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Aug 30, 2017

What’s in a name? The fundamental politics of restoring indigenous names for country

Knowing the indigenous names for the land we occupy is not about learning history, it is a step towards rehabilitating our national character, writes Chips Mackinolty.

NT Labor government promises

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner

On August 9, 1974, eight years almost to the day after the famous Wave Hill Walk Off, a group of largely Mangarrayi speaking families walked off Elsey Station. Yes, the place of the colonialist pastoral fantasy of We of the Never Never.*

They walked three kilometres to a spot on a tributary of the Roper River, then known as Duck Creek. Using bush materials and corrugated iron from their humpies on Elsey, augmented by iron from the “Native Ward” at Katherine Hospital, set to be demolished, they established a community which exists to this day. Within a year the members of the community had set up a crude bough shelter as a school for their kids. Over time, the “Duck Creek” name was dropped, and it was known as Djembere.

Nine years later, then-NT chief minister Paul Everingham appeared in the land — hardly the tall stranger of the Gurindji struggle — but he did arrive with the title deed to an excision from Elsey Station, and the gift of a small Kubota tractor.

Later that day community matriarchs Sheila Conway and Jessie Roberts took me aside and told me that … well … um … the place name of their community wasn’t Duck Creek (obviously) and not Djembere — that was a couple of miles up stream. It was called Jilkminggan, and referred to a child dreaming site next to the community. Could something be done about it?

So back in Katherine I wrote to every NT and Commonwealth department and agency I could think of. Mostly receiving a deafening silence, but over the years a slow, official acceptance of the name and the spelling.**

One sole phone call from a Transport and Works old-timer, who I’d shared a beer with once or twice in Mataranka, sealed the change: “Jesus, mate! It’s been fuckin’ Duck Creek forever, and I just got used to fuckin’ Djembere and now the fuckin’ blackfellas want to change it again!” I said I owed him a beer, but what blackfellas wanted to call their home was up to them. “Fair enough,” he said (and I later found out he got the job of changing all the maps of the region).

A few years later, addressing a tourism conference as then executive officer of the Jawoyn Association, John Ah Kit, challenged what was seen as a simple orthodoxy of the travel industry: that tourists didn’t want to know about Aboriginal place names, and that “reverting” to such names would damage the tourist trade.

Ah Kit posited something quite different by re-imagining the Stuart Highway, which climbs 1700 kilometres south to north from the South Australian border to Darwin. It would be a highway that would be lined with hundreds of Aboriginal place names, with information on their meanings and significance. And he didn’t even mention the Victoria, Barkly or Lasseter highways. (Not that there is a single major road in the Territory, other than the Kakadu Highway, which draws on Aboriginal intellectual and cultural wealth.)

This was, of course, not so long after the apocalyptic hysteria surrounding the so-called “renaming” of Ayers Rock and the Olgas to Uluru-Kata Tjuta, and the then-more-recent confected outrage over the naming of Nitmiluk National Park (instead of Katherine Gorge).

Not in these words from the Latin, but Ah Kit identified — only a few years after the High Court ruled on “terra nullius” — that there was another kind of forgetting: “locum nullius”, a thorough going denial of the place names that should enrich every corner of this continent, and the islands that abound it.

Of course there are many towns, and not a few geographic locations, that have drawn their names from local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nomenclature. Think Parramatta and the rest. Along with the Attack Creek and Massacre Hill and Niggers Leap.

Of course, as well, there has been a slow movement towards dual naming in some jurisdictions. The Victorian Government’s current appeal for the naming of its underground rail stations will inevitably invite Aboriginal place names — if not for any other reason than the odious adulation of John Batman elsewhere in that city.

So the recent call by NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner to be open to dual naming, at the very least, can only be seen as positive — if “brave” in the terms of “Yes Minister!”.

The headline statements of his government’s belief in treaties, his remarks about the “degradation and humiliation of the Intervention”, and his skepticism about Australia Day have already garnered hysterical responses.

But there is also this, a rejection of locum nullius:

I can announce today my Government will begin consulting about complimentary street and place names to elevate Aboriginal identity, language and history into the everyday.

Aboriginal language existed everywhere on this continent long before English.

How many Australians know the land under Alice Springs is Mparntwe to the Arrernte, the first people of that place; or that Darwin is Garramilla to the Larrakia? Or that there are special places all around us with treasured stories and histories?

We should know this.

This is about historical accuracy as much as it is about respect.

Uluru was Uluru many generations before it was Ayers Rock.

It is not Hooker Creek at the edge of the Tanami desert, it is Lajamanu.

And Vincent Lingiari did not lead his people to a place their ancestors called Wattie Creek, but to a place called Daguragu, where this weekend they are celebrating 51 years since the Wave Hill Walk-Off.

As part of that statement at Jabiru, at an Aboriginal cultural festival, he said he would be referring the issue of Aboriginal place naming to the chair of the Place Names Committee, military historian Tom Lewis.

But of course there is another Tom Lewis in the NT: the performer Tom E Lewis. He lives at a place called Beswick, east of Katherine. That’s what it was called under Native Welfare days, when it was a “training station” for the pastoral industry. Its official name is, now, Wugularr. Local Jawoyn names also include Ngagartkuliny — the site of his fabulously successful annual Walking with Spirits festival. The billabong is called Jarruluk, another child dreaming site.

It’s complicated.

As I said, “brave” on the part of Michael Gunner, but courage I cannot help but support. Perhaps I am naive, but I believe that there is a sense in which “knowing country” in the languages of its traditional owners, is what should define who we are.

* For useful detail on the history of the ‘never-never’ country read Lorena Allam’s account “Whose ‘Never Never’?” presented at Background Briefingon ABC Radio National in September 1999.

** OK, this was my orthography and linguists may disagree. But it is what it is, and I take responsibility for it.

Chips Mackinolty is an artist and journalist based in Palermo and Darwin. 

— This article originally appeared on Crikey blog The Northern Myth.

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6 comments

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6 thoughts on “What’s in a name? The fundamental politics of restoring indigenous names for country

  1. mike westerman

    While we’re at it we could stop calling overseas places by other than their local name! Éire, Venecia, Milano, Roma, Krungtep, Singapura, Makassar!

    1. Woopwoop

      OK, we call China Zhongguo.
      What do we then call Chinese, Zhongguoren?
      Incidentally, I would support all the names in the article, except for Darwin. Darwin is a modern city, not a stretch of country. It had no existence before the Balanders came.

    2. AR

      Nation Review tried that in the 70s – it might not be the reason it collapsed but struggling with Zhongguo was a tongue trip too far for even the Left before lattes were invented.
      How about Munchen, and what to do about Aix-la-Chappell/Aachen?
      Do you really wanna be the poseur who sez ‘Paree”.

  2. jmendelssohn

    Language is powerful. Calling places by their right names (including Roma, Milano etc) is a sign of respect. In Australia people are more likely to understand the deep spiritual values of Uluru than that the locals don’t want them to climb Ayers Rock.

    1. Charlie Chaplin

      Yep. Learn the names. Learn the story. What would you rather? 65,000 years of history, or 200?

  3. PaulaM

    Thank you, from an 83 year-old white Australian woman. For years, I’ve hated that Australian places have been named for English and, particularly, American places. Native names might be hard to spell and pronounce, but how much more interesting and unlike any other English speaking country.

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