Culturally appropriate language—First Nations people

Over the last year we have had a number of First Nations clients as well as participating in large social services tenders dealing with Indigenous health, housing and welfare. One of our major clients last years was Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council (pictured is Tim Entwisle, Principal at Madrigal Communications with GLALC CEO, Melissa Williams, on site—used with permission). We have learnt a lot about Indigenous culture and about culturally appropriate language in a First Nations context.

What is culturally appropriate language?

Culturally appropriate language when writing about First Nations people is essential. Language shapes how we think and understand the world and our history. Inaccurate or inappropriate language perpetuates stereotypes and misunderstandings about Indigenous people, that lead to discrimination and marginalisation.

Avoid stereotypes

There are many stereotypes about First Nations people that continue to appear in our culture. It is these stereotypes that the use of culturally appropriate language is trying to address. Some examples:

  • Depicting Indigenous people as living in the remote bush, ignoring the fact that many Indigenous people live in urban areas
  • Presenting Indigenous people as primitive, backward, or living in the past
  • Depicting Indigenous people as victims who are unable to take care of themselves or their communities
  • Stereotyping Indigenous people as being alcohol or drug addicted and prone to violence and criminality
  • Generalising that all Indigenous people have low socio-economic status
  • Presenting Indigenous culture as something that is dying or disappearing

So using culturally appropriate language can help to overcome the stereotypes and promote respect and empathy for Indigenous people and their culture.

Why use culturally appropriate language?

Some important aspects of using culturally appropriate language:

  • Acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which you are writing
  • Avoid using stereotypes or making generalizations
  • Consult with First Nations people and organisations to ensure accuracy and appropriateness of your content
  • Recognise diversity within the First Nations community
  • Avoid using terms or phrases that have been used in a derogatory or offensive manner in the past
  • Be aware of cultural protocols that may need to be followed in your writing (for instance using appropriate terminology when referring to Indigenous languages, customs and ceremonies)
  • Provide context and background information to help non-Indigenous readers understand and respect First Nations culture
  • Be willing to listen and learn from First Nations people and organisations, and make changes to your writing as needed
  • Recognising that many Indigenous peoples have experienced history as one of colonisation and oppression.

Using culturally appropriate language can promote understanding, respect, and empathy for Indigenous peoples and their culture; shows respect for Indigenous languages, customs and ceremonies; and acknowledge the ongoing impact of colonisation. One of our business goals this year is to work more closely with Indigenous writers to increase Indigenous participation in our tender writing business and in the businesses of our clients.