Using the correct terminology – Teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives

(An abridged extract from Yarning Strong Professional Support Years 3-4)

Language and individual words gain their meaning from a particular context or the perspective of the observer. Within the Australian historical context, some terms used to describe past events are value-laden and need to be understood in context. For example, terms such as ‘discovery’, ‘pioneers’ and ‘explorers’ reflect a non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective. This point of view ignores the fact that after more than 40,000 years of occupation of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had already discovered, explored and named all parts of the continent.

The below table is not definitive, but provides a general overview of preferred terminology to help teachers familiarise themselves with appropriate terminology.

Preferred term Inappropriate terms (not to be used) Explanation/notes for teachers
Aboriginal people


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

atsi people


full-blood; half-caste; quarter-caste; octoroon; mulatto


Racist terms such as abos, blacks, blackfellas, boons, coons, darkies, and so on

‘Aboriginal people’ or ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’, while generic terms, are still preferred to the listed inappropriate and racist terms. Historical documents may include inappropriate terms listed here, however, such documents are based on historical attitudes. For example, the classification of Aboriginal people by past government agencies according to skin colour and/or ancestry was based on racist doctrines of the 19th Century. This identity was imposed on Aboriginal people to enable greater government control.

In many communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will use local terms to describe themselves, for example Koorie in Victoria.


Aborigine As above Generally, this term should not be used as it is an anthropological term that has negative connotations and may cause offence to Aboriginal people. Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may use ‘Aborigine’ when referring to themselves, it is inappropriate for a non-Indigenous person to use it.
Torres Strait Islander people As above The preferred term is generic; local names may exist for Torres Strait Islander collective groups. Many Torres Strait Islander people refer to their island of origin (for example, Mer, Saibai and Badu). Occasionally, reference is made to the location of a group of islands (for example, Western, Eastern and Central Islands).
Language group/nation As above There exists a range of local/regional names for particular Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander collective groups. It is important for schools to consult with their communities to identify local preferences. Regional terms such as ‘clans’ may be in use; Indigenous people may also refer to themselves as a ‘tribe’ or ‘mob’. But it may not be appropriate for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to use these terms.
Aboriginal aboriginal Use of upper case/ an initial capital reflects respect for Aboriginal cultures and people. This punctuation also applies to Aboriginal language or clan group names (for example, Arrernte, Wiradjuri, Goreng Goreng and Yolngu).
non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander


non-Torres Strait Islander





When comparing Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander groups with other Australian groups, the preferred terminology is ‘non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’, ‘non-Aboriginal’, ‘non-Torres Strait Islander’ or ‘non-Indigenous’.

Although used in many historical records, the term ‘European’ does not reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community.

The terms ‘Black(s)’ and ‘White(s)’ should be avoided in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies activities; such language classifies people solely on their skin colour and could be perceived as racist.

the Dreaming Aboriginal religion


The Dreaming is a complex concept that embraces all aspects of Aboriginal cultures and societies. While the Dreaming is seen as Aboriginal spirituality, the more appropriate and complete definition is ‘the essence of being Aboriginal’.

Defining the Dreaming as ‘Aboriginal religion’ is an attempt to place it in a non-Aboriginal or Westernised framework. This does not capture the holistic sense of the word.

The term ‘Dreamtime’ appears regularly in a range of contexts; however, it also is a non-Aboriginal, anthropological term that diminishes the significance of the Dreaming. ‘Dreamtime’ also conjures up the belief that the creation stories and spiritual beliefs are merely myths or fairy tales.

Augadth/Zogo Time Torres Strait Islander religion


Augadth/Zogo Time refers to all that is known and understood by Torres Strait Islander people about the origins of the environment, themselves and their culture. Essentially it represents the creation history of the Torres Strait Islander people.

Augadth/Zogo Time is a complex concept; it impacts upon Torres Strait Islander values and beliefs, and their relationship with every living creature and feature of the land, sea and air. In relations to Augadth/Zogo Time, teachers are strongly urged to consult with respected Torres Strait Islander community members.


before time/bipotaim

pre-history The term ‘pre-history’ disregards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history prior to recorded/written history. ‘Pre-history’ may also suggest that Australia did not have a history before 1788, and minimise the richness and diversity of the oldest, continuous culture in the world.

‘Pre-contact’ recognises the point in time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people first came into contact with non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

‘Before time/bipotaim’ is used in the Torres Strait Islands to describe the time period of Torres Strait Islander settlement.

invasion settlement


From the perspective of Aboriginal people, Australia was not settled peacefully but invaded. The term ‘invasion’ acknowledges not only Aboriginal occupation but also the resistance shown by Aboriginal groups in defending their traditional lands.
intrusion settlement


Within Torres Strait Islander settings, the term ‘intrusion’ is also used to describe sporadic contact with non-Torres Strait Islander people in the period 1606-1788.
Mer, Ugar, Erub, Saibai, Badu, Mabuiag, Poruma, Warraber, and so on Avoid non-Torres Strait Islander/anglicised names that are rarely used by Torres Strait Islander people, such as Talbot, Musgrave, Cornwallis, and so on When referring to individual Torres Strait Islands, use the traditional names established before Torres mapped the region in 1608.

Torres and later navigators gave these islands anglicised names. In line with the move towards autonomy, Torres Strait Islander people have replaced the anglicised names with traditional names, or use dual names.


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