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Introduction to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander terms

Terminology

Many government agencies, such as DPMCDATSIP, Flinders University and NSW Department of Health have detailed online guides to appropriate and respectful Aboriginal Terminology. 

The section below gives an introduction to respectful communication.

Note: This is a general introduction to appropriate terminology only, and may not be suitable in all circumstances. Where one person may be happy to be called Indigenous, another may prefer to be known as Aboriginal or as a Torres Strait Islander and some may prefer their tribe's name‚Äč. If in doubt, seek advice from the individual or group you are communicating with.

Collective names

Indigenous

This collective term is used when describing both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. 

While it is an often accepted term, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are distinct People. Where possible, it is preferable to say both names (i.e. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People) when referring to them collectively.

Aboriginal

This term is used to describe the first people of the Australia.

Torres Strait Islander

This term is used to describe the first people of the Torres Strait Islands, located to the north of mainland Australia.

Aboriginal Elder

Elders are held in the highest esteem in Aboriginal culture.  An Elder is a custodian of knowledge, beliefs and lore, and plays an integral part within an Aboriginal community.

Tribe, nation or country names

Before European colonisation, Australia comprised many distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘nations or countries’, each with their own unique culture and language groups.

The Tindale Map (SA Museum) developed by Norman Tindale and Indigenous Language Map (AIATSIS) developed by David Horton give an introduction to the complexity of Aboriginal culture before European settlement.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People prefer to be identified by their connection and belonging to their country (e.g. a ‘Noonuccal descendant’ or of the ‘Noonuccal People’).

It is best to seek guidance from the local Aboriginal community before referencing specific names.

Names that may cause offence

Some terms are likely to cause offence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities:

  • Them
  • The Aboriginals (as a collective)
  • Those people or you people
  • Mixed blood, half blood, etc.
  • Half caste, quarter caste, etc.
  • The ATSI's
  • Abbreviations of the word Aboriginal.