Glossary of Aboriginal Australian terms

When you are learning about Aboriginal culture there are many unfamiliar words. This glossary of Australian Aboriginal terms explains them.

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Following are words associated with Australian Aboriginal culture or used to describe Aboriginal people.

Usually refers to the First Peoples of mainland Australia but excludes those of the Torres Strait region. Sometimes used to refer to both.
Sometimes used to refer to Aboriginal people’s identity, or the combination of cultural heritage, spirituality and relationship with the land.
Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) is a large Aboriginal local government area located in the remote north west of South Australia.
Any object made or modified by Aboriginal people, often stone tools or wooden objects. A group of artefacts (especially stone tools) located on the ground surface is referred to as artefact scatter.
A 19th century idea that Aboriginal people should become ‘white’, convert to Christianity and learn how to work and live as Europeans. From the 1930s assimilation became Australian government policy.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Note that this abbreviation is not liked by many Aboriginal people due to its use in discriminating contexts.
A north Australian (Yolngu) word describing a song with dance, or ceremonial dance performance.
Important elements of a community are country, family ties and shared experience. Community is about connection and belonging, and is central to Aboriginality. Aboriginal people may belong to more than one community.
Corroboree is an Eora word that has become part of Australia’s identity. It describes a place of ceremony and creative expression, a transformative gathering.
A term used by Aboriginal people to refer to the land to which they belong and their place of Dreaming. Aboriginal language usage of the word ‘country’ is much broader than standard English.
The accepted and traditionally patterned ways of behaving, and a set of common understandings shared by members of a group or community. Includes land, language, spirituality, ways of living and working, artistic expression, relationships and identity.
A person charged with maintaining and passing on particular elements of cultural significance (e.g. knowledge, stories, songs, dances, language, ritual and imagery).
Customary law
Also referred to as ‘lore’, customary laws are based on traditions and customs of a particular group in a specific region.
Describes the ending of colonisation and the liberation of those who were colonised. The process includes dismantling the ‘colonial state’ and its laws. The ultimate goal is self-determination of those who were colonised. Those pursuing decolonisation start by reconnecting with kin and country, and disengaging with the colonial system.
Unfair treatment on the basis of perceived differences between people.
The Dreaming has different meanings for different Aboriginal groups. The Dreaming can be seen as an embodiment of Aboriginal creation which gives meaning to everything. It establishes the rules governing relationships between the people, the land and all things for Aboriginal people.
Key go-to person within Aboriginal communities who is respected and consulted due to their experience, wisdom, knowledge, background and insight. Often described as the “custodians of knowledge” or the “libraries” of a community. Elder does not necessarily equate with age.
First Peoples
The term First Peoples is often used synonymously for Aboriginal people or Indigenous people.
Slang word for ‘government’. A ‘gubba’ is a white person.
That which comes or belongs to one by reason of birth, sometimes also understood as ‘descent’ when talking about identity.
Homelands are located on Aboriginal ancestral lands with cultural and spiritual significance to the Aboriginal people who live there. Complex connections to land include cultural, spiritual and environmental obligations, including obligations for the protection of sacred sites.
Native to a place or area, originating in and characterising a particular region or country.
Indigenous Australians
Term used to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia; always capitalised. Includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Many Aboriginal people don’t like the term to be used to refer to them.
Kinship includes the importance of all relationships, and of being related to and belonging to the land.
Land Rights
The struggle by Aboriginal people to gain acknowledgement of prior ownership of this land both legally and morally and allowing all the accompanying rights and obligations which stem from this association.
Land use
The way land and water are used and maintained both physically and spiritually. Modern land use can include non-Aboriginal parties.
Language group
Language is linked to particular geographical areas. The term ‘language group’ is often used in preference to the term ‘tribe’, and many Aboriginal people identify themselves through their language group.
Long Grass
Long Grass describes Aboriginal people living homeless and on the fringes, yet sometimes right in the middle of our cities. It comes from the tall grass usually growing on riverbanks where Aboriginal people often congregate.
The learning and transmission of cultural heritage. See also ‘customary law’.
Eddie Koiki Mabo, whose Murray Island land claim led the High Court to recognise, for the first time, that a form of land title existed prior to Australia’s occupation by Great Britain in 1788. The High Court judgment, made in 1993, is usually referred to as the Mabo case.
Denotes a domestic treaty between the Commonwealth government and Aboriginal people. It comes from a word in the Yolngu language meaning a coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs and living again in peace.
Indiscriminate killing of Aboriginal people by government forces, private killing parties and individuals.
An originally Danish word, now used for a large heap of shell and other food remains left by Aboriginal people at camp sites which built up over an extended period of time. Middens are often found near rock platforms and in proximity of fresh water.
Missions, “mish”
Areas originally set up and governed by different religious denominations for Aboriginal people to live. Missions implemented government policies. Aboriginal people associate the term with trauma suffered from forced living conditions and abuse, rarely with positive memories. Missions are often colloquially called “mish”.
Colloquial term used by Aboriginal people to refer to a group of people they belong to, for example: “That is my mob over there.” or “My mob comes from La Perouse.”
Stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.
A nation is a group of Aboriginal people who share the same language and area of land, river and sea that is their traditional land.
Native title
Form of land title which recognises Aboriginal people as rightful owners of that land. Involves a prolonged process which often ends in litigation before a court. Native Title (capitalised) refers to the legislation, whereas native title (lower case) refers to the concept.
National Native Title Tribunal
An independent statutory body to assist people to resolve native title issues.
‘Nips’ is a slang word for ‘non-indigenous persons’.
Discrimination on the basis of perceived racial differences. Racism takes on many forms, e.g. attitudinal, institutional or cultural.
The fine cross-hatching used by artists of western and central Arnhem Land. Similar patterns are known as miny’tji and dhulang in the region’s east. The patterns were originally used in an Arnhem Land (NT) ceremony calledMardayin and painted on bodies. They were said to physically connect initiates to the sacred power of the ancestral beings who made their clan lands,[1] and also used to identify clans in the region.
A Commonwealth initiative to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the wider community and to redress Aboriginal disadvantage.
Areas of land reserved by the Crown for Aboriginal people in the 19th century. Much of this land was later taken from Aboriginal people again. Until the 1970s the remaining reserves were administered and controlled by government.
Scarred tree
A tree injured by Aboriginal people to extract a piece of bark for making a canoe, a shelter or utensil. Some trees have been marked for ceremonial purposes only.
When Aboriginal people determine their affairs themselves, including decision making, interacting with non-Aboriginal parties and creating the solution to a problem.
Aboriginal sites are places of importance and significance to Aboriginal people because they provide a link to former or current traditions, people or practices.
A songline (also known as Dreaming Track) is a path across the land which marks the journey of creator-beings as they created the lakes, rivers, plants, land formations and living creatures during the Dreaming. Songlines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance, and painting. One of Central Australia’s oldest intact songlines called the Ngintaka, or Perentie Lizard, dreaming.
Sovereignty is the ultimate power, authority and/or jurisdiction over a people and a territory. No other person, group, tribe or state can tell a sovereign entity what to do with its land and/or people. A sovereign entity can decide and administer its own laws, can determine the use of its land and can do pretty much as it pleases, free of external influence (within the limitations of international law). Sovereignty is a more precise term than self-determination.
Terra nullius
A concept in international law meaning ‘a territory belonging to no-one’ or ‘over which no-one claims ownership’. The concept has been used to justify the invasion and colonisation of Australia.
Torres Strait Islanders
Refers to the First Peoples of the Torres Strait region (as compared to the mainland people).
A negotiated agreement with the government to recognise that Aboriginal people have not lost any part of their sovereign existence and status, and that they have always maintained a property right in land and the natural resources according to their law and customs.
Striking figure represented by people in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, featuring a halo effect around the face. Wandjinas are recognised as having a significant role in natural and spiritual events.


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[1] 'Artist profile: John Mawurndjul', Art Gallery of NSW,, retrieved 3/7/2018

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An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - - Glossary of Aboriginal Australian terms, retrieved 10 December 2018