As a writer and language teacher, I know the power of language. We express ourselves in words and sentences. With language we persuade others to see things the way we do. The language of others influences the way we see the world.
Think of the differences between Ayers Rock and Uluru: the former celebrating the Chief Secretary of SA at the time explorer William Gosse sighted the rock in 1873; the latter marking the complex relationship the Anangu have formed with Uluru-Kata Tjuta over tens of thousands of years.
The English names in our country reflect the dispossession of the land by its Second Peoples. Ayers Rock, backed up by the colonists’ military power, rendered Uluru invisible. This has been repeated time and again across Australia. The obliteration of Aboriginal names may not have been a deliberate policy, but it was part of the large-scale destruction of Indigenous culture by the incomers.
We should rejoice that, at times, the settlers listened to the locals and used their name for the place. (According to Professor Leonard Collard, about half of south-western Australia’s placenames are Noongar.)
Toolbrunup, the name of the lake on our family farm and of the mountain on the horizon, is` close to the original. It means ‘the place which has water when all else is dry’, which was true until 20 years ago. Sadly changing land use has turned the lake into a place which is perpetually dry, but the name still reflects the memory of the Koreng people who gathered there year after year at the end of the hot season well into the European period.
For this is the power of Aboriginal placenames: they record a staggeringly long bond between people and land. They are memory; they are the keepers of value; they are part of the record of the most ancient continuous culture in the world. It is arrogant to continue to give places new European names if they are already named.
Of course, it is appropriate that the built environment should be named both for Aboriginal and wejulah reasons. A new school can be called the Bob Hawke College, but another one could be named the Wagyl Kaip College after the inland region of Wardandi country. Above the Forrest Highway could be the Mokine Overpass. Our history now, for better or for worse, is a joint story.
Local governments around Australia are developing commendable policies of dual naming, reviving the hidden Aboriginal name for places alongside the European name. Some have also adopted the principle of first using the Aboriginal placename (with appropriate permission from local elders).
The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2019 is ‘Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage’. What better place to start finding the truth is in the literal ground, the land beneath our feet? Sensitivity to placenames will speed this recovery of truth and memory and help wejulah to absorb more of Indigenous culture and reality and walk together with courage into the future.
Wejulah is the Noongar name for non-Noongars.