A guide to appropriate terms & words when talking or writing about Aboriginal topics
Writing about Aboriginal topics can be a minefield - there are many words that have the potential to offend Aboriginal people.
The reasons for offence are many: Dark associations of past treatment, derogative use by non-Aboriginal people, implied meanings, stereotyping, segregation - the list goes on.
For example, the word ‘government’ is heavily loaded with negative connotations due to past (and fairly recent) policies that traumatised Aboriginal people.
'The Government' is a strong word that offends due to past actions [from which] we carry hurt.—Rebecca 
Below is a guide that helps you use appropriate Aboriginal terminology, listing the preferred words for common expressions and terms. By writing inclusively you avoid marginalising people who are already marginalised. It’s language that is accessible and meaningful to a wide audience.
Ask yourself: are you talking with empathy or distance?
Respecting Aboriginal protocol is one step towards reconciliation.
Which words should I use? Appropriate Aboriginal terminology
Here’s a little 4-minute motivation from Yota Yota woman Summer May Finlay as to why proper terminology is important:
|Instead of this…||…use this…||because|
aborigine/s (with no initial capital)
(acronyms for ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’)
Torres Strait Islander people
Torres Strait Islander person
Language group, e.g.:
Noonga (SA) etc.
First Nations peoples
‘Aboriginal’ which in Latin means ‘from the beginning’ and other such European words are used because there is no Aboriginal word that refers to all Aboriginal people in Australia. Sometimes ‘Indigenous people(s)’ is also acceptable.|
Always capitalise ‘Aboriginal’ to show your respect.
The more specific the better: Aboriginal language group names such as ‘Koori’, ‘Murri’ or ‘Nyoongah’ are always more appropriate for the areas where they apply. It implies also a connection to country: “We like to be acknowledge[d] by the spirit of our grounds, e.g. Karrna, Narunnga, not ‘Aboriginal people’.”  (If you were in Munich for the Oktoberfest, you wouldn’t talk to a ‘European’ either, it would be a ‘Bavarian’.)
The term ‘Native’ conjures up an image not appropriate to modern times. ‘Aborigine’, ‘Aborigines’ and ‘Aboriginals’ are terms widely used within historical texts and colloquially, but do not adequately describe the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal Australians.
Consider using ‘New Australians’ instead of ‘other Australians’ to avoid us-them concepts.
|Uluru is the Aboriginal name for this significant site in Central Australia which should be respected and recognised. This recognition of Aboriginal Australia is fundamental to social justice.|
|Instead of this…||…use this…||because|
Isolated or remote
Categorising or classifying people and assuming that there are real differences between Aboriginal people of different areas is offensive.|
Also, the implication that ‘urban’ Aboriginal people are less Aboriginal than ‘traditional’ or ‘transitional’ people is most offensive.
A real problem is the ‘real Aborigine’ syndrome – the idea that the ‘real’ Aboriginal people live in remote areas, and that only ‘traditional’ Aboriginal people and cultures are ‘really Aboriginal’.
‘Nation’ refers to a culturally distinct group of people from a culturally defined area of land, e.g. Ngarrindjeri Nation, Kaurna Nation. Note ‘nations’ is not supported by all (it’s more common for American Indians), they prefer to be identified by their language or country. ‘Mob’ may not be appropriate for non-Aboriginal people to use unless this term is known to be acceptable to Aboriginal people.|
‘Tribe’ is a European word that tends to impart western preconceptions developed from colonial experiences.
‘Horde’ is a more technical word used by anthropologists, but its common usage also has derogatory connotations.
The terms ‘band’, ‘clan’ and ‘moiety’ are usually used by anthropologists and are less practical for teaching.
While ‘traditional owners’ (often abbreviated as ‘TO’) emphasises the connection to land, ‘traditional custodians’ expresses better the concept that Aboriginal people don’t own the land, but it owns them. Consider using ‘Sovereign people’, as ‘owner’ is a Western concept.
Senior lore person
Aboriginal people did not, and do not have chiefs, kings or queens. These were colonial labels used to raise up individuals for the authorities to deal with and to simplify the complex Aboriginal societal structures. These labels usually included an element of mockery.|
‘Elders’ are men and women that Aboriginal communities respect for their wisdom and knowledge of culture, particularly lore. Male and female Elders, who have higher levels of knowledge, maintain social order according to traditional lore. You can also use ‘senior lore person’ or ‘senior dance person’ to be more specific about their area of expertise. Check with the community if this is appropriate.
The word ‘Elders’ should be written with a capital letter as a mark of respect.
[use their job title]|
Leader of the… group
|When you use ‘Aboriginal leader’ it reinforces a false homogenous view of Aboriginal people. Check with the particular Aboriginal group or collective who their elected leader or speaker is, and if it’s a ‘speaker’ identify them as such. Don’t determine ‘Aboriginal leaders’ on their behalf. Best to use the person’s job title, better yet, ask them how they would like to be described.|
Nomadic, nomads, nomadism|
Looking after the country/the land
Nomadism has been associated with lack of belonging to the land and the myth that Aboriginal people didn’t have permanent structures. The extension of the doctrine of terra nullius was based on this kind of distinction. The preferred suggestions imply intimate knowledge of, caring for, and belonging to, the land. They also express that such seasonal movements are purposeful, rather than random.|
‘Walkabout’ is a derogative term, used when someone doesn’t turn up or is late.
Complex and diverse societies
Efficient resource managers
Aboriginal Australian society
|Previous terms are offensive because they imply Aboriginal societies are not as ‘advanced’ as European societies. The terms are based on the ‘progress’ model of history which many people now question, and on the idea of evolution from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ (Western) forms of social organisation. The better terms recognise how effective and sophisticated Aboriginal resource management and social organisation can be. |
|Instead of this…||…use this…||because|
|‘The Dreaming’ or ‘The Dreamings’ are mostly more appropriate as they describe Aboriginal beliefs as ongoing today. Many people use ‘Dreamtime’ inappropriately to refer to the period of creation. However, sometimes the use of ‘Dreamtime’ is appropriate if it includes the present time.|
|The word ‘religion’ tends to refer mainly to western religions. Note, however, that many Aboriginal people are religious in terms of mainstream religions, and often combine these beliefs with Aboriginal spirituality.|
Teachings from the Dreaming/s
Legends (Torres Strait Islander people only)
Words such as ‘myth’, ‘mythology’ or ‘story’ convey the impression that information from the Dreaming is not true or is trivial, only happened in the distant past, or are fairy tales rather than creation stories. But for Aboriginal people they are true and express “deep and meaningful stories of their ancestors and their ancestral spirits”. Dreaming stories inform about law, family relationships, relationships to the land and sea, food gathering etc.|
You can use ‘Songlines’ “because [a creation story] comes in song and dance and ceremony and speech and togetherness and Spirit and with oneness”. 
It is appropriate to use ‘The Legends’ when referring to Torres Strait Islander culture. ‘Creation Stories’ or ‘Dreaming Stories’ convey more respect for Aboriginal Australian people’s beliefs. Capitalising these terms conveys more respect.
the local language word
‘Corroboree’ is a colloquial term that belongs to the Botany Bay dialect ‘Korabra’ and has been generalised to explain all Aboriginal ceremonies. Some Aboriginal people use this term and such usage needs to be respected.|
“Ceremony” and “celebration” are useful general terms to use in the context of the classroom.
When possible, use the local language group’s word, for example, the Pitjantjatjara word is Inma, the Kaurna word is Palti, the Ngarrindjeri word is Ngikawallin, the Narrunga word is Gurribunguroo, the Yolngu word is Bungul, the Western Arrarnta word for women’s ceremony is Nthapa, and the Eastern Arrernte word for men’s ceremony is Urnteme.
the local language word
|Aboriginal lore describes the knowledge and practices that are as important to an Aboriginal community as Western laws are to New Australians. Lores vary from group to group, just as laws vary between countries. Use “law” to refer to Australian law and avoid “traditional law” to avoid confusion between the “law” and “lore”. |
|Instead of this…||…use this…||because|
Aboriginal (Australian) history|
Pre and post contact
‘Pre-history’ is a term used by some archaeologists and historians and originally denoted the time period before European history was recorded in writing.
The term suggests that Aboriginal people did not have a history before European invasion, because it is not written and recorded.|
It also denies a place for Aboriginal people in history. This is still reflected in those schools today which begin a study of Australian history in 1770 or 1788. Using the term ‘invasion’ recognises what happened when Captain Cook arrived in Australia, rather than the romanticised notion of ‘discovery’ or ‘(peaceful) settlement’.
|Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for 40,000 years…||
Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s…|
Since the beginning of time…
40,000 years (or any other number) puts a limit on the occupation of Australia and thus tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions. Many Aboriginal people see this sort of measurement and quantifying as inappropriate.|
‘Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s’ reflects the beliefs of many Aboriginal people that they have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time.
|Captain Cook discovered Australia||Captain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of ‘New Holland’||Aboriginal people lived in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived; hence it was impossible for Cook to ‘discover’ Australia. Most Aboriginal people find the use of the word ‘discovery’ offensive.|
‘Settlement’ has a peaceful implication and ignores the reality of Aboriginal frontier wars, massacres and Aboriginal peoples’ lands being stolen from them.|
From an Aboriginal perspective, Australia was was invaded, occupied and colonised. Aboriginal peoples’ lands were stolen from them, and countless died in the many wars they fought against the invaders. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a ‘settlement’ is a UK-centric, rather than an Australian, point of view.
Using ‘skirmish’ or related terms hides the fact that many incidents where Aboriginal people died were extremely violent and included men, women and children.
Use ‘massacre’ if an act resulted in the killing of “a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition) and where “6 or more people died” (Part of University of Newcastle’s Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872 project’s definition of a ‘massacre’).
Councils have started to recognise the term ‘massacre’ as appropriate for memorial inscriptions. 
|[insert explorers’ names] were the first men to [cross/reach/find]…||[insert explorers’ names] were the first European men to [cross/reach/find]…||Aboriginal men, women and children had crossed/reached/found Australia’s landmarks for thousands of years before European explorers.|
Cannot be found
|‘Walkabout’ for many Aboriginal people is a contentious word and considered an archaic colonial term. Its use by non-Aboriginal people is considered inappropriate. Groups such as Reconciliation Queensland Inc advise against its use when discussing Aboriginal culture. |
Examples for inclusive writing
|Instead of writing this…||…write this|
|The Government’s new strategy will support increased business with Aboriginals.||The Government’s new strategy will support increased business with Aboriginal people.|
|Most Australians continue to see Aboriginal people…||Most non-Aboriginal Australians continue to see Aboriginal people…|
|Ambiguous use of ‘people’ and ‘peoples’||At the time of European invasion, there were approximately 600 Aboriginal peoples.|
( ‘Peoples’ is used to describe the groups of Aboriginal people, each with their own language, cultural practices and beliefs.)
At the time of European invasion, there were between 300,000 and 1 million Aboriginal people living in Australia.
(‘People’ refers to more than one person.)
|...involving them in policy making decisions…||...involving members of the Aboriginal community in policy making decisions…|
|If you people need…||If the Aboriginal community needs…|
|First settlers in Australia…||First Europeans in Australia…|
Offensive terms not to be used anytime
- 25%, 50% Aboriginal
- Jacki Jacki
- Mixed blood
- Stone Age
- Them people
- Those folk
- Those people
- You people
See also: “Using the right words: appropriate terminology for Indigenous Australian studies”, in: Teaching the Teachers: Indigenous Australian Studies for Primary Pre-Service Teacher Education, School of Teacher Education, University of New South Wales, 1996.
Australians Together has published a guide (PDF) specifically targeting the corporate world.
A look across the borders
Appropriate terminology is not just an issue in Australia. Watch First Nations man Bob Joseph of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., Canada, explain the right words to use and note the similarities:
I received the below text in an email. Using the above tables, find the inappropriate terms used. Rewrite the sentence into an appropriate form.
“Why not write how they are using the full blood aboriginal tribal elders to steal customs instead of writing in support of half castes that you refer to. these people with the government are controlling aboriginal rights.”