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 …
“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.”
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” 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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