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Ancient place names must be known: Pearson

Ancient Aboriginal place names should be officially recognised throughout Australia, Cape York chairman Noel Pearson says.

Mr Pearson estimates that fewer than one in 100 ancient names are acknowledged and says reinstating them is a vital agenda for the country.

Mr Pearson’s views are part of an essay written for A Rightful Place: A Road Map to Recognition (published by Black Inc), a new book that includes opinion pieces by high-profile Indigenous Australians on how the nation can move forward.

The book also features the views of Professor Megan Davis, co-chairs of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples Jackie Huggins and Rod Little, Kimberley Land Council chief executive Nolan Hunter, Uphold and Recognise co-founder Damien Freeman, Nyungga Black Group managing director Warren Mundine and ABC Indigenous Affairs editor Stan Grant.

It has been edited by Shireen Morris, a senior advisor at the Cape York Institute, and the foreword is by Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

NIT has been given permission to publish an excerpt from Mr Pearson’s essay from the book. The book is available from for $27.99 for a paperback and $11.99 for an e-book.


An agenda for the classical culture of ancient Australia

By Noel Pearson

The indigenous identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is recognised at a certain level. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags are recognised as official flags under the Flags Act 1953. They fly outside parliaments, schools, council chambers and other public buildings. They are found on lapel pins of leading politicians and have become an accepted part of the public symbolism of the country. But below that there is no official recognition of the many tribal nations associated with particular territories. Apart from the registrations that occur under land rights schemes, there is no official status or recognition accorded to first peoples. Some towns and cities have signage at airports or at the entrance of towns, or at public buildings which acknowledge local tribes – but it is not part of any official scheme of recognition.

‘Welcome to country’ ceremonies and the practices of acknowledging traditional custodians are now part of official protocols in Australia, even if there is more psychological discomfort about it than in, say, New Zealand – where the practice is de rigueur, sincere and there is no question of embarrassment. I witness many Australian ceremonies that are perfunctory or awkward, reflecting the degree to which we are far from the bicultural society New Zealand has become.

No doubt it helps if you have the greatest team of any sporting code in the modern world – the All Blacks – but it is impossible not to feel comparatively impoverished when the haka is performed and ‘God Defend New Zealand’ is sung in Maori and English. I am afraid to say one wipes tears for the hymn of our enemies and cringes at our own.

The other area of great work that lies before us is the naming of places throughout the continent. Thousands of cities, towns, suburbs, streets, bridges, rivers, creeks and other landmarks have Aboriginal names accumulated over two centuries. By the time you count all of the private names of homesteads, farms, residences, buildings and institutions that are Aboriginal, they number in the tens of thousands.

And yet there is little awareness of the provenance of these place names. People seem not to know that Coolum is an Aboriginal name, as are the great majority of the town names on the Sunshine Coast. It is strange indeed to drive through places with virtually no Aboriginal presence, but all bearing these ancient names. Many Australians simply do not know the difference between Aboriginal and English names. My children and I play a kind of Gregory’s street-map game of ancient Australia – where we get points for finding Aboriginal names: Cooroy, Noosa, Tinbeerwah, Eumundi, Beerwah, Maroochydore, Nambour. And then we pass the roundabout and see this sign: Murdering Creek Road. And I fall silent.

I will make a wild guess and say that fewer than one in a hundred of the ancient names of Australia have been officially recognised. Most features of the continent, its contours, swamps, sandhills, creeks, rivers, headlands and so on, have Aboriginal names of ancient provenance. How can it be that these names are not officially recognised? Other countries have adopted dual naming practices.

When I visit Yuurrgubarraalbigu, on the coast near the old Cape Bedford Mission, I pass a hill with the prosaic but official name of Round Hill, but its true name is Dhamal Nubuun: One Foot. It is ridiculous that a place that had a name at the time of Jesus of Nazareth is no longer officially known by this name.

This is a vitally important agenda for the country. This continent is a named continent, and Australians should know this landscape is rich with meaning and history.

Through land rights schemes, native title rights at common law and under legislation, land reservations and purchases, much has been done to recognise the territorial rights of the contemporary descendants of the original Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes. This is where accommodation has been made, and the process is by no means complete.

The protection of Indigenous heritage in the form of cultural artefacts and places has long been provided for in legislation. These are of mixed quality and there are gaps, but this is an area of accommodation that has received attention.

There are institutions for keeping and displaying the country’s Indigenous heritage, including a dedicated institution – the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies – but these are not properly supported. There is a yawning gulf between the work they are able to do and the work that needs to be done.

Australia does not have a comprehensive agenda for the recording, preservation, presentation and utilisation of the country’s Indigenous heritage. The urgent work, described by Rachel Perkins, of recording the songlines of central Australia is just one example of the work that needs to be done Before It’s Too Late (BITL).

The former director of the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, the late English archaeologist Peter Ucko, was the architect of the first BITL push, which saw scores of young anthropologists and linguists deployed to the four corners of the continent to undertake salvage work by making Indigenous language and ethnographic recordings. This work captured the knowledge of the last of the old people born in the bush, before the mission era. Some of Australia’s leading anthropologists, such as Peter Sutton, were part of this drive.

Australia urgently needs a BITL Mark 3, since the generation that worked on the cattle stations, who were brought up and worked on the land, and who learnt the languages – the next generation on from the old bush-born generation – are now old and passing on. Much of this knowledge will be lost if we do not grasp the importance and urgency of this work. Also, the work compiled by that first generation of BITL researchers needs to be the subject of urgent work itself: converting the mouldering contents of storage rooms of ethnographers who are now in their seniority into forms that are accessible and useful to future generations. It is no exaggeration to say that the note-books and journals of the researchers who worked in Cape York Peninsula these past fifty years are themselves part of the world’s heritage. We need concerted public support to secure this heritage. And of course much more recording work, utilising the latest information technology, lies ahead of new generations of linguists and ethnographers. The universities need to be part of this national drive over the coming decades, because they need to provide the personnel for this drive.

In 2001, the world watched aghast as the Taliban dynamited and destroyed the 1700-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Treasures of older lineage are in danger of being lost to our nation through blindness and neglect rather than vandalism.

From A Rightful Place: A Road Map to Recognition published by Black Inc.

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