Respectful terminology

Aboriginal: Latin for ‘original’, the term is used to refer to any Indigenous person around the world but in Australia it is used solely to refer to the Indigenous peoples of the Australian mainland only and not to the Torres Strait Islander peoples of the Torres Strait region. It is always spelt with a capital ‘A’.

Business: An Aboriginal English word used to describe the cultural and spiritual responsibilities and obligations of both men and women. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures there is a marked dichotomy between ‘Men’s Business’ and ‘Women’s Business’ that is based on gender and should be seen as separate but complementary traditions.

Country: An Aboriginal English term used by Aboriginal people to refer to the land to which they belong and their place of Dreaming. Aboriginal language usage of the word ‘country’ is much broader than standard Australian English. The term has been kriolised as kantri.

Community: Important elements of a community are country, family ties and shared experience. Community is about interrelatedness and belonging, and is central to Aboriginality or Indigeneity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may belong to more than one community.

Corroboree: An Eora word that refers to a cultural gathering of dance and music. Although individual nations have their own local terms this is commonly used and understood by all Aboriginals across the country. It is not used however to describe a Torres Strait Islander cultural event.

Custodian: A person charged with maintaining and passing on particular elements of cultural significance including knowledge, stories, songs, dances, language, ritual and imagery.

Deadly: An Aboriginal English word for ‘fantastic’, ‘great’ or ‘awesome’. It is used in a positive sense as opposed to something negative. This has important implications for Indigenous healthcare and treatment of chronic diseases where a medical practitioner may refer to something as ‘deadly’ meaning harmful. Awareness of this difference in meaning in the Indigenous context is important.

Dreaming/Dreamtime: These Aboriginal English terms are used interchangeably to describe the spiritual philosophies and traditions of Aboriginal people. The Dreamtime refers to the Aboriginal creation period when their ancestors walked across the country dreaming the land into existence. Aboriginal spiritual beliefs that refer to a specific Ancestor or Creator Being are described as one’s Dreaming or Dreamings such as ‘Kangaroo Dreaming’, ‘Crocodile Dreaming’ and so on. According to Aboriginal beliefs, everything has ‘Dreaming’ or ‘consciousness’ and all things, human or otherwise are interconnected and interrelated. Like all other spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity or Judaism, Dreamtime should always be spelt with a capital ‘D’. The same goes for Dreaming to distinguish it from our nocturnal activity that occurs when we are asleep.

Elder: Key person and keeper of knowledge who is highly respected and consulted due to their experience, wisdom, knowledge, background and insight. Being an elder does not necessarily equate with mature age.

Family: Indigenous concepts of family extends beyond narrow biological perceptions of the nuclear family toward more inclusive, complex biological and social ties and structures that embrace an entire community. This wider view of family has a significant impact on kinship obligations and responsibilities.

Homeland: Located on Aboriginal ancestral lands
with cultural and spiritual significance to Aboriginal people who live there. Complex connections to land include cultural, spiritual and environmental obligations, including protection of sacred sites.

Indigenous: Native to a place or area, originating in and characterising a particular region or country.

Kinship: Includes the importance of all relationships, and of being related to and belonging to the land.

Mob: A colloquial term that many Indigenous people use to identify their people or communities. It is not considered offensive to ask an Indigenous person who their ‘mob’ is.

Nation: A group of Aboriginal people who share the same language and area of land, river and sea that is their traditional land.

Native Title: A form of land title which recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as rightful owners of that land.

Reconciliation: In the Australian context this term has taken on a specific meaning to refer to official government policy that seeks to address the past traumatic legacy of colonisation and the journey forward for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation is all about respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by acknowledging them as the First Peoples of Australia. It is about working together as Australians to create a more just and inclusive society.

Respect: Having due regard for someone’s feelings, wishes, or rights.

Shared history: Recognises that Australia’s history began long before 1788 and that, since then, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have occupied the same country and share a destiny that is based on recognising and respecting the rights of all Australians beginning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original inhabitants.

Traditional Owner: An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person or group directly descended from the original inhabitants of a culturally defined area of land or sea. They are the clans, nations and groups who
have traditional connections to the land and waters relating to their area that retain decision-making powers in relation to that land or area. While all Elders are traditional owners not all traditional owners are Elders.

Torres Strait Islander: A generic term used to refer to the Indigenous Peoples of the Torres Strait region, as compared to the mainland people. Like Aboriginal people, there is a great cultural and linguistic diversity among the Torres Strait where people identify themselves by their own language terms.

Yarn: An Aboriginal English word that describes an informal conversation or storytelling in a culturally safe environment.

Yarning circle: Culturally safe conversations that take place in a circle.

Further reading and useful links


Ware, V, 2013, “Improving the accessibility of health services in urban and regional settings for Indigenous people”, Resource sheet no. 27, Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.

Burgess, P, et al; 2009, “Healthy Country: Healthy people Indigenous natural and cultural resource management and health”, Menzies School of Health Research, Darwin.


“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Handbook”, 2010, Queensland Studies Authority.

“An introduction to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health cultural protocols and perspectives”, 2012, The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

“Caring For Our Country: The Benefits Associated with Caring for Country Literature Review”, 2011, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

“Cultural Protocols for Indigenous Reporting in the Media”, [un-dated], ABC Message Stick.

“Working and Walking Together: Supporting Family Relationship Services to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families and Organisations”, 2010, Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Inc (SNAICC).

“Working with older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Research to Practice Briefing 8”, 2003, Benevolent Society.



National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation

Australian Indigenous Health InfoNet

Australian Capital Territory

Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service

New South Wales

Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW

Northern Territory

Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory

Queensland and Torres Strait Islands

Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council

South Australia

Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia


Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre:


Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation

Western Australia

Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Is it appropriate to use the terms “yarn” or “yearning circle” if the group is non indigenous? For example if leading an activity at a corporate to raise awareness on indigenous issues can we advertise or label it internally as a “yarn”? Or is this disrespectful or do we need permission to do so?


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