Note: the below is guidance on respectful use of language for people who are interested and does not represent any UNSW usage 'rules' or mandates.
The term ‘Indigenous Australians’ is often used to encompass both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples and has become common in various forms of communication. However, not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are comfortable with the term and some do not identify as an "Indigenous Australian". Therefore, it best to use this term if an individual identifies as such, or it is a part of an official title (such as Minister for Indigenous Australians). Moreover, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not like to be referred to as "Indigenous" as the term is considered too generic.
When used in Australia, the words Indigenous, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander are capitalised, as would be the name of any other group of people. It is best not to resort to the acronyms of ATSI or TSI.
Aboriginal people may refer to themselves as Koori, Murri or Nunga, which is relevant to the greater region they are connected to. Again, it is best used if an individual or group of peoples have identified as such and wish to be referred to in that way.
Aboriginal identities can also directly link to their language groups and traditional Country (a specific geographic location), for example, Gunditjamara people are the Traditional Owners of western Victoria, the Bedegal people of the Eora nation are from Sydney, and the Yawuru people are the traditional custodians of Broome in Western Australia.
Where possible, it is recommended that the Country be used, if it is known and the individual identifies as such. For example, Professor Megan Davis is a Cobble Cobble woman from the Barrgunam nation. It is recommended to ask an individual or group about the specific wording on how best to communicate their cultural and family connections to Country, as it can be diverse even within broad language groups and nations.
It should be noted, that not all Aboriginal people have knowledge of their traditional Country or language group. This is largely the result of policies and laws that forcibly removed and dislocated Aboriginal peoples from their traditional lands, culture, and people. The impact of such policies are described in the "Bringing them Home" report (1997).
Another way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples might describe themselves, which again relates to their Country (including the waters), is ‘saltwater people’ for those who live on the coast, or ‘freshwater’, ‘rainforest’, ‘desert’ or ‘spinifex’ for people who live in that ecological environment.
Torres Strait Islander peoples prefer to use the name of their home Island to identify themselves to outsiders, for example, a Saibai man or woman is from Saibai, or a Meriam person is from Mer. Many Torres Strait Islanders born and raised in mainland Australia still identify according to their Island homes.
First Nations people is also a term used to encompass Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which is growing in popularity. The term First Nations people recognises the diversity of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures and traditions - which represent the first nations of Australia, each with their own languages and law. In the Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017), delegates called for the "establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution".
Possessive terms, such as "our Indigenous peoples", is best avoided where possible, as it implies ownership.
At the international level, there is no official definition of ‘Indigenous peoples’ due to their diversity as peoples. According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, there are an estimated 370 million Indigenous peoples spread across 70 countries worldwide, each practising unique traditions, retaining social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.
Many Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs. Indigenous peoples possess invaluable traditional knowledge for the sustainable management of natural resources and have a special relationship to, and use of their traditional lands, waters or territories. Ancestral lands, waters and territories are of fundamental importance for their physical and cultural survival as peoples.
In Australia, Indigenous peoples are made up of two distinct cultural groups: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But there is great diversity within these two broadly described groups exemplified by the over 250 different language groups spread across the nation.
An accepted definition of an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person, proposed by the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1980s and still used by some Australian Government departments today is; a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.
This tri-fold definition of Aboriginality has been reaffirmed in several cases by the High Court of Australia, such as the recent Love and Thoms cases.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples also have their own laws and customs to determine the membership of their group.
According to the United Nations, the most fruitful approach is to identify rather than define Indigenous peoples. This is based on the fundamental criterion of self-identification as underlined in many human rights documents.