An Aboriginal person is 'a person who is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia', and for legal and technical reasons, a person 'who is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia, identifies as an Aboriginal and is accepted by their identified Aboriginal community as Aboriginal'.


Of, belonging to, or inherited from an ancestor or ancestors.


‘country’ is an Aboriginal Kriol (Creole) term that refers to the traditional estate of an Aboriginal person, whether a man, woman or child. This may mean a specific area inherited from ancestors and belonging to a descent-based group of people or a larger, more general region in which that person’s ancestors originate. It should be italicised and written with lower case (except when it is at the start of a sentence) to reflect its Kriol origins. It may also be referred to as ‘place’.


The term culture is used in many different ways. In the context of Indigenous people, it refers to the collective social, economic and artistic manifestations of the societies of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples and encompasses ideas, customs, languages and the distinctive material expressions of these societies.


The term ‘Dreaming’ has become a popular term in English for a key religious concept, but there are others and they vary across the continent and island among the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies. Dreaming refers to a body of sacred laws and narratives that reveal ‘how the landscape was created and imbued with meaning by ancestral beings’ and how ‘this landscape represents ancestral connections to the land and the mythical beings that created it.’[1]


Someone who has gained recognition within their community as a custodian of knowledge and lore, and who has permission to disclose cultural knowledge and beliefs. Recognised Elders are highly respected people within Aboriginal communities.[2]

Indigenous Australian

An accepted definition of an Indigenous Australian proposed by the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1980s and still used by some Australian Government departments today is; a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.


The use of the term ‘Indigenous’ is widely accepted, in Australia and many other countries, although it is sometimes disputed by Indigenous people who would prefer for personal reasons that other terms are used.


Kinship is a term that is used to describe how people relate to one other in different cultures. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, the concept of kinship is complex, and has wide implications in Indigenous life and social structure. Kinship determines how everyone relates to one another, as well as their roles, responsibilities and obligations regarding one another, the environment and ceremony.

(Common Ground)[4]


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems are among thousands of indigenous knowledge systems in the world. These share common characteristics and are protected under international law in the Convention on Biological Diversity at Article 8 (j). UNESCO provides a useful description of indigenous knowledge systems.

Local and indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life. This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality.


Often, the term ‘knowledges’ is used to reflect this great diversity and an initial capital is used in technical terms such as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK).

Language group

The language group is the community of speakers of a language, the primary members of which are those who speak the language as a ‘mother tongue’ or home language. Many speakers of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander languages are multilingual, that is, speaking more than one Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander language.

See the Languages page for more information.


The term ‘Law’ is an Aboriginal Kriol term that stands in for the expressions in Aboriginal languages, such as Tjukurrpa in Warlpiri and other desert language, and encompasses the religious, spiritual and mundane laws that Aboriginal people observe in their own cultures.

Native title

Native title is the recognition in Australian law, under common law and the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), of Indigenous Australians' rights and interests in land and waters according to their own traditional laws and customs.

(Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project)[6]

Non Indigenous

By definition, non Indigenous Australians are those people who cannot be defined as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander because they are not descended from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestor.

Oral histories

Oral traditions and oral histories in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities are the records of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and they should be regarded as a significant part of Australian history.


Seasonal calendars and seasons are defined ecologically in different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities due to regional, geographical and ecological differences. Most Indigenous seasonal calendars have three large seasons each with two or three sub-seasons, or six seasons.

Social order

Social order is a concept used in anthropology and sociology that refers to “the way in which the various components of society—social structures and institutions, social relations, social interactions and behaviour, and cultural features such as norms, beliefs, and values—work together to maintain the status quo.”[7]

Song series or ‘Songlines’

A song series is a body of songs that are sung sequentially or in repetitive groups or in repetition by authorised Aboriginal singers and intended to convey a sacred narrative. “The many forms of Australia’s Indigenous music have ancient roots, huge diversity and global reach.”[8]The song traditions of Indigenous Australia also take many forms. One of the most famous forms is the song series, the term used by expert Australian musicologists. These are often called ‘songlines’ (after the title of the popular travelogue by British writer Bruce Chatwin). Aaron Corn explains the concept of the song series in the traditions of the Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land:

Manikay are series of songs, passed down through generations from the ancestral beings that originally shaped and named the Yolngu homelands. Accompanied by bilma (clapsticks) and yidaki (didjeridu), these manikay series are sung at ceremonies and contain ancestral knowledge essential to the Yolngu way of life. They are sacred ritual songs, but are also songs about the land, and the plants, animals, people and spirits that inhabit it. Mokuy, the ancestral ghosts, are everywhere in the landscape and mediate the transmission of the manikay. Their teachings offer a glimpse of the deeper ancestral treasures held in each Yolngu homeland.

(Dr Aaron Corn, Ethnomusicologist)

Torres Strait Islander

Defined in the same terms as ‘Aboriginal’ people and included under the legal definitions of ‘Aboriginal’ for legal historical reasons, even though they comprise a different cultural, linguistic and ethnic group.


In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, traditional practices have been passed down through generations and form an important part of their identity. Traditions are adapted to changing circumstances in all societies and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also adapt their traditions for many reasons.

Traditional Owner

Definition of a ‘traditional owner’ varies depending on jurisdiction. According to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth):

a local descent group of Aboriginals who: (a) have common spiritual affiliations to a site on the land, being affiliations that place the group under a primary spiritual responsibility for that site and for the land; and (b) are entitled by Aboriginal tradition to forage as of right over that land.[9]



[2] Department of Lands (1987). Aboriginal New South Wales A Pictorial Study Guide. Department of Lands Bathurst.








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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.