The decision to scrap the European monikers of two mountains in central Queensland and return their titles to traditional Aboriginal names should be the impetus for extensive change in the way contemporary Australia identifies its landforms and places. But why settle there? The nation’s man-made markers should all be given Indigenous names too.
On Friday, “Mount Wheeler” and “Mount Jim Crow” will rightfully be consigned to the dustbin and the official titles for both mountains – located between the regional Queensland city of Rockhampton and the coastal township of Yeppoon – will revert to their respective traditional names of Gai-i and Baga.
In the first instance, the move reflects the bond that has existed between the Darumbal traditional owners and the culturally and spiritually significant sites over tens of thousands of years. However, it is also a welcome gesture of recognition from broader non-Indigenous Australia that so much more needs to be done to acknowledge and reconcile the present nation’s short, violent past with this continent’s long and enduring First Nations history.
The move follows numerous calls for other well-known places to do away with the foreign western names assigned to them in the recent past and revert back to their legitimate Aboriginal titles.
Perhaps the best known is Uluru, which fully reverted to its Yunkunytjatjara name in 2002. Elsewhere, the Wilpena Pound in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges was in 2016 co-named with the Adnyanmathanha word, Ikara, which means, “meeting place”. As with Uluru, after a transition period, popular reference to the location will likewise experience an outright preference for its First Nations identity.
In Victoria, a low mountain situated between Hamilton and Portland in the state’s western districts reverted to its real name of Budj Bim – meaning High Head – in April 2017. The Gunditjmara nation have had a continuous association with the site since they witnessed its formation after a volcanic eruption around 30,000 years ago. This event is depicted in Gunditjmara Yakinitj stories to the present day. The Budj Bim cultural landscape, which contains 6,600-years old sophisticated aquaculture systems engineered by the Gunditjimara, as well as evidence of permanent settlements in the form of stone structures, will soon be added to the international World Heritage List.
In contrast, the provenance of the mountain’s foreign toponym only began in 1836, when it was temporarily named Mount Eeles by the Crown’s surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell in honour of his company officer in the European Peninsula War. Then, in 1845, a clerical error led to the site mistakenly being labelled Mt Eccles for the next 172 years.
Tasmania and NSW have also made recent submissions to their respective naming boards for places to be returned to titles that reflect their true cultural traditions. The Nomenclature Board in lutruwita (Tasmania) has received submission from the state’s pakana centre to have the names of 11 locations returned to their original place words. The centre has drawn on palawa kani, a revived Aboriginal language, and colonial documentation to have culturally sensitive sites such as Murder Bay reverted to luwuka, and Victory Hill returned to timuk.
Back in Queensland, the department of natural resources has received a raft of proposals for place name changes from recently introduced toponyms back to their Indigenous designations. Among the well-supported bids is Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast to revert to Jellurgal; Mount Stapylton, which sits between Brisbane and the Gold Coast to return to its traditional name of Bookinburra; Fraser Island’s Great Sandy National Park to have its traditional name of K’gari reinstated; and the Lamington national park to change back to Woonoongoora, its original Yugambeh name, meaning quiet and timeless.
There is also an unofficial push to have the state’s capital city of Brisbane renamed Miguntyun. Local federal member for Miguntyun, Terri Butler, recently told Nine News that a name change for the city shouldn’t be ruled out. A similar preference in referring to Melbourne as Naarm – the traditional Boon Wurrung word for the nearby bay – is also gaining in popular usage.
In many of these cases the policies of the relevant authorities generally prefer the adoption of a dual naming system for places that already bear an introduced name. Similarly, these boards stipulate within their policies that dual naming will not apply to existing features such as roads, bridges, localities, and towns although they do favour Indigenous names for places that have not been officially assigned a foreign title. In the interests of true recognition, these policies – like the western names that have been imposed on our continent’s places and landforms – need to be cast aside.
The relevant First Nations origin names must be restored to every one of this country’s geographical features, and dual name discontinued immediately. New provisions within naming policy outlines could then include not only restoring Aboriginal language names to our cultural landscapes and sacred sites, but also the ability to rename in Indigenous languages towns and cities, communication towers, transport systems, places of knowledge, learning and faith, and all public spaces and memorials.
If contemporary Australia is truly being honest with itself it will appreciate that these gestures of recognition could be significant steps forward on the modern nation’s path towards a meaningful reconciliation.
- Jack Latimore is a Guardian Australia reporter and columnist