First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Indigenous, Indigenous Australian, Aboriginal, First Australians, Blackfella or Blak. What's the appropriate term?
As with all language, the meaning and use of these words has changed throughout history. They are tied to the context and politics of the time. But what’s the appropriate term? There's no unanimous view, but some terms are considered more appropriate to use than others. It's helpful to understand why that's the case.
Below we explain the terms and provide some context and guidance. But ultimately it's important to respect what individuals, families, or communities prefer, and allow them to define what is appropriate. This could mean you need to ask people what they prefer, particularly when you are building relationships with new communities or individuals.
In recent years, 'First Nations People' has emerged as a name that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first peoples of Australia.
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 It is a better choice than many outdated and offensive terms described below. For these reasons, it is the preferred language of Common Ground.
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.
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. It was 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 people of the land as early as 1789. Since colonisation it has been used as the common name to refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
However, when referring to either 'Aboriginal' or 'Torres Strait Islanders', it's important to include 'people' at the end. Without referring to ‘people’, the terms could be considered adjectives, and not humanised.
The term 'Aborigine' was commonly used up until the 1960s but is now regarded as outdated and inappropriate.
This is partly because the word 'Aborigine' is a noun, which is dehumanising. 'Aboriginal' is an adjective sometimes used 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 strong ties to colonial Australia, and the injustices inflicted upon First Nations people from that time on.
In Australia, ‘Indigenous’ has become a popular, catch-all term to describe First Nations 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 its global and broad use it does not respect the unique and diverse cultures of First Nations people. It is not specific to people, and it also risks reducing multiple, distinct cultures into a single group.
But context is important. For example, many well-regarded First Nations 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, it is still appropriate to use the term.
‘Indigenous Australian’ is a term that has become more widely used over the last few years. It is commonly used in political and government contexts. However, there are individuals and communities who find this term offensive as it refers to the colonial state of ‘so-called Australia’. Without reference to the sovereignty of First Nations people it can be considered to be problematic.
In recent years, 'First Australians' has emerged as a name that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first peoples of Australia.
The words 'Aboriginal' and 'Indigenous' fail to represent the unique cultures of Australia's First Nations groups, while using the name 'First Australians' can overcome this. However, like with ‘Indigenous Australians’, some people take issue with the reference to 'Australia' as it compromises sovereignty for the people that existed before 'Australia' came to be.
The word 'blacks' often appeared in colonial media in the headlines of negative stories about First Nations people. This term is considered outdated and highly offensive by many people across Australia.
The word ‘black’ is used though, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people amongst ourselves. However, many would find it offensive for a person who is not First Nations to use this expression. The context of the use of this term is integral to deeming how appropriate its use may be.
A term more recently being used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, Blak reflects a reclamation of Blackness. Tracing the use of this term is challenging, but it is believed to have stemmed from US hip-hop culture. While this term is one that can be seen across community contexts, it is often community-specific and non-Indigenous people may not be invited to use this term in different contexts.
Taken from early colonial language used by non-Indigenous people, this term has recently seen a reclamation across many First Nations communities who are working to make it our own term, rather than one imposed upon us. First Nations people often use 'Blackfella' amongst ourselves, but non-Indigenous people (whitefellas) should be very careful using the term as it is colloquial and subject to context, so some people might take offence.
There are also terms used by First Nations people to describe people from a particular region. If you are referring to people within a particular region, it might be appropriate to use the local term. Some are listed below.
Anangu - people from South-West Central Australia. Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Nyangatjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra nations.
Koorie - from New South Wales and Victoria, some parts of Tasmania.
Murrie - from Queensland and some parts of New South Wales.
Nunga -from the southern region of South Australia.
Noongar - from the South-West region of Western Australia.
Palawa - from Tasmania.
Check out the You Can't Ask That video clip, which asks Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for their opinion on the most appropriate terminology to use.