A reader has asked me about the word “indigenous”. As far as I am aware “indigenous” (the word) comes from the Latin and means “in” “beget” .. or if you like, “the place where one was born (or conceived)”. In that case I, as were both my parents, and my mother’s parents – are indigenous to Australia, indigenous Australians .. though have to admit that am indigenous to southern South Australia, not indigenous to New South Wales. How many generations does it take to be referred to as “indigenous”?
The first part of that is certainly true. Indigenous is from Latin, where the literal meaning is “born in”; it has been in English since the 17th century. As is often the case, earlier meanings don’t always help us: nice, for example, comes from nescius which means “ignorant”. So how is the word used now?
Would you, for example, argue that Australian rabbits or feral cats are indigenous Australian animals? I suspect not. Clearly, the word now refers to those — plants, animals or people — “originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment” (American Heritage Dictionary) but has a strong connotation of having the earliest historical connection to an area or environment.
So “indigenous” is not a true synonym of “native”. I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that I am a native Australian, but my being an indigenous Australian is — in my case — only partly and possibly true.
As Dictionary.com says, aboriginal has been in English a few hundred years longer than indigenous. It is a close synonym. With a capital letter it refers specifically to some Indigenous Australians — and note too how Indigenous should also be capitalised when referring to the same people(s). But then it gets complicated: as Wikipedia says: The term includes both the Torres Strait Islanders and the Aboriginal People, by which you may see that Torres Strait Islanders, while Indigenous Australians, are not Aboriginal Australians. The inclusive term, therefore, is Indigenous.
And there is more to it than that…! See the Wikipedia article linked in the previous paragraph, check the Style manual for authors, editors and printers, the official word in Australia, and Pam Peters, Cambridge Guide to English Usage.
It used to be that Aboriginal was properly the adjective (as in “Aboriginal art”) and Aborigine(s) the noun, though usage on this has always been disputed. The 2002 Style Manual recommends Aboriginal for both adjective and noun.
Then there are other terms such as Koori and Murri, which have strict geographical limits…
See also my Indigenous Australians Page.
In some formal circumstances we get even more specific. Here in Surry Hills, for example, if we have a “Welcome to Country” or “Acknowledgement of Country” statement we refer to the original owners as the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation.