The use of language and language terms can be a ‘taken for granted’ practice in communicating to build relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Ways of communicating – how language is used and how it is imbued with value and meaning – show that power relationships are encoded in language. It is important to consider the ways in which historical practices of communicating with and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have contributed to prejudice and racism.
As an example of an historical practice, past government policies that sought to set Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples apart from non-Indigenous Australians used classificatory systems that named Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in particular ways and were based on now outdated ideologies of race. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples could be named as ‘full- blood’, ‘half-caste’ or ‘quarter caste’. Such terms ensured that the ‘ideal and valued’ person was non-Indigenous. Using such terms sent the message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that the ideal and valued social position could never be reached. Additionally, those classificatory systems set Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples apart from each other as being either more authentic in identity (‘full-blood’, ‘dark-skinned’, ‘traditional’ and ‘desert living’) or less than authentic (‘quarter-caste’, ‘light-skinned’, ‘without culture’ and ‘urban living’).
Such beliefs and the language used to express these beliefs ensured that the power of determining who was and who was not worthy was held by non-Indigenous people. The language used to keep these belief systems in place appeared natural and neutral; however Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples well understood the ideologies underpinning those beliefs and practices and the power of language to dominate, belittle and devalue.
The authors of this Language of Relationship Guide do not believe that those racist terms would be used today by the majority of non-Indigenous peoples; however, communication practices do continue that work to set Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples apart from the rest of the community. For example, the questioning of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person’s identity appears innocent. Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may take a different view of the type of question or statement being made. Those questions and statements can be seen to revert back to colonial practices where non-Indigenous people position themselves as having the power to know more, and to determine who is and who is not authentic.
In the university, correct language, terminology and naming are highly valued. Using appropriate and respectful language, terminology and naming in the building of relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples helps to activate reconciliation. The terms ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’ are not only acceptable ways of naming, but importantly, acknowledge that there is a difference between identifying as an Aboriginal person and as a Torres Strait Islander person. Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples have different languages and cultures. These terms, however, should never be reduced to the acronym ‘ATSI’ or ‘A&TSI’. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples find this insulting and it should not be used when speaking or writing.
While these ways of naming allow speaking across difference, it must be remembered that these terms were created within non-Indigenous terms of reference.
A Note on Terminology
For some members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the term ‘Indigenous’ is too generic, referring to Indigenous peoples all over the world. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples seek to be named in ways that do not erase the particular experiences of Australian colonial racism and violence which sought to dispossess Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from their lands. The term ‘Aboriginal’ may have been imposed, but many Aboriginal people use it because it means ‘original inhabitants’ . Similarly, while the term ‘First Nations’ is increasingly used on media and social media platforms, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people view it as a term derived from Canada and the Americas, used to refer specifically to Native American and Canadian Aboriginal peoples (see Bidjara/ Birri Gubba and Juru scholar, Honorary Professor Jackie Huggins’ acclaimed work, Sistergirl: Reflections on Tiddaism, Identity and Reconciliation, UQP 2022, p. 216.)
Both the term ‘Indigenous’ and the term ‘First Nations’ are contested.
It is best practice, where it is known and appropriate, to use the preferred ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identify, that is, in ways that reinforce their relation to Country or language group, for example, as Bundjalung, Nunukal, Arrente, or Wiradjuri people.
A number of universities offer terminology guides as part of reconciliation. We offer the following list of appropriate terminology to assist in the development of relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
|Appropriate to use
|Discriminatory, offensive or inappropriate to use
|Goori/ Goorie and Murri are terms used by Aboriginal people in Queensland when referring to themselves1
|Non-Indigenous people should not use these terms (unless invited to do so)
|Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (used as a collective name)
|ATSI to abbreviate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
|Aboriginal person or Aboriginal people
|Torres Strait Islander person or Torres Strait Islander people
|Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander person
|‘full-blood’, ‘half-caste’ or ‘quarter caste’ or other percentage measures
|Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Groups, Seasonal Occupation, Elders, Spirituality, The Dreaming, Dreaming Stories2
|Primitive, native, nomadic, chiefs, kings, queens, myths, legends, folklore, Dreamtime2
|Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived
|Captain Cook discovered Australia is a “damaging myth”3
|Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples “have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time, and came from the land.”2
|Pre-history, terminology that suggests that Australian history began after European invasion
|The arrival of Europeans in Australia was a violent invasion of occupied land.2
|Settlement, post colonisation, post colonial. These terms assume that colonisation has ended, and that Australia was peacefully “settled”. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, colonisation continues.
- University of Southern Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Protocols, (PDF, 818KB).
- University of New South Wales, Indigenous Terminology.
- Stan Grant: it is a damaging myth that Captain Cook discovered Australia, ABC News, 2017.
As the Australian historian and scholar Patrick Wolfe notes in his much-cited essay, ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’, colonial invasion is recognised by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples “as a structure, rather than an event” ( Journal of Genocide Research, December 2006, 8(4), p. 402). Colonisation is understood as a system that continues to impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.