What we're called

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It was not until we were labelled ‘Aborigines’ by the British that we went by a single name.

There are two Indigenous peoples in Australia: Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. Government officials and other people who want a word to include both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use ‘Indigenous Australians’ or ‘Indigenous peoples’. This language is also used in the United Nations, who refer to Indigenous peoples globally.

An Aboriginal person is often defined legally as a person who is a descendant of an Indigenous inhabitant of Australia, sees himself or herself as an Aboriginal person and is recognised as Aboriginal by members of the community in which he or she lives or has lived.

The people of the Torres Strait are of Melanesian origin with their own distinct identity, history and cultural traditions. Traditionally they lived in the Torres Strait, which separates the north of Queensland from New Guinea, though today many have migrated and now live on the mainland.

Aboriginal people living in different parts of Australia have regional names to identify themselves. Terms that relate to language groups are preferred in many regions of Australia, compared to the over-arching ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Torres Strait Islander’: Murri over most of south and central Queensland, Bama in north Queensland, Nunga in southern South Australia, Nyoongah around Perth, Mulba in the Pilbara region, Wongi in the Kalgoorlie region, Yamitji in the Murchison River region, Yolngu in Arnhem Land, Anangu in central Australia, and Yuin on the south coast of New South Wales. For a while people of Tasmanian Aborigines called themselves Koories, and then Tasmanian Koories to distinguish themselves from the mainland Koories. Recently, we have gathered evidence for the term Muttonbird Koories, a reference to the importance of mutton-birding to their traditional way of life, especially on the islands off the Tasmanian coast. More recently, the language term Palawa is increasingly being used. (Source: Australian National Dictionary Centre).

Yolngu girl Alison Durrurrnga collects pandanus for her grandmothers to weave into baskets. Photo © Polly Hemming.

The word ‘Yolngu’ describes the Aboriginal people living in north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Despite successive waves of outsiders influencing and interrupting the lives of Yolngu communities, the Yolngu have actively maintained, and fought for, their rich and distinct culture.

All Yolngu people belong to one of two basic divisions, or moieties, called Dhuwa and Yirritja. Children belong to the same moiety as their father; their mother belongs to the other moiety. Everything in the Yolngu universe – Spirit Beings, plant and animal species, clan groups, areas of land and water are either Dhuwa or Yirritja. The Djang'kawu Sisters, the morning star, the water goanna, the stringybark tree, and the land in and around Yirrkala are Dhuwa, while such things as the evening star, stingray, cycad palm, and members of the Manggalili clan are all Yirritja.

Source: A Visitor's Guide: Recreation Areas – North-east Arnhem Land published by Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation.