Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allies start with the basics; correct terminology.

national reconciliation week. Image of Summer Finlay

Dr Summer May Finlay


If you can’t get the simple things right, how can we trust you to get the big stuff right?

That has always been my attitude when it comes to using the correct terminology when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It should be simple. And yet for some reason for many non-Indigenous people, it is not.

Someone once quoted Shakespeare at me, when I pulled them up for not capitalising the first “I” in Indigenous, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. The implication is that it didn’t matter what they called us. This is absolute BS.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when talking to each other identify ourselves by our Nation. I am a Yorta Yorta woman. There are, of course, people who do not know their mob, and are usually referred to by themselves as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. If this is how we refer to ourselves, why do other people think it is appropriate to call us anything else?

Australia has a history since colonisation, of controlling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We were told where we could live through the mission system. On the missions, we had to ask permission to marry. We also had to seek permission to travel from the Mission Manager. We were not trusted to make our own decisions. In a modern-day context, we are told how we can spend our money through the Basics and Cashless Welfare cards. Or when researchers decide they don’t need Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in positions of power such as investigators in research that impacts us.  These and many more examples demonstrate a pattern of controlling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people down to how we are even referred. All of them based on the premise that someone else knows better than we do. Otherwise known as racism.

Referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people appropriately demonstrates an understanding of the history and basic respect. Not doing so is absolutely the opposite.

So, what is appropriate? Well first and foremost if you are working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it is best to ask them. If you are not working with a specific group of people, how you refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people depends on the circumstances.

If you are referring to all Nations of the lands known as Australia, the most appropriate terminology is what has been used in this article; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Never, ever, ever use Aboriginal to refer to Aboriginal AND Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal refers to traditional custodians of mainland Australia and Tasmania. While there are significant variations across Nations, of which there are over 250, there are also similarities. Torres Strait Islander cultures are distinctly different from Aboriginal Cultures. Therefore, using Aboriginal to refer to Torres Strait Islander people disrespectfully ignores the cultural differences. Or demonstrates you just don’t care that there are differences. The European equivalent would be like referring to the Irish or Welsh as English. Yeah, you know that wouldn’t go down so well. So, don’t do the same to us.

Now let me tackle a bugbear of mine. Not capitalising the terms used to describe us.

The first letters of all terms used, i.e. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or Indigenous, should ALWAYS be capitalised. Capitalisation denotes a proper noun. A proper noun identifies a specific person or people. A common noun, which is not capitalised refers to a generic name of a person, place or thing. Aboriginal should be capitalised for the same reasons “Australian” is capitalised.

Now, if your first thought is to debate my interpretation of English grammar, your first thought is motivated by disrespect and superiority. So before you initiate that conversation, I suggest you check yourself.

Also, don’t use “ATSI”. ATSI has its origins in academia. It is not something we have initiated.  We know you are using ATSI for one of two reasons. Either to reduce your word count or because you are too lazy to spell out Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in full. Neither reason is justifiable, so just don’t.

I hope your take-home message from this article is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people get to decide how we prefer to be referred to.

For more information, please refer to the Public Health Association of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Terminology Guide.


Dr Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman. She is the Public Health Association of Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Vice President. Dr Finlay is also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Canberra and a Lecturer at the University of Wollongong.


  1. Thanks Summer May. I am not disagreeing or challenging anything you have written, just seeking clarification. What about when using terms generically or adjectivally? For instance, if I wish to write, say, ‘At last week’s UN meeting, leaders of indigenous nations met to discuss XYZ’, should indigenous be capitalised? Grateful for your advice. Peter

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