: Indigenous Australian Studies for Primary Pre-Service Teacher Education, School of Teacher Education, University of New South Wales, 1996.

Australians Together has published a terminology guide specifically targeting the corporate world.

A look across the borders

Appropriate terminology is not just an issue in Australia. Watch First Nations man Bob Joseph of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., Canada, explain the right words to use and note the similarities:

Homework: Be a better journalist

I received the below email. Using the above tables, find the inappropriate terms in the text. Rewrite the sentence into an appropriate form.

"Why not write how they are using the full blood aboriginal tribal elders to steal customs instead of writing in support of half castes that you refer to? These people with the government are controlling aboriginal rights."

References

View article sources (10)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] Many thanks to all those on my subscription list community who contributed their feedback.
[2] 'Blak, Black, Blackfulla: Language is important, but it can be tricky', The Age, 30/8/2021
[3] See for example 'The difference between the 'First Australians' and the 'First Nations'', Sovereign Union, 2013, edited 9/2016
[4] [4a] The proposed changes to the National Curriculum for 2022 suggest to use 'invasion' instead of 'colonisation', and to replace the terms 'Aboriginal' and 'Indigenous' with 'First Nations Australians' or 'Australian First Nations Peoples'.
[5] The term 'Indigenous' was first used a lot by the Howard government, but that government also introduced a lot of legislation against Aboriginal interests and needs (e.g. the NT intervention). Hence many First Nations people associate – and reject – the two.
[6] 'No Independence Day to celebrate when Australia decolonises from Britain – yet', media statement 15/1/2018
[7] 'Indigenous Terminology', Diversity Toolkit, University of NSW, teaching.unsw.edu.au/indigenous-terminology, retrieved 1/4/2016
[8] [8a] see 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Handbook 2010', Queensland Studies Authority
[9] 'Word 'massacre' used by council to describe Waterloo Bay clifftop killing of Aboriginals', ABC News 20/9/2017
[10] 'Australia Day bush doof forced to change its name after backlash', Tone Deaf 5/1/2016, www.tonedeaf.com.au/468132/australia-day-bush-doof-forced-change-name-backlash.htm, retrieved 8/1/2016

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Appropriate words & terminology for Aboriginal topics, <https://stage.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/media/appropriate-terminology-for-aboriginal-topics>, retrieved 26 October 2021

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