These terms have come to take on different meanings to different people, 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.
Here, we will unpack the terminology and provide some guidance – but 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.
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.
The term 'Aborigine' was commonly used up until about the 1960s but is now generally regarded as outdated and inappropriate.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.
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.
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.
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we often use 'Blackfella' amongst ourselves, but one should be very careful using the term as a whitefella, as some people might take offence.
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.
Similarly 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 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. 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
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 might be appropriate to use the local term. A selection are listed below.
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.