Should Australian cities bear Aboriginal language names

Gregory Phillips, Waanyi and Jaru

Gregory interrogates place and naming as two powerful concepts, artefacts or expressions of cultural value in response to the question – If all Australians had a relationship with Indigenous language, how would that affect race relations more broadly? This speech was delivered as part of The Wheeler Centre Interrobang Talks in January 2016. To view please click this link

Why are some places in Australia already named with Aboriginal words and others aren’t? In Queensland there is Caboolture and Indooroopilly and beautiful names like that. In Sydney there is Woy Woy and Wagga Wagga, and others Coogee, Yackandandah in Victoria and Joondalup in Perth, Uluru and Canberra. Now Tasmania has recently renamed Mount Wellington its correct name Kunanyi from the Palawa languages, they have an official naming policy in Tasmania now. But why not name Adelaide Sydney Melbourne Brisbane Darwin and Perth? What is the difference between why we accept current place names that are using Aboriginal languages and not so much others? Is it to do with random acts of kindness or random acts of being conscious? Otherwise, it is still a colonial landscape that we still live in. Let’s turn to this idea of place first. I am going to use broad brush strokes to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and European cultures to try and draw out the central tenets in what are the differences and what are the similarities between a concept like ‘place’.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture place and land is the whole basis of our cosmology. It ties in together genealogy, spirituality, lore, ethics, knowledge, intellectual property – all these things are tied together for Aboriginal people in a place. For example, my niece Aboriginal name is Longajamarra from our language and an elder near Borroloola gave her that name, because it not only refers to her physical name and her place in the social structure of our tribe but also a lake, a small billabong. What that does is it ties us to our responsibility to a specific piece of land or a place, to look after a place, to gain our identity from that place but also give back to. In Aboriginal culture context is everything. Everything is interconnected. Philosophically, Aunty Mary Graham from Brisbane acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples logic and philosophy is very different to the west. The wests logic is something like P or not P, in terms of the logic understood in psychology studies or in in society, ‘I think therefore I am and if I don’t think therefore I am not’.  

It is a very mental and physical based understanding of the world, the epistemology and the logic and the ontology of western cultures is very much about one or the other. For Aboriginal people our cosmology and logic and philosophy is based on a statement something like every perspective is valid and reasonable. In Aboriginal mindset we don’t think about something being correct or incorrect, we think about something being correct or incorrect in certain contexts. We have this very nice way of being able to balance truth and non-truth as actually the same thing, that all perspectives is valid and reasonable in our philosophy and logic. For Aboriginal people everything is interconnected and we are in a relationship with the land it is not something that exists as another entity that is separate to us as human beings. We are in a relationship with it and we understand that we are connected and our stories and cosmology give effect to that.

In the European sense of place, place is about land it is considered inanimate as a physical location to be owned and dominated perhaps, that land is of monetary value to be dug up and consumed. Now what I find interesting is some conversations that farmers have after generations of working and living with the land they start to feel this affection for and start to talk about land in similar terms to Aboriginal communities. They talk about a deep love for the land and their connection to it and their family history there ‘don’t you know we’ve been on this land for 6 generations’ – which is great but it is kind of miniscule. Even in describing that relationship it still counts in monetary terms, so you can love the land if there is some value that comes back to the human being that is monetary.

It is interesting to consider how people might find land in non-monetary terms and that does happen in European cultures sometimes but our whole basis in our society in the west is not based on that.  So why is that? Why has the west moved from being an earth based culture? Why is there a change? What happened between Stonehenge and Druid culture for example and the understanding of place that we now have in the west? How did we get to industrialisation? In short terms it is all about power and money, land became a commodity, land became something to own and make money from. We can say that money is the root of all evil and absolute power corrupts. When I think about power and money and why a society would move that way, what I think they are both about is fear. That is the human emotion underneath them. Fear that there will not be enough food or not enough resources, fear that there will be not enough love or not enough connection, and therefore an attempt to control the environment and to control human emotions and to control interactions. Control and fear were the basis for science and religion to be used as justification for colonisation. Science and religion are in and of themselves not bad things but it is how you use them and why you use them, for what purposes and means and to what ends. They were used for colonisation, so philosophically this is where I make the point above about ‘I think therefore I am’ and ‘p or not p’, gives rise to the adversarial law that someone is right and someone is wrong, that someone misses out and someone wins. This binary thinking, this adversarial logic underpins most of western societies these days. What we are talking about here is about values, ontology, epistemology – that is what drives people and cultures to do the things that they do.

If we turn to naming, intimately related to place, in Aboriginal cultures you name something or the names have been given by the ancestors in a way to honour lore, to honour that ongoing connection to the land, to honour ancestors, to honour a physical place as well. It is also as the example I gave before about my niece, it’s current, it’s very real now, it’s not ancient culture versus contemporary reality. Those things are connected, there is no difference between now and the future and so when we talk about the dreaming, even though it is a western word, it attempts to explain Aboriginal philosophical beliefs that the past is right here now and we are creating our dreaming here and now for others to come. That is why we talk about planning not for the 3 year election cycles but for generations because sustainability cannot survive if you do not do that.

Aboriginal people have places and naming based on this cosmology, you get names from the skin cycles. Our genealogy is not based on hereditary in the same way that it is in the west, it is based on a cycle of names. In some tribes there might be 8 skin names for females and 8 skin names for males. Once child cycles through, it starts at the beginning of the skin name and that is a way of keeping the skin gene pure. It also ensures that there is responsibility for every piece of land and that they are interconnected and that there are no fights and disputes over land that it is all understood and it is all in the law already.

In European cultures and values, naming is about honouring people or events or place names. It about a particular value or cultural word that respects somebody. For example, Cloncurry where I come from is named after Lady Cloncurry. Mount Isa was named by John Campbell Miles, the man that apparently discovered Mount Isa, is named after his relative by shortening Isabella for Isa. Incidentally, Kabalulumana is the Aboriginal man who actually found the mine site or knew where it was and told the local postman who used to run the mail between Camooweal and Dajarra and he told John Campbell Miles but apparently John Campbell Miles discovered the mine. You could say the same about the Blue Mountains, did Blaxland Lawson or Wentworth discover it or was it their guides’ ownership.

What is the commonality and views between Aboriginal place and naming and European views of place and naming? The central theme seems to be about honouring, remembering, and inscribing a certain set of values and logic into the land but they are based on very different values and logic. Aboriginal people have a very different way of naming that European cultures might, one is not better than the other it is just to say that they are different.

I am really interested in renaming and how Tasmania has a renaming policy and how they decided that Mount Wellington will now be named Kunanyi. They started with 6 significant sites around Tasmania under Lara Giddings government to rename them in their Palawa Aboriginal names. We all know of Uluru and Kakadu and the renaming which has been accepted and is part of the basic lexicon now. Perth and Adelaide have listed place names in cities quite extensive, about a hundred different place names within Adelaide city council or the local government parks and lakes by researching their Aboriginal names, so that’s great. But what is interesting about all of this is, why do we now acknowledge Uluru and Kakadu as their correct traditional names but not Adelaide Sydney Brisbane Melbourne and Perth? I think the answer is perhaps, renaming in some contexts can be about re-inscribing white power rather than expunging it.

To tell you what I mean I need to give you a brief description to explain this term of ‘whiteness’. Whiteness is not about ethnically or physically white people it is not about skin colour. But it is about a set of values where money and power are normalised for example, neoliberalism, that money and value is of course how society should operate and it’s about racism where there is superiority among certain races. While we all understand what colonisation is and racism is and the effects of that, whiteness is the values that underlie that, whiteness are the values that gave rise to the expression of those values that you could colonise another and you could own another and there could be superiority among human beings.

Let me give you an example how this is all played out in the Australian landscape. When the convicts and captain cook arrived in 1788 or there about, convicts were coming here from England with a whole lot of ‘class shaming’. They were coming as ‘you are being rejected, you are not good enough, you don’t belong here you need to go somewhere else you are being expelled from the tribe’. What happened after they got to Australia initially after some of them broke out of the penal colonies or ran away and escaped, is they got looked after by Aboriginal people. Some Aboriginal people chose to make it a fight like Pemulwuy in Sydney who tried frontier and resistance wars and other Aboriginal people thought ‘well we should look after these people because they are being abused as well, they are running away and they need food and water’. So Aboriginal people looked after them and there are accounts where convicts and Aboriginal people were getting on very well, initially. But what happened after they served out their term or had gone from convict to settler is they were given land or they were offered the opportunity to squat or take over land to have a plot of land by the governor at the time. What happened was the ‘class shaming’ was given a chance to be expunged, that you could make something of yourself if you took on this land. So any love or nice feelings or relationship they might have had between Aboriginal people and the convicts of looking after each other very quickly changed when land and value and land as money became part of the story.

Those same convicts became settlers, took over land and then colonisation as we know it, massacres and poisonings etc., became the order of the day and those good feelings of relationships between human beings changed because real estate got involved. This opportunity to ‘make something of yourself’ is an expression of ‘whiteness’, a value that land as money will fix everything. I think our current obsession with the block and all of these shows about real estate and location location location, we love how expensive land is in Australia. I actually think that that is an expression of whiteness and colonisation unchecked, because land has become a way to avoid the fear of not having enough and to control the environment. So we are quite happy to acknowledge traditional owners these days in Australia, which is good, but only if we get to keep our land values. So, the central questions of power and money still are not addressed, who makes the decisions who owns the land?

What we do in Australia is we include Aboriginal people on white terms, the whiteness terms, normalised neoliberalism and racism, but we don’t do social justice we don’t do equalisation of power and money and in doing so we are actually reinscribing white power. Yes we should acknowledge traditional country but if we don’t as a nation have a conversation about sovereignty and how we share that or how we have a relationship now, what we are actually doing is reinscribing white power through ‘inclusion’ and ‘equality’ rather than actually talking about the real issues that remain unchecked.

Why isn’t Sydney renamed but Uluru is? Sydney did some research about its traditional names and some researchers found that Sydney cove was called Kardi. Meanjin is the Aboriginal name for Brisbane, from the local Turrbal language. So why do we choose to call Uluru Uluru but not call Meanjin Meanjin? We are attempting to include Aboriginal language in our discussions in some ways but in many ways we are not, and were doing it in a way that does not address the underlying power imbalance, the underlying values, it all comes back to whose values and ontology and logic is considered normal or right or valid and whose is not. So, in the absence of that deeper conversation we going to do ‘inclusion’ we are going to include Aboriginal people in the constitution – ‘isn’t that nice, it’s so benevolent, we’re going to include you people in ours because we like you’.  Niceness is not what we are talking about here, it is not actually discussing who owns the land and how do we share that.

If we are not having this bigger conversation we are reinscribing the fear of not enough, the logic of whiteness and the power of the colonial, to each end we should expunge colonisation. We should rename our cities yes, but only after we have faced the truth of genocide; after we have had a truth and reconciliation commission rather than just reconciliation; after we have memorialised genocide like Germany does; after we have made reparations; after we have written this history into our national curriculum. Not because we want to feel guilty forever and a day but because we need our next generations to know what happened in their own country and after we have had a discussion about real power sharing between two sovereign groups of peoples – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and European people. How can we share sovereignty, how can we share decision making, power and money? We need to find real peace, find a peace making process to do this to discuss what this country could and should be. Yes we should rename, but we should rename as a conscious act of social justice. Our values and motivations can be pure, can be more clear but at the moment we are not quite there, we are halfway there. We should chose atonement over guilt and shame, we should choose relationship over isolation and of course we should not choose fear but we should choose love.

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