The erratic swings of my mental searchlight have focused once again on the native cultures of Australia, something that has fascinated me off and on ever since I learned about the complex grammar of the languages and especially since I bought Wally Caruana’s Aboriginal Art and fell in love with the stylized imagery, intimately linked with the tales of the Dreaming. Well, I just ran across the following entry in my Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary:

Koori /kuu-ree, koor-ree/ n. an Aborigine. (Awabakal gurri ‘an Aboriginal person’.)
Usage Many Aborigines understandably dislike the use of ‘Aborigine’ or ‘Aboriginal’ since these terms have been foisted on them and can carry pejorative overtones: they prefer to use the word for ‘person’ from a local language. Because of the wide variety of Aboriginal languages, however, Koori has not gained Australia-wide acceptance, being confined to most of NSW and to Vic. Other terms are preferred in other regions: Murri over most of south and central Qld, Bama in north Qld, Nunga in southern SA, Yura in SA, Nyoongah around Perth, Mulba in the Pilbara region, Wongi in the Kalgoorlie region, Yammagi in the Murchison River region, Yolngu in Arnhem Land, Anangu in central Australia, and Yuin on the south coast of NSW.

Now, it’s clearly impossible for anyone but a specialist to know all these terms; my question to Australian readers is, do average non-Aboriginal Aussies tend to know the term for their own region, or is even that a matter of special knowledge? In other words, are these terms normal (like Inuit in Canada) or are they the province of the politically correct? (Note: I’m not making any judgments one way or the other, and I hope this doesn’t turn into a heated discussion of “political correctness”—I’m just trying to get a sense of actual usage.)

Also, if anybody has any good books on Aboriginal culture to recommend, I’ll be grateful; I have Chatwin’s Songlines but haven’t yet read it.


  1. I’m in Canberra, which would be in Koori territory. I certainly recognise the term Koori, but I’d most likely use aborigine (and inflected forms) in casual conversation. The average whitefella would probably regard use of Koori as a bit overly politically correct.
    (BTW, if Claire’s reading, “hello” from a warm spring day in Canberra.)

  2. Ian Myles Slater says

    I have become fond of Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt’s “The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia” (Penguin Australia, 1988; US edition, Inner Traditions International, 1994), with nearly 400 pages of traditional story-telling. Many of the tales were collected by the editors between about 1940 and 1950; only a few from later than 1960.
    However, its organization is annoying. Information on the storytellers, the languages, and when and where the stories were collected, is scattered throughout the book, as are methodological reflections. The bibliography is rather brief, and the index is hopeless.
    (The Foreword says it is “designed specifically for general readers as well as for those especially interested in Australian Aboriginal oral literature.” But the general readers would seem to be well-informed Australians. As an American, I would have been completely lost without having read some introductory works, like A.P. Elkin’s [antiquated] “Australian Aborigines,” back in the 1970s.)

  3. Peter Pinney, in his world war II novel “Signaller Johnson’s Secret War”, placed the terms “Murri” and “Burri” in some of his character’s mouths, as well as “Boongs” (generally perjorative). He footnoted in both instances, suggesting that he did not expect all Australians to be familiar with the words. The novel is about combat in New Guinea and Borneo in an Independent (Commando) company and would probably gain a much wider audience if it could be translated from Australian. (U of Queensland Press, by the way, and Pinney was a veteran of such a unit.)

  4. ythrykythyr says

    I knew it; i think if you said nyoongah to identify a particular ethnicity here in Perth most people would know who you were talking about.
    Incidentally, there’s some contention as to how to actually spell the name of the local Aboriginals in Perth. I’ve seen your spelling as well as Nyungah, Nyungar, and Noongar.

  5. A few years ago, I was editing an article about an Aboriginal radio station in Queensland and Muri was used throughout without comment or explanation. I had to check with the author to figure out what the usage was.

  6. I’m in Sydney, also in Koori country and am familiar with that term and also with Murri and Yolngu (and their particular regions). I can’t recall using the word Koori either in writing or conversation. I’d probably use Aboriginal (people) in casual speech — and, like affetuoso in Canberra, would associate non-Aboriginal use of Koori with a kind of self-serving political correctness.

  7. affetuoso and Jonathon remind me of an acquaintance who was told by a native of the Canadian arctic: “We’re Eskimos. The Inuit are all off lobbying in Ottawa.”

  8. Norman Gerre says

    I’m in Canberra as well, and I’ve never heard any of them. As it happens, the other day I was reading part of a fairly recent book by an Aboriginal feminist, and her favoured term seemed to be “Indigenous Australian”. That’s the one I’d expect from politicians, too.

  9. Thanks, all, I’m getting a pretty clear picture from your commments. (Claire, being in the US, is probably just waking up. Paging Claire!)

  10. The uniqueness of the pre-British pre-Dutch Australians is that, not only were they not an agricultural people, they had never had any contact with an agricultural people. (There are probably small exceptions in the far Australian North). Other “hunter-gatherers” lived symbiotically with agriculturalists, but the Australians were completely pre-Neolithic. Source: Marshall Sahlins, “Stone Age Society”.

  11. “Native Americans” is the solution over here to the same problem — “Indians” was the foisted-upon term, and there was no common term to be found in the many native North American languages. It sounded like pure political correctness at first, but so did “firefighter”. With repetition it’s starting to sound normal to me.

  12. Yes, “Native American” is parallel to “Inuit,” which I mentioned in my post. What struck me about the Australian situation was that there was no such overall term, just a bunch of regional ones.

  13. There are lots of Indians, though, starting with Russell Means, activist and actor, who object to “Native American”, and say “If you don’t know the name of my tribe, call me an Indian.” On the other hand, there are lots of Native Americans (like the current President of the Navajo Nation) who vociferously disagree. You can’t win; you can’t even break even.

  14. I thought the nationally known terms were Koori or Koorie and Murry, but then I lived in Melbourne: a web search for Koorie shows it’s largely Victorian sites.

  15. Politically correct terms often have problems of their own; I know white Africans and black non-Africans who dislike the use of “African-American” to mean “black person,” and I – a white person of Asian birth and descent – am not too happy with the use of “Asian” as a racial term (though there don’t seem to be any alternatives, as people seem to have decided that the term “Oriental” is offensive).
    The problem is not even solved by using indigenous names; I recall reading recently that the supposedly-P.C. term “San” for Bushmen is not actually Bushmen’s word for themselves, but a derogatory term applied to them by neighboring peoples.

  16. I’m with Norman — I’ve heard of Koori, and I remember a period during my childhood when (state) government sources were pushing that word, but it sort of fell out of favor and I have the impression that that’s because it is local rather than general. I think “black” and “white” also work, although obviously they aren’t helpful if you want to talk specifically about the peoples indigenous to Australia rather than also include folks from Somalia who migrated there last year. (There’s also “blackfella”/”whitefella”, but like a lot of extremely Australian words [barbie, snag, etc.] I don’t use them personally and I’m not sure who’s “allowed” to.)
    I’ve heard on several occasions that “aboriginal” is never to be used as a noun, the way it is in many old documents, although apparently in Canada the opposite is true. (“aborigine” is the unacceptable noun term.)
    “[Australian] indigenous languages” was the term that got used in my linguistics department, iirc.

  17. Incidentally, to address your specific original question (!), I think that while those terms aren’t all general knowledge across Australia, many Australians have learned that when they hear an unknown, non-English-sounding word in a context that suggests it may be the local equivalent of “koori”, that’s probably what it is. I know that that’s how I operate. (Although I’m not foolish enough to start using words like that before I get actual confirmation.)

  18. “Many Aborigines understandably dislike the use of ‘Aborigine’ or ‘Aboriginal’ since these terms have been foisted on them and can carry pejorative overtones: they prefer to use the word for ‘person’ from a local language.
    What fun! How well would it go over if the white Australians started calling themselves and only themselves “Human”? I bet the Yolngu and Koori and Nyunga would think it was a hoot and the SMH readers would have a cow.
    Russell Means has a point, and he stays consistent. He complained about “powwow” culture and the homogenization that “Native American” implies. It is rather like limping Russians and Irish together. BTW, in the States, one of the truly useful lump terms is Anglo, as against Latino, I suppose, originally. Ironically, it even seesm to apply to Italian-Americans. Say, do whites in Australia think of themsleves as Anglos?

  19. hippietrail says

    Well I grew up in Melbourne, then starting moving around to Townsville, north Queensland, then Brisbane, then the Gold Coast, then Perth, then Sydney.
    I was familiar with “koori” in Melbourne and became aware that it didn’t cover all aborigines at the same time I heard “Murri”, still while in Melbourne. But perhaps since Melbourne has few aborigines I didn’t retain which word worked where. I don’t recall “Bama” during my 8-months in Townsville, but I don’t recall meeting anybody who wasn’t racist against aborigines either so I was not likely to hear politically correct language. During my 8 months in Perth I heard and saw “Nyoongah”, I think spelled various ways. I personally always associate “Yolngu” with the group of peoples in Arnhem Land famous for the band “Yothu Yindi”. For some reason I never thought of it being used the same way as “Koori” or “Murri”.
    Personally I don’t find any of the terms overly politically correct, something that usually irritates me. Usually I would like to know how people prefer to refer to themselves and I would address them in their preferred manner.

  20. Usually I would like to know how people prefer to refer to themselves and I would address them in their preferred manner.
    I feel the same way. What interested me here is that these terms seem to be halfway between a general term like American Indian and specific tribal names, so I had no intuitions about how widespread they were or how they were regarded.

  21. Hi everyone, sorry for being awol, I’ve been doing some urgent stuff and neglecting the web.
    Yolngu is used in Armhem Land both for Yolngu people (ie speakers of Pama-Nyungan Yolngu languages) and for Aboriginal people in general. This was initially really confusing to me, as an answer to the question “do you speak Yolngu Matha?” of “yes, I speak Bardi (but not Djambarrpuyngu, etc” was non-sensical to me, but perfectly ok to a Yan-nhangu speaker. So yeah, it both has the same status as koori, etc, but is also used more specifically.
    I’ve heard Bama around Cairns, and Murri further south.
    Boong is pretty offensive but also pretty outdated now, I know it from reading old sources and hate sites on the web (for a study I did on racism a few years ago). My husband had heard it from a choice specimen of language which also contained “nigger”. There are of course other terms which have fallen out of use now, e.g. myall (as in Myall Creek, the site of the first massacre where the perpetrators were arrested). In the Curr wordlists (published 1886: The Australian Race) the examples usually have “the blacks”.
    My impression is that these terms (koori, etc) are not very widely known and used in the general population and “aborigine”, “aboriginal” or “black people” are the most common. Koori also had a brief life as a term used by people who know that there are indigenous languages but not that ‘koori’ wasn’t the term in all of them.
    In remote Australia, it depends a bit on the area. In Bardi it was always maank ambooriny (= ‘black people’) or “aborigine” (as noun or adjective) in Aboriginal English.
    “Indigenous” seems to be a pretty safe term to use as a default, also “Aboriginal people”, if the particular group isn’t known or isn’t relevant.

  22. That was well worth the wait!
    My Aussie dictionary defines myall as ‘aborigine living in a traditional manner’ and adds “also warrigal,” the latter apparently meaning both ‘dingo’ and ‘myall.’ All very complicated.

  23. I hadn’t heard that about myall, but it’s plausible.
    btw, re books on aboriginal culture: I like Chatwin’s Song Lines as literature but it annoys me a bit as ethnography. There are some classics: Warner’s Black Civilisation and Donald Thomson’s writings, both on Arnhem Land. Both are quite early. For race relations, Henry Reynold’s books are worth reading, including “Why weren’t we told”. They aren’t on Aboriginal culture in particular, but he has written extensively on settlement, genocide and race relations. For contemporary culture, there are a number of very good writers, e.g. Sally Morgan, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker). The Pigram Brothers’ Bran Nu Dae is definitely worth a read/listen (it’s a musical). Ian Keen’s Knowledge and Society in Aboriginal Religion is also about Arnhem Land and is well worth the read, not sure if it’s available in the US though. Magabala Books and Aboiriginal Studies Press publish a heap of oral history books which might be interesting. My librarything tag “oral history” might be helpful.

  24. Another couple of data-points. I’m a gen-X left-wing Sydneysider, who knows and would self-consciously use Koori and Murri occasionally, and Indigenous, Aboriginal or Black habitually. Like hippietrail I associate Yolngu with Yothu Yindi and Mandawuy & Galarrwuy Yunupingu. The Australian Prime Miniature is in his mid-sixties and leads our conservative party. His understanding of “Murri” is illustrated by this anecdote recounted in the Sydney Morning Herald of 16 August 2003 (at http://tinyurl.com/a6map, reg. req’d).
    In one ear . . .
    It was very hot under the tarp and, assembled hacks said, the PM was looking a tad frazzled, which might account for the following gaffe.
    You might recall that last week John Howard and entourage were at Beagle Creek camp in remote Cape York talking with indigenous leaders including Tania Major, the youngest regional councillor ever elected to ATSIC.
    Major, 22, a criminology graduate, was most compelling as she laid bare the horrors of everyday life facing her community.
    Of her former classmates, four had killed themselves, seven were jailed, all but three were alcoholics and she was the only girl not to become pregnant before 15.
    During her talk Major, pictured at right with Howard, referred to herself as a Murri, the term used by Queensland Aborigines to describe themselves. Sauce is unsure whether the PM was overcome by her words or the heat, but in his speech he kept mistakenly referring to her as Marie and even “young Marie”.
    Sauce hears that when Howard approached Major later, again calling her Marie, she soon set the sheepish PM straight.

  25. Claire: Thanks for the suggestions, and I should have thought of consulting your LibraryThing catalog.
    Dave: Great story!

  26. All very interesting. I don’t think I know any of the aboriginal terms referenced here beyond koori – maybe from my predominantly Sydney existence.
    In passing I know that I use ‘black’, ‘aboriginal’ and ‘indigenous’ depending on frame of reference. Although wholly without authority, I would suggest I represent the majority.
    It’s also what I see and hear in the media eg.
    but interestingly..
    who is a lecturer at Melbourne Uni in Indigenous Education

  27. Last night, on a current affairs TV show, I heard a non-indigenous former armed robber and prisoner use Koori, seemingly unself-consciously:
    JOURNALIST: The next outbreak of violence, as it turned out, had serious consequences for the guards. According to Christopher Binse, separation of Aborigines and Arabic inmates had generated tension.
    EX-PRISONER: The Lebanese were a little bit disappointed. The Kooris were a little bit disappointed, because their… friendship with the Lebanese, and what they were able to offer was reduced. They weren’t, they weren’t happy, they weren’t impressed. So, they thought, “Oh, we’ll make a statement, “**** youse, you know, we’ll take a, we’ll run the ball up”, and they run the ball up.
    (Note that the journo used Aborigines! You can see the full transcript here.)
    Perhaps use of terms like Koori is not as PC as I first thought!

  28. I don’t think the terms are politically correct, but more ones that people who have been friends or had acquaintances amongst the different groups would use. This is why Christopher Binse (the ex-prisoner) would probably use this term, while another working class person who had never really built up any empathy or understanding with blackfellas would probably never use them. It’s amazing how many words you pick up (if you’re paying attention) from just spending a week or two with people where they mix English and their indigenous language. If you treat someone with respect, they will soon put you right if you use a word in a way they don’t like but not take offense if it is an honest mistake.
    One thing I find strange is that some Australians find it hard to understand the use of ‘uncle’ by different indigenous cultures. This was a term that was regularly used by my English parents when referring to a male friend of the family who was considered close to the family and trustworthy.

  29. That makes sense to me. (And we used “uncle” that way in my family too.)

  30. John Mawurndjul AM is celebrated for his mastery of rarrk (fine-painted cross-hatching), a tradition shared by generations of Kuninjku artists. This exhibition of bark paintings and sculptures by one of Australia’s most groundbreaking contemporary artists tells the stories of Kuninjku culture and the significant locations surrounding Mawurndjul’s home in western Arnhem Land.


    Bininj Kunwok dictionary

    Flora–Fauna Loanwords in Arnhem Land and Beyond—An Ethnobiological Approach


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