Guidelines for Indigenous Australian terminology

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have unique languages, terminology, knowledge systems and beliefs. 

These understandings vary between communities, which is why it’s best to check local knowledge before writing anything.

Currently, there are more than 500 different Indigenous communities or nations across Australia, and in 2019 more than 150 Australian Indigenous languages were being spoken at home.

For non-Indigenous writers and editors it can be challenging to know and understand the terms and spellings that are appropriate to use. 

One of the most important things to be aware of is that there is not one single culture.

I’ve put together a list of Indigenous Australian terminology learned from my last 14 years in the publishing industry, as well as research from Reconciliation Australia, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and Common Ground.

In my education masters thesis and my publishing career I’ve been privileged to work alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia who have generously shared their knowledge and insights with me.

This page is a work in progress and will be updated regularly to keep it current. 

Acknowledgements

The ‘Welcome to Country’ is not formally an acknowledgement and can be found towards the bottom of this A–Z page.

The Welcome to Country is delivered by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples; whereas, the following acknowledgements can be delivered by both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.

Indigenous painting of a circle for Guidelines for Indigenous Australian terminology

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT of COUNTRY

The ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ is delivered to show respect for the Traditional Owners and continuing respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their connection to the land you are living and working on.

It is usually delivered at the beginning of a meeting, speech or other formal occasion, but can be adapted for printing in books and on websites, as shown below in ‘Other acknowledgements’.

For Indigenous Australians, ‘country’ means more than owning land or being connected to it.

In the words of Professor Mick Dodson, it means the “values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations” associated with the area being acknowledged.

There is no set protocol or wording for an Acknowledgement of Country, but Reconciliation Australia recommend two following versions.

General: I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today. I would also like to pay my respects to Elders past and present.

Specific: I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, the (people) of the (nation) and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

Other acknowledgements

To include an Acknowledgement of Country in a printed document such as a book, report or on a website or email, Creative Spirits recommend the following practices.

For printed publications, if possible, place the acknowledgement in a significant place on the inside front cover. 

For websites and emails place a more concise acknowledgement that references your business’ respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are the Traditional Owners of the land on which you live and work.

Aborigine or Aboriginal

Aborigine is a noun meaning one of the first inhabitants of a country.

However, in Australia the term ‘Aborigine’ is increasingly considered outdated and inappropriate because it has racist connotations from Australia’s colonial past.

Many Aboriginal people have called for the word to be dropped. 

Some publications, such as The Australian newspaper, still use this term, but it’s best not to join them.

Aboriginal is an adjective that  people sometimes use as a noun.

It is appropriate to use terms such as Aboriginal person, Aboriginal people and Aboriginal community.

You can call an Aboriginal person an Aboriginal, but keep in mind that it isn’t yet accepted by the Macquarie Dictionary.

Indigenous drawing of a lizard for Guidelines for Indigenous Australian terminology

Black, blackfella

Don’t call an Indigenous person a Black. You might hear them using the term among themselves, but don’t use it yourself.

Many of them consider it highly offensive when a non-Indigenous person uses this term. Colonial books were littered with these references.

Blackfella is another informal term used among Indigenous people but, again, it’s not appropriate for non-Indigenous people to use this word – even if they’re a whitefella.

You may have heard Black and blackfella used in friendly ways by Indigenous people, but context is everything. 

Be aware that our inferences can miss nuances we can’t see or aren’t aware of as non-Indigenous people.

Copyright problems for Indigenous stories

Indigenous Dreaming stories and teachings have been told by word-of-mouth for thousands of years. 

Some of these stories are sacred and fiercely guarded. They are stories that connect the people to their community, their land and their survival.

Modern copyright laws don’t protect oral Indigenous stories from being rewritten or retold inappropriately or even inaccurately.

There is no legal requirement to obtain consent to publish a story owned by a community.

The takeaway here is not to rewrite or retell Indigenous stories without prior consent from the community that owns the story.

If you don’t know anybody from the community, seek advice from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or one of their representative organisations.

Indigenous drawing of kangaroo.

First Nations

First Nations is always capitalised and it refers to the collective of individual Indigenous nations within Australia.

It is also used when referring to some of those nations.

First Peoples

First Peoples is an alternative term for Indigenous people.

It refers to the collective of nations and acknowledges those people who aren’t sure what nation they come from.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous people

Be aware that referring to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples as Indigenous isn’t okay with everybody.

Most people and organisations accept it as a broad term synonymous with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The federal government has also embedded the term into its policies and literature.

Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, regularly uses the ‘Indigenous’ as well.

But not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are happy to be referred to as Indigenous.

The reason is that it was used as a scientific term for a long time to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of the fauna and flora of Australia – rather than as humans.

In my publishing experience, people don’t mind being referred to in writing as Indigenous Australians, but check if you can. 

People who aren’t Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders are referred to as non-Indigenous.

Synonyms to replace it would be ‘other Australians’ and the ‘wider community’.

Indigenous painting of a lizard

Indigenous content warnings – how to write them

Bereavement practices (also known as ‘sorry business’) vary between communities, but there is a common rule that first names, images and voice recordings of deceased Indigenous people are not permitted to be seen or heard.

This practice is very old and is based on the belief that saying a dead person’s first name, seeing their image or hearing their voice after death would recall and disturb their spirit.

This can be challenging if you work in publishing because it may be difficult, for example, to determine whether any deceased people are in a group photo included in a book, magazine or online article.

In these situations, we should do our best to ensure all people depicted in an image or recorded in an audio are living.

Permission can be sought from the deceased person’s family to publish their name, image or voice, if it’s a viable option.

Because it can be difficult to confirm whether people have passed away, we insert an ‘Indigenous warning’ at the front of written and recorded content such as books, journals, online articles, video recordings and television shows.

Particular care should be taken to use appropriate Indigenous Australian terminology in an Indigenous warning.

EXAMPLES of INDIGENOUS WARNINGS

Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.

– AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)

WARNING: Readers are notified that this publication may contain names or images of deceased persons.

– ANU Press

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images, names and voices of deceased persons.

– Australian Government, Anzac Portal

Indigenous drawing of a turtle for Guidelines for Indigenous Australian terminology

Leaders or Elders?

A leader is not an Elder.

Take care not to nominate somebody who is speaking to you on behalf of others in their community as a leader.

Also, don’t assume that an elderly Indigenous person is an Elder.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Elders are not powerful or privileged.

They’re people who are held in high esteem and respected within their families or communities.

They’re often referred to in their communities as Aunty or Uncle.

There are hundreds of different groups, communities, organisations and nations within Indigenous Australia.

There isn’t one person who speaks on behalf of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Local names for people from particular regions across Australia

Check with a local Indigenous group or organisation before using the following terms. 

Anangu are people from South-West Central Australia – the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Nyangatjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra Nations.

Koorie are people from NSW and Victoria, and some parts of Tasmania.

Murrie are people from Queensland and some parts of NSW.

Nunga are people from the southern region of South Australia.

Noongar are people from the South-West region of WA.

Palawa are people from Tasmania.

People or peoples

The most appropriate term to use for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It’s peoples because it’s two nations of people.

Don’t assume that all Indigenous people living in Australia are Aboriginal, and that you can use that term when referring specifically to mainland Indigenous people.

In the 2011 Census, 52,616 people living in Australia identified as being of Torres Strait Islander origin.

Do not abbreviate to ATSI or TSI. Always write these in full.

If I’m short on room or need to avoid repetition, I generally use the term Indigenous people. It’s not the perfect solution, but word counts and page-fitting sometimes make it necessary to find the second-best solution.

Indigenous drawing of a lizard

Using appropriate Indigenous Australian terminology

Indigenous Australian people

Aboriginal person/people

Torres Strait Islander person/people

Indigenous nations

Aboriginal nations

Aboriginal communities

nation

Language groups

Creation/Dreaming stories

the Dreaming/s

teachings

spirituality

gone missing (not walkabout)

First Nations Peoples

Stolen Generation 

Traditional Owner 

Custodian 

Elder 

Aunty/Uncle 

legends (Torres Strait Islander People only)

Welcome to Country

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been welcoming visitors to Country for thousands of years.

The welcome is delivered by Traditional Owners or Indigenous people who have permission from the Traditional Owners.

It is delivered at the beginning of formal events and can be a speech, smoking ceremony, song or a dance.

References and links

Arts Council of Australia – Protocols for producing Indigenous Australian writing

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies – Ethical publishing guidelines

 Australians Together –  Language and Terminology Guide

Reconciliation Australia – Share our pride

A note from me

If you’d like to contribute knowledge to this page, or discuss any of the topics here, please don’t hesitate to contact me on the button below. 

You might also be interested in reading How to make your writing more powerful.

More more writing tips read 9 common errors every writer should know about.

Textshop respectfully acknowledges the past and present Traditional Custodians of this land, and respects their culture and identity, which have been intrinsically connected to the land and sea for thousands of years. 

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