SYDNEY - I run a media, training and consultancy company called IndigenousX. It is 100% Indigenous owned and staffed.
We work on local, regional, national, and international projects; we run training workshops on anti-racism, digital strategies, and media training.
We also run school incursion programs on Indigenous science.
We get to do some really amazing and important work but wherever we go, regardless of the scope of work, some non-Indigenous person will invariably ask something along the lines of, “What is the most appropriate term to refer to Indigenous people in Australia?”
I get asked about it so often that it is usually our first interactive session when we do our anti-racism workshops and our communications workshops.
People who ask this question are usually hoping for a checklist of dos and don’ts, or better yet a one or two word answer but the best I can do in that short a word count is, “It’s complicated”.
It is important to point out that most peoples have a name that is derived from place – Spanish people are from Spain and English people are from England.
Aboriginal people, however, do not come from Aboriginalia.
We were not given a name derived from place, and our own names for ourselves and for our places were largely ignored.
We were given not a name as such, but rather a classification - ‘aboriginal’, ‘natives’, ‘indigenous’ - much in the same way as flora and fauna are.
It always amazes me to think there was a very real chance in those early days that Aboriginal people today could well be known as 'Cookians', in much the same way as people were once called ‘Rhodesians’ after super racist Cecil Rhodes.
Or how Torres Strait Islander people today are named after some guy named Torres who I am guessing sailed a boat near them once.
It’s also worth noting that lots of people we think have a name derived from place in fact have a name derived from the name white people gave the place, rather than their actual names.
Colonisation is nothing if not convoluted, and mostly racist.
We couldn’t have had a single collective name for all the Indigenous peoples who occupy the continent and surrounding islands that white people decided to call ‘Australia’.
No language group ever had such a term, let alone a term that we all could have shared across languages.
Nor did we have a pan-Indigenous identity that would necessitate such a name in the first place.
It is in this context that the search for ‘appropriate terminology’ only exists for two distinct reasons.
First, as a convenience for non-Indigenous people so they don’t need to learn about all the different nation groups that exist; and second for Indigenous peoples ourselves to unite behind a common struggle.
As for the latter, because I do not care about the former, different groups over time began to organise and to advocate on such terms.
In doing so they shifted from terms of classification (natives, aborigines, indigenes, blacks etc) to proper nouns and proper adjectives, that is to say, people started to demand their capital letters the same as everyone else had.
They took their classifications and made them names – proper nouns and proper adjectives.
The power in doing this is not insignificant. Its purpose was to take us from a thing to be labelled, an object to be studied, to a group of people with agency and with rights.
Different names took off to different degrees of success in different areas, with some people rejecting any such labels in favour of their own original names.
There are no more powerful examples of this than when Rosalie Kunoth-Monks appeared on the ABC program Q&A and declared, “I am not an Aboriginal or, indeed, Indigenous. I am an Arrernte, Alyawarre, First Nations person, a sovereign person from this country.”
And, as language does, these capitalised terms have changed and adapted over time.:
Native has dropped out of use, capitalised or not.
Blood quotient and percentage based terminology has largely been rejected, much like the eugenics based policies that spawned it.
Aborigines has largely disappeared in favour of Aboriginal people/s (except for a few older people who haven’t kept up with the times and a few racist commentators trying to make the point that *checks notes* they are cartoonishly racist).
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people/s has hung around but not without conflict – having to maintain itself against government attempts to shorthand it to ‘ATSI’, first in writing and then vocally.
At this point a lot of people pushed back that this was no longer acceptable usage within government agencies or institutions.
Indigenous people/s became popular in the 1990s, introduced by some Indigenous academics as an attempt to align with global Indigenous communities in time for 1993, the first Year of the World’s Indigenous peoples.
A lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples didn’t like this though because they felt it was being pushed by government forces which were early adopters of the term.
I suspect they were grateful for an opportunity to move from 45 characters (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples) to 18 characters (Indigenous peoples) without being criticised in the way they were over the whole ATSI debacle.
Black/black/Blak/Blackfullas. Commonly used by mob but generally avoided by white institutions and media, which is probably a good thing.
First Nations has become popular in recent years, a term borrowed from North America, and one which I myself am slowly becoming more comfortable with on the basis that if that’s what the next generation want to do then who am I to get in their way?
First Australians can be found in various government style guides but if I was to go out on a limb I would imagine that was because they saw First Nations gaining popularity and, when someone brought it up in their annual style guide meeting, they were shut down.
Why? Because to use that term would challenge the perceived sovereignty of Australia.
And so a ‘compromise’ term was put forward instead – First Australians. Personally, I am not a fan of this one.
We are actually the last people who were allowed to have citizenship status which would make us more accurately the Last Australians.
There are other terms, too, and a lot of these will stay or go depending on how the next generation of Indigenous people see them.
In part this will be influenced by how badly white people try to ruin them for everyone, which is a big part of the reason why ‘Aborigine’ faded away and why I worry about any of the ones that start with ‘First’.
There are further complications to these terms, too, like if you want to add ‘Australian’ on the end of them.
I am much more comfortable being referred to as an Aboriginal person than I am as an Aboriginal Australian.
Much like the government style guide team, my hesitation has to do with the validity of Australia’s alleged legitimacy as a sovereign nation.
And everything I have discussed is further complicated by the nature of collective Indigenous consensus, which currently has no support for any form of mechanism to bring elevated representatives together to discuss and debate such matters.
As such, these conversations play out thousands of times online and in real life as people discuss, debate and share their own preferences and their reasons for them.
As for individual preferences, lots of Indigenous people have their own preferences shaped by their upbringing, their philosophy, their community and countless other factors.
So saying, ‘but I know someone who…’ is a poor excuse for most things in life, and especially when arguing against a different individual who is asking you not to call them something they don’t like to be called.
This is trickier for corporations that can’t hope to tailor their language to suit individual preferences.
So what becomes important for them is to be able to say they have shown some effort to engage with Indigenous staff and community within their organisation and taken thought in choosing whatever terminology they decide to go with.
I might not always like the answer they end up with but if they can demonstrate an appropriate and respectful process then I have to respect that.
Similarly, white people have no consensus on how they should be called, or whether or not white should be capitalised.
They rarely have to consider this point though because of the nature of settler-colonialism.
They simply get to take a name derived from place, even if that place is not theirs, hence so many white people who don’t feel a need to have an adjective qualifying their Australian-ness, or any other qualifying characteristics of their race or their status, get to just be ‘Australian’.
Nobody asks them, ‘But where do you really come from?’, or tells them to go back to where they came from, or tries to force them to assimilate to the laws of the land (unless doing so ironically to make a point akin to the one I am making now).
It is for everyone else to reflect on the labels white people give us and fight to assert our own identities outside the boxes they try to put us in – ethnic, indigenous, multicultural, diverse, migrant, etc.
It is for everyone else to fight for our terminologies, for our capital letters, for our right to belong unchallenged and unquestioned, for our right to determine for ourselves even something as simple as our own names.
Luke Pearson is a Gamilaraay man, who founded IndigenousX in 2012. He leads the IndigenousX team and oversees its operations. Luke’s passion for IndigenousX stems from his commitment to Indigenous self-determination, truth-telling and education