+61 2 4940 9100
L1/9 Main Road Boolaroo

Aboriginal-Related Terminology

Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is someone who:

  • is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent,
  • identifies himself or herself as an Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander, and
  • is accepted as such by the Indigenous community in which he or she lives.

Each requirement must be satisfied. It rejects the purely racial classification of the past and includes contemporary social and cultural factors. The term Aboriginal people is more appropriate than Aborigines; part Aboriginal or half-caste are offensive terms.

Aboriginality includes a combination of cultural heritage, spirituality and an intrinsic link with the land.

A 19th century idea that Aboriginal people should be 'improved' by being 'civilised' and Christianised. From the 1930s assimilation was government policy.

A process by which a different system of government is established by one nation over another group of peoples. It involves the colonial power asserting and enforcing its sovereignty, or right to govern according to its own laws, rather than by the laws of the colonised.

Important elements of a community are country, family ties and shared experience. Community is about interrelatedness and belonging, and is central to Aboriginality. Aboriginal people may belong to more than one community. The use of community/communities in the syllabus indicates that any one community may in fact consist of several communities.

Community-based fieldwork
Field visits to Aboriginal communities or organisations to further develop understanding and knowledge of culture and history of Aboriginal peoples.

Within the timeframe from the 1960s to the present.

Country is a term not just referring to meaning the area of land, river and sea that is the traditional land of each Aboriginal language group or community. Country includes all living things - people, plants and animals. It also refers to stories and creation spirits. Country is both where an Aboriginal person’s ancestry comes from pre-colonisation. It is also a way of living.

Criminal justice system
The people, processes, institutions and laws associated with the defining, monitoring and enforcement of rules.

Cultural genocide
An attempt to destroy all or part of the culture of a people which is the basis of group identity.

Cultural heritage
The continuity, from one generation to another, of a group culture, values and attitudes, including knowledge, language, arts, rituals, performances, sites and objects.

The accepted and traditionally patterned ways of behaving and a set of common understandings shared by the members of a group or community. Includes land, language, ways of living and working, artistic expression, relationship and identity.

Customary law
Laws based on traditions and customs.

Unfair treatment on the basis of perceived differences between people.

The forced movement of an individual, family or community from one area to another. This often occurred after people have been dispossessed of their land. See dispossession.

People being taken away or forced from their land, their economic base, their way of life and cultures. Dispossession was experienced by many Aboriginal peoples.

The Dreaming has different meanings for different Aboriginal groups. The Dreaming can be seen as the embodiment of Aboriginal creation which gives meaning to everything; the essence of Aboriginal beliefs about creation and spiritual and physical existence. It establishes the rules governing relationships between the people, the land and all things for Aboriginal peoples. The Dreaming is linked to the past, the present and the future. Where appropriate refer to Aboriginal names for the Dreaming.

Elders are custodians of knowledge. They are chosen and accepted by their own communities and are highly respected.

The uses of one's culture as the ideal standard against which all other cultures are judged and (usually) negatively compared.

Global perspective
A national and international perspective on issues concerning human rights and social justice of all Indigenous peoples. This perspective will include responses and initiatives of international human rights organisations as well as national Indigenous Australian communities and international Indigenous communities.

Human rights
Human rights are those possessed by individuals. They are universal (possessed by all human beings) and are inalienable (they cannot be overridden by the public interest).

Indigenous peoples
This term is used when referring collectively to the first peoples of the land in international communities. The term Indigenous Australian will be used when speaking about both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands peoples within Australia. The word Aboriginal is preferred by the NSW AECG Inc. when referring to Aboriginal people within NSW.



The act of forcibly taking over the land.

A key aspect of Aboriginal cultures and values. It includes the importance of all relationships, and of being related to and belonging to the land.

The term 'Land' is used by Aboriginal people to describe their ecosystems - a sum total of spiritual beliefs, including Dreamings, all living things including totems, all physical factors - such as sacred sites, water, air and geographical features.

Land rights
The evolving struggle of Aboriginal and other Indigenous people for the absolute legal and moral acknowledgement of prior ownership of their land and recognition of all accompanying rights and obligations which flow from this association. Land Rights (capitalised) refers to the legislation.

Language group
Language is linked to particular geographical areas. The term 'language group' is often used in preference to the term 'tribe'.

The learning and transmission of cultural heritage.

Living areas established by the Aboriginal Welfare Board and ruled under the provisions of the Aboriginal Protection Act.

A term that some Aboriginal people use to identify their people or communities. It is not generally acceptable for non-Aboriginal people to automatically use this term.

Native title
Form of land title which recognises Aboriginal people as rightful owners of the land. Native Title (capitalised) refers to the legislation, whereas native title (lower case) refers to the concept.

Discrimination on the basis of perceived racial differences. Racism takes on many forms: attitudinal, institutional and cultural.

A Commonwealth initiative to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider community and to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage, with the target date of 2001. A capitalised 'Reconciliation' is used to refer specifically to the process as it applies to the Indigenous peoples and wider community in Australia.

Areas of land reserved by the Crown for Aboriginal people, established in the 19th century.

One of the responses of Aboriginal people to invasion, including physical and/or political resistance.

Self-determination involves the effective participation of Aboriginal peoples in all decision-making that affects them.

Shared history
Recognises that Australia's history began long before 1788 and that, since then, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians have had diverse historical experiences and have occupied the same country. The term 'Australian history' is inclusive of the histories of all Australians

Social justice
A principle that favours measures aimed at addressing inequities. It includes the rights of people to economic and social independence, and empowerment to determine the direction of their own lives futures. The processes and systems which shape the interaction between people, communities and governments determine the degree of social justice achieved.

The legal recognition of ownership of land and territory. Implicit in the concept is the right of self-government. Indigenous peoples have never ceded their sovereignty over Australia.

Living areas established by governments for Aboriginal people on which managers and matrons controlled (and 'cared for') those Aboriginal people.

That part of culture which assists people to interact with their environment. It includes knowledge, social organisation, systems, techniques, processes and products.

Terra nullius
A concept in international law meaning 'a territory belonging to no-one' or 'over which no-one claims ownership'. The concept has been used to justify the invasion and colonisation of Australia.

Torres Strait Islanders
See definition of Aboriginal. They are the indigenous group of the Torres Strait Islands north of Queensland.

A term widely used to refer to pre-invasion Aboriginal life, culture and social organisation. The term 'traditional' must be used with care as individuals and groups may find this term offensive.

An anthropological classification of Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples who share a common purpose, language and culture. The term 'tribe' must be used with care as individuals and groups may find this term offensive. See definition of language groups.