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Australian First Nations naming guidelines

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These guidelines have resulted from significant discussion and subsequent research by the Indigenous Australians Project. The aim of this document is to aggregate the information found to date and the provide clear information about how the various name fields for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander profiles should be used by both project members and Wikitree members in general.

Clear knowledge exists among First Nations communities about naming and kinship, however, this knowledge is not well-established in Australian society and there are lots of details that tend to challenge commonly held conceptions.

In addition, the devastating impact colonialism and a range of other unique historical experiences has had on the cultural knowledge of First Nations Peoples in Australia has been strongly felt. There are complex issues that need to be considered when publishing material online, regarding how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, are represented, particularly with respect to the terminology used.

This page outlines what is recommended by the Indigenous Australians Project specifically with respect to the name fields used in First Nations profiles. These recommendations are based on the principle of ‘using their conventions instead of ours’.

They should be considered a 'work in progress' and may be updated as a result of ongoing discussion in the Indigenous Australians Project googlegroup.

Wikitree Name Fields

The name field help page provides quite useful information guiding the use of name fields, which is already quite relevant.

Extra guidance is useful though due to the specific nature of First Nations names and how they fit these existing fields.

The way names were used among First Nations Peoples was quite different to new systems introduced by colonists. In many cases, names that were used and recorded in official documents, were not consistent with the principle ‘use their conventions instead of ours’. Often Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names were not recognised in documents [1]. Instead they may have been bestowed with a (sometimes derogatory) nickname; or taught to use the name of a missionary or station owner. In other cases First Nations People were given a common first name such as Kitty, Biddy, Fanny, Tommy, or Dicky and a family name of 'Aboriginal', or the name of their father. This has had enormous implications for familial identity, culture and family history.

First Nations Peoples may have been known by many different names publicly, and quite a number more privately among clan and family groups [2]. For genealogical purposes, it is important that names are represented correctly

Kinship is the social foundation of First Nations Peoples. Fundamental to the social kinship organisation between regions is a 'skin system'. Indigenous people are assigned a skin name when they are born, which is a permanent name that defines kinship relations, within a clan and nation. [2] Skin Names represent a person’s blood line and are the closest to the WikiTree concept of a Last Name at Birth (LNAB). Skin Names are sequential, so while they are passed down a patrinlineal or matrilineal line, may vary across generations. Skin names are passed down on the basis of a link moeity within clan and family groups. Clans reside within nations and/or language groups, or subgroups within a nation.

Beyond a skin name and moeity, First Nations Peoples had at least four totems. The first three of these were common to their nation, clan, and family group. These governed relations within these groups, with people outside of these groups, and with the natural environment. They were usually communicated on a 'need to know basis' and helped to establish protocols about how knowledge was held.

Within this system, individuals were also provided with totems, which outside of the names bestowed by colonists, often became a 'single' individual name, by which they were recorded. An individual totem might change several times across the life of that individual, such as at birth, upon initiation, as well as later in life, when an individual was given the role as an elder, and holder of an important facet of cultural knowledge. Often this knowledge was gendered and linked to other collective totems the individual had.

Because of the complex nature of First Nations kinship, a guide below was been established to make this process easier, as well as facilitating collaboration through consistent practices. It is also important to follow these guidelines to reduce the number of duplicate profiles produced

Recommended use of Naming Fields

  1. Seek help when you are not sure or have questions. The Indigenous Australians Project googlegroup can be used to 'crowd source' knowledge about how to address a particular profile. This is preferred over the use of the G2G forum because it is better equipped with more specialist knowledge
  2. Explain it all in a Naming and Kinship section. This information should clarify the assumptions you have used to assign information to each name field and some references. An example of this is provided in the profile for Bolongaia (Maria Lock)
  3. Use First Nations conventions as a priority - This means using the names that each individual would have used themselves and would have been recognised in their own time and place. In the case of First Nations profiles, this may involve a little more nuanced research than what may otherwise be required for other profiles. A guide to some common issues for each Name Field are discussed below. Bear in mind however that this is not a comprehensive list and this is likely to be context specific. The impacts of colonialisation and the imposition of Western systems on Aboriginal Kinship were significant and led to major changes to how names were recognised across generations and even within a person's lifetime, beyond changes that may occur for other profiles, such as marriage. Some examples of have existing profiles have been included for reference and these will be added to as the guidelines progress over time. To start with, members should aim to become familiar with the content presented in the kinship module developed by the University of Sydney

Proper First Name

If a single traditional name of a First Nations person is known, in most cases it represents an individual totem, and can often be distinguished from either skin names, moieties or clans. While this ‘first name’ may change several times over the life of an individual, not all of these names may necessarily be publicly known:

  • At birth, an individual totem may be assigned on the basis of order of birth.
  • Then, upon initiation, when the identity and nature of the individual became clearer, another totem would be decided upon, which would define the cultural knowledge and caretaker responsibilities of that individual.
  • Later, upon the death of an elder in the community, the totem of an individual might change again related to taking on the role of continued custodianship of important knowledge.

Based on fields in Wikitree, an individual totem most closely aligns with a the Proper First Name field, which is described as a Formal First Name or First Name at Birth, and usually is the name used in 'official' documents. However First Nations Proper First Names were not systematically recorded in official records until 1856.

It may be that an individual is only known by their individual totem, or perhaps more than one totem, is known by a English name, or is known by both an English name and an individual totem. In all situations where the individual would have been aware of their individual totem and used it from birth, then this name should be preferenced. This includes writing 'Unknown', where a English name or nickname has been bestowed by authorities involuntarily, rather than recognising a traditional name.

There are some exceptions however:

  • Where the individual is not likely to have known their own traditional name at birth because their parents had already used an Anglicised name, or due to them being stolen from their families at a very young age.
  • When the individual themselves has decided to conceal their individual totem for cultural reasons. This is a common practice among Central Desert communities, for example.

Preferred name

The Preferred First Name field could be used in the context in multiple ways so it is important that this is described in the Naming & Kinship section of the profile.

Under standard Wikitree guidelines, it could be used for an Informal First Name or Colloquial Name, however in this context, there are other priorities for this field:

  • In cases, where the Proper First Name field in listed as 'Unknown', the Preferred First Name Field should be used to provide the most appropriate alternative, such as an English First Name. This will enable this name to still be displayed at the top of the profile.
  • When two individual totems are known, this may be used to distinguish between the names, based on how they would be preferenced by the individual in the profile. It can be used to distinguish between a name used at initiation and a name used later in life.
  • For other profiles, when a First Nations person has been only known by an Anglicised name at birth, but then later reclaims a First Nations identity via the use of a traditional totem, this field would be used.
  • In the case, where the above does not apply, this field may be used for an English name, provided it was recognised by the individual during their life.
  • The default when only one appropriate name is known, or If you're unsure is to leave this field to be the same as the Proper First Name.
  • For these profiles, it is best to think of this field as a Current First Name or First Name at Death, with Informal First Names, or Colloquial Names being preferenced in the Other Nicknames field.

This is a required field and cannot be left blank.

Middle Name

In most cases, except for when a First Nations person specifically had a middle name, this field should be left blank. This field should not be used to add name variations or other individual totems of First Names

Other Nicknames

This field may be used to add nicknames that the individual is likely to have recognised. It may also be used to provide English names or other nicknames that the person was widely known as to assist with the identification of the individual in the profile.

This field may also be used to distinguish between significant spelling variations, however, when these spellings have only minor variations, it is best to describe these in the profile.

Last Name at Birth (LNAB)

Standard Wikitree guidelines are relevant for First Nations profiles in this field. The LNAB is defined as either a Proper Last Name, Surname, or Maiden Name; generally a family name but could also be a patronymic or whatever other standard is conventional for the person's time and place.

The most similar name to a surname is a Skin Name, which represents an individual's bloodline, how generations and linked, and how they should interact. However, skin names are different to standard surnames in a number of ways:

  • parents do not share the same skin name, i.e. people with the same skin name cannot marry.
  • children also do not share the same skin name as their parents, rather Skin Names, alternate successively across generations in most cases.
  • Skin Names are also different for males and females, within the same bloodline in most cases.

One problem with specifying the Skin Name as a LNAB is that in many cases for First Nations profiles, this knowledge, along with the names of Moeities has been lost, where a strong disconnection to culture has occurred via colonisation. So while Skin Names and/or Moeities should be preferences in this field, an alternative is required when this is not the case. This arises due to a lack of written records and the fact that this information was usually passed on orally. If kin are difficult to locate, it can be impossible to access this information.

In these cases, family members are able to trace their families through knowledge of their clan and this can be used in its place in the LNAB field. This is appropriate as either a patronym or matronym that defines family identity, based on whether the Nation was a patrilineal or matrilineal society. Identifying the LNAB in this way is very useful as profiles may be grouped based on membership of the same clan, which helps researchers locate other family members.

In summary, for the LNAB field

  1. Where a Skin Name is known, it should be used in the LNAB field.
  2. Where a Skin Name or moiety is unknown, either a clan name or English surname should be used, depending on which name that the individual would have been recognised by at birth, by their community.
  3. Often, the name of a individuals clan, may not commonly be used in standard biographies, however, for genealogical purposes, this does not make this name less significant or less appropriate for this field, under the principle ‘using their conventions instead of ours’. It is often possible to identify the clan of an individual by researching other aspects of their life.
  4. In the more rare cases, when the name of the individual's clan, or an English surname cannot be determined, it may be appropriate to use a Nation/Language Group in this field as a patronym/matronym, however, this is not ideal.
  5. As a last resort, ‘Unknown' may be used in the LNAB field, indicating that this knowledge is currently not publicly known. The use of 'Aboriginal' is not recommended in this field or any other name field, even when this has been used on an official document such as a birth certificate.

Current Last Name

The Current Last Name should be the last name used by the Individual at the end of their life. If this is unchanged then this field is the same as the Last Name at Birth.

Other Last Names

In the case where an individual has other last names that have not been identified in the other two last name fields, they can be added here. Again, this field should only be used to identify significant spelling variations. Minor spelling variations should be described in the profile.


  1. "A History of Aboriginal Sydney - North West - Settlers not recognising Aboriginal names and bestowing English names", Dept. of History, University of Sydney; accessed Dec 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Central Land Council, Accessed 15/11/19: Kinship and Skin Names
  • University of Sydney, National Centre of Cultural Competence. Aboriginal Kinship Presentation

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Should this page be categorized under Australia, Project Guidelines?
posted by Liz (Noland) Shifflett