What is the respectful way to refer to Aboriginal people? This is one of the questions I hear most often among people who support Aboriginal rights and causes. It is a simple thing. It’s a couple of words at most. But these few words have so much power. They have the power to bring people together or separate them. They have the power to share similarities or highlight differences. The worst thing I’ve seen is it sparks fear in people to the point that they don’t engage and they stay silent. Silent on the topics and causes that need support from the wider community. Fear of offense can be the difference between creating an inclusive world or maintaining the status quo.
So, what is the right term to use? Is it Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous, or the language/clan group name?
The truth is, it’s all the above.
Before you can be a true ally of Aboriginal people, you must first understand that, we are individuals. Yes, we belong to a larger group of people but we are individuals in that group. We have individual thoughts, ideas, experiences, beliefs, emotions, and more that contribute to the way we identify.
We don’t all identify the same way and it’s unreasonable to expect approximately 700,000 individuals to do so.
For example, I identify as Warrwa/Noongar, Aboriginal or First Nations Person. The way I identify myself depends on who I am communicating with. My focus is to make sure the people I am speaking to can understand a bit about what that identifier means. Most Australians will understand the word Aboriginal. Less will understand what it means to be First Nations. And Much less will understand what Warrwa/Noongar means.
Starting at the most broadly understood word means I can take that person on a learning journey with me. It opens a space to then talk about the term First Nations People. It may also present an opportunity for me to talk about what it means to identify as Warrwa/Noongar.
I know many of you reading this may our allies. I understand it can difficult to navigate respectful support. It can feel like a fine line between openly show your support and fear of offending.
I wish I could make this easier but honestly, it’s complex. There are some members of mob that only identify with their language group. Some people only identify as Aboriginal. Some people that only Identify as First Nations, and some that identify as all.
I bit of advice I can offer you is to get to know the caretakers, the custodians of the land you are on, and ask them what words they use. Talk to the Elders and ask them what they use.
If using language to indicate all Aboriginal people, the most widely accepted term is Aboriginal. With First Nation People building popularity within the Aboriginal community.
You may upset some people and that’s not a pleasant thing. You see, many of our people prefer not to be identified with an English word. They prefer an identifier from their language and culture. Unfortunately, as it stands, we do not have a word that means all custodians of all the countries of Australia….yet.
I encourage you to also be mindful that you’re not communicating in a way that’s received as speaking on behalf or for Aboriginal people. We are very capable of speaking for ourselves. Understanding the difference between speaking on behalf of, and supporting is a crucial factor.
The main point I want to get across here is to show support without fear, do it in the spirit of love and unity. To understand that not all people will identify in the same way and that’s ok. To be open to having those discussions. And to start building strong, genuine relationships with Aboriginal people.
If you have found this helpful, please let me know.
If you’re interested in learning more about inclusive language, I am offering a 5-day Free Introduction to Culturally Inclusive Language course. In it I’ll host live 15-20min training daily for 5 days (starts 25th May 2020). If you’d like more information or want to sign up, you can do so here