Young Aboriginal dancers perform at the Yaegl Native Title hearing on August 31, 2017.
Young Aboriginal dancers perform at the Yaegl Native Title hearing on August 31, 2017. Clair Morton

Names a part of our identity

WHAT'S in a name? Quite a lot really - as it is a significant part of our identity, whether it be our individual identity or our collective identity.

Aboriginal, Indigenous, First Nations, First Peoples and First Australians. Are you confused about the terminology in relation to the people who were in Australia first? If so, you're not alone.

You have probably heard all the above terms, as well as others not listed. But what is the correct term to use? It can get a little tricky, even for Aboriginal people.

I remember once addressing a group of elders and using the term Indigenous only to be quite firmly advised that "we don't refer to ourselves as Indigenous". I quickly used another term which was more acceptable to the group.

Aboriginal is the most common term to describe the people who were in Australia first. You will note throughout this article that it is the term I personally tend to use.

Before we delve further into various terminology, I think it's wise to examine the meaning of the two main terms Aboriginal and Indigenous. The Oxford dictionary defines "aboriginal" as an adjective meaning "inhabiting or existing in a land from the earliest times or from before the arrival of colonists" while "indigenous" means "originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native".

The issue that many Aboriginal people have with the term "indigenous" is that based on the above definition it can be interpreted to mean that any person born in Australia is indigenous (to Australia). Therefore, based on this definition the word indigenous doesn't correctly identify or describe the descendants of the original Australians.

There are also many people who have issues with the word Aboriginal for various reasons.

To complicate matters further, there are other countries that call their first inhabitants Aboriginal and Indigenous for example Canada.

(Canada also uses the term First Nations).

What about the term ATSI? This is an acronym for "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders" and is not generally used by the Australian public or many Aboriginal people themselves.

It's mainly a term used by government departments (who can be fond of their acronyms).

Then there are the names that Aboriginal people used to describe themselves.

You may have heard some of these terms, such as Goorie, which is used on the North Coast of NSW (including the Clarence Valley), "Koorie" which is used mainly in southern NSW and Victoria and "Murrie" which is used in Queensland and north-west NSW.

Aboriginal people may also identify themselves by what nation or clan that they are from. For example, someone may identify themselves as a "Bundjalung person".

So again, when talking to Aboriginal people what is the correct term to use?

Well, any and all of the above terms can be correct or incorrect depending on the situation and the individuals involved. If you're not sure, the best way to determine the correct term to use, when talking to an Aboriginal person, is to simply ask them what term they prefer.

Just a word of caution - it's never OK to abbreviate the term Aboriginal or Indigenous as this can be seen as derogatory or even racist.

Giinagay Jinggiwahla ("hello" in our First Nation's languages) is a weekly column written by the indigenous communities of the Clarence Valley covering a variety of topics, opinions and events across our First Nations areas Bundjalung, Yaegl and Gumbaynggirr.



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