Crikey



Indigenous, Aboriginal or Aborigine? It’s not black and white

Indigenous Australian, Aborigine, Aboriginal, blacks — unpicking the terminology around how Australia’s first people are reported in the media means navigating a minefield packed with political explosives.

After an article on controversial NT politician Bess Price last week, Crikey was chastised by readers for the use of the word “indigenous” and “aborigine”. One anonymous reader told us that “indigenous” and “aborigine” are both anachronisms. Martin Wardrop, director, Aboriginal Art Online, disagreed, telling Crikey: “Indigenous is not an anachronism — if anything, it is now more widely used than the longer phrase [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people].”

So as a white journalist who writes about indigenous issues semi-regularly (not that this just affects journalists — public servants, teachers and social workers all encounter terminology problems) what’s the best word/s to use?

Not indigenous it seems. That was deemed assimilation by semantics. Most of the Aboriginal groups Crikey spoke to encouraged usage of “Aboriginal” — or even better, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” — over any other name. Plus, it also depends where in the country you are (there are some clear state differences), the context and everyone’s personal opinion …

Indigenous

We don’t like that word indigenous, it was imposed upon us,” Gail Beck, regional development unit manager at West Australia’s South West Land and Sea Council, told Crikey.

Damien O’Keefe, a project officer at Reconciliation Victoria, also avoids it. “There are sensitives from the communities about ‘indigenous’ being a scientific term that colonials have employed to describe them as part of the flora and fauna,” he told Crikey. Although he admits sometimes indigenous can be used since “there’s a practicality you can’t repeat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander five times in a sentence.” He notes that Aboriginal players in the AFL are often grouped as “indigenous players”, which was widely accepted. “It’s a bit of tricky one,” said O’Keefe.

Indigenous is a catch-all term,” Anthony Seiver, a policy officer on Aboriginal affairs, told Crikey, as he noted the wider, global usage of “indigenous” to cover all indigenous people. ”It’s largely used by the Australian government to capture Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” he said. But it can have its place. “It’s probably appropriate for national broadsheets for instance, or national media outlets.”

“Internationally the word indigenous has a particular meaning to most people, however, locally some people associate the term with the Howard government’s attempt to mainstream services and policies in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and therefore do not like to use the word, preferring to refer to themselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” Khatija Thomas, the South Australian Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement, told Crikey.

It’s unpopular down south, too. “In Tasmania, for sure, a lot of people are very outspoken about not liking the word ‘indigenous’, especially ‘indigenous Australians’,” said Nala Mansell, state secretary of the Tasmania Aboriginal Centre. ”When people label us as ‘indigenous Australians’, it puts us in the same boat as other Australians. We’re Aboriginal, a separate group of people to Australian people.”

Aboriginal

It’s the term that experts Crikey spoke to identified with the most. ”We use the expression Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people,” O’Keefe told Crikey.

In NSW, the term is generally Aboriginal or Aboriginal person,” said Seiver. “In South Australia, the preferred term is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” said a spokesperson from the SA Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division.

In Tasmanian there was acceptance of both. “We say Aboriginal or Aborigine,” Mansell told Crikey, although Aboriginal appears more popular. Although sometimes people become geographically specific with “Aboriginal”. “Tasmanian Aboriginal people say ‘We’re Tasmanian Aboriginal’,” said Mansell.

Aborigine

Aborigine” is a noun, while “Aboriginal” is an adjective. Most deemed Aborigine outdated, although it has seen a recent resurgence. “We would rarely use ‘Aborigines’,” said O’Keefe. “We prefer “Aboriginal peoples”, recognising there are a lot of different peoples in the country, not all just one mob, there’s hundreds of different language groups and tribes.”

Aborigine is a bit more of an old-fashioned term,” added Seiver, comparing it to the old government term “Aboriginal person”, but he noted “Aborigine” ”has re-entered common usage”.

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Categories: Federal, People & Ideas

10 Responses

Comments page: 1 |
  1. Thanx for this, which I find most helpful. So its back to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander for me unless otherwise suggested. I presume most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dislike the acronym Atsi.

    by Gavin Moodie on Aug 15, 2012 at 2:42 pm

  2. What a horrid and devisive issue this has become, a true exercise in name-calling. You were so very right, Amber, to describe this subject as a minefield.

    Maybe we should just put this topic aside for another decade or two before we try to discuss it.

    by John Bennetts on Aug 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm

  3. F*ck me. In all this fraught area there was never a better illustration of people’s failure to focus on important things and get tangled up in useless minutiae instead. You due have to wonder how long before we start saying ‘autochthonous’ in an effort not to upset anyone.

    I remember (recently) a senior Aboriginal public servant being abused by his own community for calling himself Aboriginal. I am also mindful of the white seat on Limestone avenue celebrating the Australian Native Society which has nothing to do with Ngunnawal or plants

    Small point Amber but if you are using any of the above descriptors you need to capitalise it when describing people. Therefore ‘Aboriginal policemen’ as opposed to ‘indigenous issues’.

    by SBH on Aug 15, 2012 at 2:52 pm

  4. It’s impossible to topic on hold, John. Some of us don’t have a choice in the matter. As a whitefella (I guess I can use it to describe myself ;-) the subject fascinates me, rather than terrifies.

    I don’t know what’s so frightening about discussing the best words to use for the A & TSI folk. The first national folk I know aren’t into taking offense, as long as no malice is intended.

    by Down and Out of Sài Gòn on Aug 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm

  5. Until we have an agreed term I will continue to describe them as neighbours and fellow Australians.

    by Arty on Aug 15, 2012 at 4:25 pm

  6. It is important to be aware of the different meanings and interpretations of various terms. It is something of a minefield though. No matter how careful you are there is still a chance you may offend someone.

    One thing I would like to note is that one should never refer to a person as “part Aboriginal” even though some people self-identify using the term. When someone is asked the question “Are you and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person?” the answer is either yes or no.

    by David R on Aug 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm

  7. Good article, a pity about the malapropism in the fourth paragraph (Torres Straight).

    by jmendelssohn on Aug 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm

  8. @jmendelssohn oh damn, thank you, it has been updated.

    by Amber Jamieson on Aug 15, 2012 at 8:23 pm

  9. The mix-up of the singular and plural in ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ (twice in the story) seems a consequence of using what is essentially an adjectival form (‘Aboriginal’) as a noun. Pedantic perhaps but this has bugged me since seeing the expression embedded in a logo for a major government program a decade ago.

    by marcfranc on Aug 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm

  10. We’re Aboriginal, a separate group of people to Australian people.

    I don’t know how to take this statement in the context it was quoted … it undermines much of my
    personal belief system, and makes me feel like a total scumbag for not treating the Aboriginal people I have met and known as “different”, or simply seeing them as Australians (like myself)..

    by Kevin Tyerman on Aug 16, 2012 at 4:03 am

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