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How should we best describe Australia’s first inhabitants?

How should we best describe Australia’s first inhabitants?

By Luke Pearson.

Funnily enough, Aboriginal people didn’t originally use a word based in Latin to collectively refer to everyone in Australia any more than people living in the Torres Strait Islands would suddenly choose to collectively name themselves after some guy with the last name Torres, who did whatever it is he did, however long ago it is he was supposed to have done it. Neither did any group refer to all of the above groups collectively as ‘Indigenous’.

There are too many words that exist for me to even to attempt to list them all here, but to give a brief example of the names used by different groups in Australia, they include: Wiradjuri, Badu, Yorta Yorta, and Yindjibarndi. It has also become quite common to hear collective terms for larger areas that encompass several groups, such as Koori, Murri, and Noonga.

Traditionally, there would never have been a need to even consider a word that collectively described all the people who fall within the imaginary boundaries that constitute  Australia. Especially because this imaginary boundary did not exist until very recently. After all, Australia is only 110 years old.

The terms used to describe Indigenous Australians however are much older. Most of these terms were firmly in place long before Captain Cook ever stepped foot on Australian soil.  The choices he had on offer at the time included: native, savage, primitive, aborigine, and a whole lot more. It was also perfectly acceptable to the rest of the Western World for him to have used any word he cared to choose, as Western knowledge of Indigenous Australians at the time was almost non-existent. He would have been considered by many to have been perfectly within his right to have named us all ‘Cookians’ if he wanted to… and if that sounds silly to you, tell that to the ‘Torres Strait Islanders’, or the ‘Rhodesians’, or even the ‘Americans’, or at least those who know that they are named after some guy named ‘Amerigo’, who did whatever it is he did, however long ago he was supposed to have done it.

But like many other people around the world we didn’t get the logical label – the one derived from the label being given to the area of land we occupied, i.e ‘Australians’. We instead were given a label deemed to be more befitting of our ‘natural state’.

We were called ‘aboriginal’.

Many people believe this is still the term that Aboriginal people still choose for themselves. It is not.

To many Aboriginal people, the difference between ‘aboriginal’ and ‘Aboriginal’ is as vast as the difference between ‘turkey’ and ‘Turkey’… and in many instances, just as offensive.

Aboriginal (with a capital A) is probably still the most popular collective term used in Australia at the moment, but the term ‘indigenous’ has been gaining more and more popularity in recent years, especially on a public level through Government, various organisations and the media. There seems to be two camps though amongst those who use the term: ‘indigenous’ or ‘Indigenous’?

Some often ask, why did we need to change from ‘Aboriginal’ at all? This is a fair question and the answer is one that can be logically assumed, but it is harder to pinpoint exactly (at least from the perspective of this observer and commentator).

Aboriginal Australians were once called ‘aborigines’ and also ‘aboriginal people’. Over time many people came to identify with these labels and so demanded that they become capitalised. It seems fair to say that over the decades since this was achieved ‘Aboriginal’ has won out over ‘Aborigines’ and become a common preference amongst a majority of Aboriginal people. There are even those who now consider ‘Aborigine’ to be an out-dated and offensive term. Different individuals however, have their own preferences and reasons and explanations for these.

There were many who had already voiced the idea that ‘Aboriginal’ was not great to use as a collective term as it did not fully recognise and respect many Torres Strait Islander Peoples, who more often than not do not regard themselves as ‘Aboriginal’. This is why for many years it was most common to see the phrase ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’, and even the acronym ATSI (as in AIATSIS, and the now extinct, ATSIC).

The term Indigenous seems to have found its foothold because of the combination of Torres Strait Islander exclusion from the term ‘Aboriginal’, a general dislike of being referred to by an acronym (an ATSI person), academia’s love of being able to create new and improved ‘metalanguage’, and the fact that ‘Indigenous’ is accepted on the international scene. The UN speak often on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples around the world, and events like the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education have been around for a reasonably long time now.

So the term ‘Indigenous’ was a very attractive option for many people. It appeared to tick all the right boxes and address everyone’s key issues: Wiradjuri people were still Wiradjuri and Aboriginal people were still Aboriginal, but now both also fell under the broader category of ‘Indigenous’ which included not just all Aboriginal people but also Torres Strait Islanders. Moreover, it could also be used when appropriate to talk about our shared status with other people around the world who met the peculiar criteria that seem to classify a particular group as being ‘Indigenous’.

When a word becomes a proper noun, rules of grammar often come secondary to personal preference. Muhammad Ali is a prime example of how many people can callously refuse to acknowledge a change that goes against their personal views (for many years after officially changing his name Ali was still referred to by many in the media as ‘Cassius Clay’). This same attitude is believed by many Indigenous people to be at the heart of the media’s refusal to capitalise ‘indigenous’ when referring to Indigenous Australians. That it represents a belief that Indigenous people do not deserve respect or acknowledgement, that rather than being in the same category of Greek, Catholic or Australian, we are once again being referred to in the terminology of ‘flora and fauna’.

Whether it is a matter of grammar, of malice, or even one of ignorance is impossible for me to say, but I would suggest the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. What I am far more confident in saying about the media’s refusal to capitalise Indigenous (as well as their use of Aborigine/s) is that to many Indigenous people it is both a practical and symbolic example of a lack of cultural understanding, respect and a general lack of awareness and sensitivity when it comes to reporting on Indigenous issues. If media outlets are incapable of seeing linguistics in the same way that many linguists do (as a ‘descriptive’, rather than a ‘prescriptive’ process) and acknowledge that the role of Indigenous Australians is indeed significant enough to warrant capitalisation along with other groups of humans (like English people, Christians… or the Newcastle Knights), how on earth can we expect them to appropriately report on the complicated and multi-faceted issues which face many Indigenous communities? Semantics and choice of grammar or phrasing in writing reflect to the reader a sense of the author’s attitudes and values to a topic. This is one of the obvious problems when it comes to ‘reading between the lines’, it usually leaves itself open to interpretation and juxtaposition.

To give an example of how terms like aboriginal, Aboriginal, indigenous and Indigenous overlap and co-exist, according to my own personal understanding, Aboriginal Australians are in fact aboriginal, but we are not ‘aboriginal Australians’. The same is true for ‘indigenous’. Indigenous Australians are in fact indigenous, but we are not ‘indigenous Australians’. In the strictest dictionary context, I may be an aborigine but I do not personally identify as an Aborigine, I identify as an Aboriginal Australian. I have no objection to referring to myself or being referred to as an Aboriginal Australian or an Indigenous Australian, but I never refer to myself as an Aborigine.

To be referred to as an aborigine, aboriginal or indigenous Australian I believe to be disrespectful. This is especially true, when being mentioned as a part of a larger list – i.e “Dutch Australians, English Australians and indigenous Australians”.

I am Gamilaroi, which contemporaneously means I am Murri, I am an Aboriginal Australian, I am an Indigenous Australian, I am one of the world’s Indigenous people and I am an Australian.

It really isn’t that complicated.


Luke Pearson is a proud Aboriginal man living and working in NSW. He is a qualified teacher, researcher, social commentator, Cultural Awareness Trainer and frequently tweets as @LukeLPearson. He blogs at This is a crosspost with his own blog.

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One thought on “How should we best describe Australia’s first inhabitants?

  1. Alison

    Hi Luke, as someone who has worked as an editor in the public sector people always get confused about what the most sensitive descriptor is. I for years used the description Indigenous Australians or Koori peoples when I worked in Victoria, but a couple of years ago I moved to Tasmania and the Indigenous community here seem to prefer Aboriginal Australians. Very useful for you to outline that whatever term is used it's the capitalisation that's important and to check with the term the local community prefers. Alison

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