Aug 15, 2012

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.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

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 …


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“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”.

“Aborigine was a word created to pluralise us,” said Beck, who noted that a lot of people still use it, although she prefers “Aboriginal”.


At The Hobart Mercury, the word “blacks” often appears in headlines of stories about Aboriginal people.Down here, when we’re marching on the streets for land rights and the media says ‘blacks take to the streets for their rights’, that’s fine,” said Mansell. “If it’s used in a negative way, it’s offensive, when it’s used in a positive way, that’s fine.” The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre often writes “blacks” in its press releases.

Everyone else Crikey spoke to said that it depends on who is saying it, but that it was uncommon and unexpected to see it in the media or a public forum. Beck deemed it inappropriate: “We call ourselves that but to write that in the paper there you’re putting the colour there.”

It’s all about the context. “Depending on the audience, you might use the expression ‘blackfellas,’ which Aboriginal people use amongst themselves but you’d be very careful of using that in public because some people would it offensive for a whitefella to use that expression. Others wouldn’t,” said O’Keefe.

Seiver agreed: “Aboriginal people will sometimes describe as blackfella, but would not be appropriate for a white person to refer to a person as a blackfella. What matters is whether there’s malice attached to it. ‘Blacks’ in the local context is not necessarily a derogatory term, but in other circumstances it may well be.”

Local terms

Other local terms such as “Koori” (Aboriginal people from NSW and Victoria), “Murri” (from Queensland) and “Noongar” (from Western Australia) are also commonly used, but very geographically specific. Even more preferred than”Aboriginal” is for the usage of cultural block name where possible. Meaning, identifying that someone from near Melbourne is from the Kulin nation, and more specifically from the Wurundjeri People.

There’s also a push for other cultural identifying names. Beck says that “first nations” or “originals” (short for “original peoples”) is currently being mooted around on Facebook and among the media as a preferred group name for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


Leave a comment

13 thoughts on “Indigenous, Aboriginal or Aborigine? It’s not black and white

  1. Gavin Moodie

    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.

  2. John Bennetts

    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.

  3. SBH

    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’.

  4. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    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.

  5. Arty

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

  6. David R

    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.

    1. [email protected]

      Actually that is plain wrong. If a person is white, has 6/7 white great-grandparents, they ARE part-Aboriginal, by ancestry and just another regular Aussie mongrel, like most of the rest of us.

  7. jmendelssohn

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

  8. Amber Jamieson

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

  9. marcfranc

    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.

    1. Gail Artley

      Hi Mardfranc. I have the same issue, of the word ‘aboriginal’ which is an adjective, being used as a noun in ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’. The problem, as I see it, is that ‘islander’ can be used as an adjective and a noun. However, the correct noun for our first inhabitants, is ‘aborigine’ or ‘aborigines’. I’d love to get this sorted correctly. I know that I’m a pedant.

      1. Gavin Moodie

        Surely ‘Aboriginal person’ and therefore ‘Aboriginal Islander’ is grammatically correct.

        But in my view this misses the point. People should be called what they want to be called regardless of its conformity to grammatical norms.

  10. Kevin Tyerman

    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)..

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