Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Indigenous, Aboriginal, Aborigine, Blackfella, First Nations or First Australians?

The terms have come to take on different meanings to different people, wrapped in the history and politics of the time. While there's not a unanimous view, some words are more appropriate to use than others. It's helpful to understand why that's the case.

Working through the history of colonisation and academia regarding Fist Australian people, it becomes clear why some words are more appropriate than others.

Many Aboriginal groups prefer “Aboriginal” — or better yet, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” — over any name. Despite this, the term 'Indigenous' is more widely used than other more appropriate names.

'Aboriginal' and 'Torres Strait Islander' peoples

'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's derived 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.

Aborigine

'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.

For this reason, most now deem the term Aborigine as out dated and inappropriate. It also has connotations of colonial Australia, and the injustices afflicted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from that time on.

Indigenous

In Australia, Indigenous has come to be used a catch-all term to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, the true definition of the term means 'belonging or occurring naturally in a particular place' (Oxford Dictionary), so is employed throughout the globe to cover 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.

The term is often used to condense 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people' to one term, particularly by Australian governments, bureaucrats and writers. While this can be practical, it reduces distinct cultures into a homogenous group, and many take issue with this approach.

It is important to note that “Aboriginal” and “Indigenous” do not mean the same thing.

Black

In headlines of stories about Aboriginal people, the word 'blacks' often appears in colonial media. This term is considered outdated and highly offensive by many people across Australia.

It is important to recognise that this expression is often used by Aboriginal people amongst ourselves, but many would find it offensive for a person who is not Aboriginal to use this expression. The context of the use of this term is integral to deeming how appropriate its use may be.

Blackfella

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we often use "Blackfella" amongst ourselves, but one should be very careful of using that term as a whitefella, as some people might take offence.

First Australians

The use of 'First Australians' has emerged in recent years, 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 it's use is less popular than many of the other terms described above, it has been recognised by many as their preferred term to respectfully refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Some take issue with the reference to 'Australia', as it compromises sovereignty for the first people that existed before 'Australia' came to be.

First Nations People

Similar to above ('First Australians'), 'First Nations' recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the sovereign people of this land. It goes further than 'First Australian's' as it recognises various language groups as separate and unique sovereign nations. It is widely used to describe the First People's in Canada and other countries across the globe. Given this, it fails to provide uniqueness to the Australian context and therefore is only used by a minority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, it is still a better choice than many outdated and offensive terms described above.

I am not an Aboriginal, or indeed Indigenous, I am ... [a] First Nation’s person. A sovereign person from this country. - Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Anmatyerr woman from Central Australia

Local terms

Across Australia, local terms are used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe people from a particular region.

"Anangu" (from Central NT)
"Yolngu" (from top end NT)
"Koorie" (From NSW and Victoria, some parts of TAS)
"Murrie" (from Queensland and some NSW)
“Noongar” (from WA and SA)
"Palawa" (from TAS)

Check out the You Can't ask that clip, which asks Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for their opinion on the most appropriate terminology to use.

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