Nangun wruk - First Languages Australia's National Place Names Project


First Language Place Names. Courtesy of First Languages Australia, 2021.

“Over 60% of Australian place names are of Aboriginal origin but the meanings of very few are known to the public.” - Yuin, Bunurong man and author Bruce Pascoe, 2016

From road signs and street corners, to our towns and suburbs, to mountains and rivers, many places in Australia are known by their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names. But, do we really know what they mean and where they come from? Traditional place name recognition and its use is significant to First Nations peoples as it articulates a longstanding and ongoing relationship and connection to their land, language, culture, history and ultimately, their identity (Armstrong, 2021). That’s why First Languages Australia is working on an incredible project called Nangun wruk (meaning ‘our earth’), a national place names project aiming to “appropriately involve language communities in the renaming processes in their regions.” The non-profit is taking a two-pronged approach to achieve this goal; one focussed on supporting the work First Nations communities are doing in documenting and publishing place names; the second focussed on working with the Permanent Committee on Place Names (PCPN) and other relevant agencies (First Languages Australia, 2021) 

A Brief History on Place Names

When the early marine explorers of the French, Dutch and Portuguese came to Australia, they put place names around the coastlines. Then the English, Cook and Flinders came along and filled in the rest of the circuit around Australia, giving English place names. After, came the land explorers, giving names to geographical land features named after their benefactors that paid for their expeditions. After the formal settlement of Australia, the surveyors came along and were instructed by their generals to ascertain from Indigenous people their correct place names (Kitson, 2014). 

Tony Armstrong, proud Barranbiyan man, former AFL football player and current sports presenter for ABC’s News Breakfast, explained on his guest hosting of Channel 10’s The Project (2021) place names feature story:

“The boundaries that mark Australia’s states and cities today used to… [be] made up of many different and distinct groups, each with their own culture, customs, language and lores. But through colonisation, those boundaries and place names were stripped away, the land carved up and given new names...Many colonial names reflect stories of possession, conquest and atrocity. Some traditional place names were kept by European Settlers, but they were often Anglicised, transcribed incorrectly, or used in the wrong locations.”

Below is The AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia, showing the many nations that existed before the boundaries that mark Australia’s states and cities were created:

The AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia. Courtesy of AIATSIS, 2021. 

Annalee Pope, proud Wakka Wakka descendant from central Queensland working for First Languages Australia, expressed on the latter:

“When you have significant places that are named after traumatic events, it’s obviously not healing. Being able to change that and bring back traditional names is helping to close a lot of those wounds.” 

This is where First Languages Australia comes into the equation as, through their aforementioned project, they aim to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia to produce a national database for traditional place names, and in the process help revive and maintain traditional languages (First Languages Australia, 2021).

Community Mapping

In First Languages Australia’s first approach, they have been inviting and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their governments to identify the place names that they would like to be recognised on the Place Names Map. They then compile the source information relative to this, such as the geographical name and location and a community point of contact for the appropriate use of that name in the region. The software that runs the Gambay - First Languages Map has been modified to develop a new map on which to collect and publicise place names in the form of interactive yellow dots. When you click on these dots there are a number of resources such as photographs and videos about the place names on the map. Some of these videos include the ABC series ‘This Place’ where Indigenous elders and community members share the stories behind place names of their country (First Languages Australia, 2021).

Similarly to our previous article on First Languages Australia’s project Gambay - First Languages Map, there are teacher resources explaining the naming process in Australia, including the official use of Indigenous names. We encourage you to check out one of the resources included, which is a video called 'What’s in a name?' starring Ernie Dingo where he talks about how geographical places get their names, and how the PCPN (formerly known as the Committee for Geographical Names in Australasia or CGNA) looks after them (ICSM, 2014). 

Ultimately, the goal is to promote the place names map as a reference tool for local schools, councils, parks and wildlife and tourism ventures. Through the resources provided, First Languages Australia aims to give us all a better understanding of the historical, cultural and social significance of Indigenous traditional place names (First Languages Australia, 2021).

Statutory authority

When looking at First Language Australia’s second approach, you need to understand the role of the PCPN. Each Australian state and territory has a place name registrar, a naming committee or board for approving or registering names. The PCPN is the coordinating body - operating under the Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying & Mapping (ICSM) - that coordinates and communicates the use of place names to ensure they meet the requirements of the Indigenous peoples, the whole community, as well as government bodies and emergency services (ICSM, 2021). It is important to note that this process of reclaiming and restoring traditional place names isn’t a simple process. Tony Armstrong explains (2021) in the aforementioned feature story:

Across the country, place names can be contentious. In Tasmania, fifteen place names approved by the government in March are currently being contested by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, which has been representing First Nation peoples for more than thirty years.”

Although the state and naming authorities are in charge of the naming processes, it’s important to realise that the public is a vital contributor. This is where it becomes crucial that as many Indigenous communities as possible provide historical insights into old colonial ones (First Languages Australia, 2021).

Canberra area dual-name place. Photograph by Grace Koch. Courtesy of ANU, 2021.

Officially renamed road sign pointing to Uluru with traditional place names. Courtesy of Shutterstock/puyalroyo, Daily Mail 2021. 

Thus, it is clear that First Languages Australia’s second approach of building a relationship and collaborating with the PCPN is vital for this project. In gaining their support, the non-profit will be able to achieve their goal of developing national guidelines for working with First Language communities for the expedient implementation of renaming/dual naming practices, and where possible including the meanings of the place names on signage. Gaining support from National Parks bodies is also crucial as many states have a ‘Geographical Names Act’ as well as guidelines for how to deal with Indigenous place naming (First Languages Australia, 2021).

“Slowly, more and more traditional place names are being reclaimed and restored. Today, most jurisdictions now have dual-naming policies, allowing places to be identified by both their traditional and colonial names” - Tony Anthony, 2021

As the dual-naming and renaming of significant places increases, so will the need for local cultural, historical and linguistic knowledge of First Nations communities. Everybody wins here, as it would result in adequate support for language recovery and maintenance, as well as unique value-adding opportunities for parks and wildlife and tourism operators. This would then open up more employment opportunities for Indigenous community members in both remote and city locations. Overall, increasing the mental, physical and spiritual health of First Nations community members (First Languages Australia, 2021).

Collectively, the progress that First Languages Australia, advocating community members, traditional owners and the wider Australian community has achieved on this matter is a monumental step towards reconciliation and healing. It’s absolutely critical for all of us to understand the country that we live in; to think about where we’ve come from, the kind of country we want to be; what truly makes us Australian.