Fraser Island renamed to Traditional Place Name K'gari

K’gari. Courtesy of Unsplash, 2021.

As of September 19th, Fraser Island has been renamed to its traditional place name: K’gari. The word K’gari, pronounced “gurri,” from the Butchulla language means ‘paradise,’ which to Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation Chairperson Jade Gould (2021) is “a much more fitting name for such an iconic place.” For Butchulla Elders, leaders and community members this renunciation is about more than just the seemingly small changing of a name; it’s about the ridding of a name tributed to Eliza Fraser - “a woman whose narrative directly lead to the massacre and dispossession of the Butchulla people” (Gould, 2021). Their fight to replace the Island’s colonial name rightfully back to its traditional name was part of a long, drawn-out campaign. Triumphantly, their campaign received endorsement from the Queensland government and saw the World Heritage Committee formally adopting K’gari as a World Heritage Area. Thus, the repatriation of K’gari to the Butchulla people not only honours the people as a collective, but also their culture, traditions and connection to Country (NIT, 2021).

At Kingfisher Bay Resort, Butchulla dancers and community representatives came together to celebrate this momentous occasion (NIT, 2021). Butchulla Native Title Aboriginal Corporation’s executive director Kate Doolan welcomed the renaming, stating:

“On behalf of the Butchulla people we pay respect to our Elders who are no longer with us to hear this news.

“Today is a time of reflection for our people and for those souls who long advocated for such a meaningful change over such a lengthy period of time.”

Butchulla dancers in a Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony at the renaming ceremony. Courtesy of Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation’s Facebook, 2021.

The Queensland Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon was also in attendance. Minister Scanlon addressed the success of the campaign, saying:

“K’gari, the surrounding waters and parts of the mainland are home for the Butchulla people who have long asked for K'gari’s name to be repatriated.”

“I look forward to working with the Butchulla people, stakeholders and the community to progress the necessary steps now for the formal renaming of the entire island to K’gari.”

Environment Minister Maeghan Scanlon (far left) attended the ceremony on K’gari revealing the place name change. Courtesy of Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation’s Facebook, 2021.

The campaign for the reversion to K’gari has occurred in stages over several years. In 2011, the Bligh Government bestowed the traditional place name K’gari as the ‘alternative’ name to the Island in the Queensland Place Names Register. Further progress was made in 2014 when the Butchulla people were granted Native Title rights over Fraser Island. Then, in 2017, the Fraser Island section of the Great Sandy National Park was renamed to “K’gari (Fraser Island) National Park” on the UNESCO World Heritage list. In 2018, the national park’s renaming was acknowledged by a royal visit from Prince Harry. This year, Minister Scanlon confirmed to the media that the Queensland Government is dedicated to supporting the renaming, as well as the possibility of seeing K’gari featured on Australian maps. The Minister also confirmed that both the Commonwealth Minister and herself have approved the renaming process, and now it will be going through the Department of Resources process which administers the Place Names Act 1994 (NIT, 2021). 

In the official statement to the press, Minister Scanlon (2021) also reported that this repatriation event is the latest in a growing number of other Indigenous name repatriations across the nation:

“Other national parks have been renamed in consultation with Traditional Owners and the community including Naree Budjong Djara National Park on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and Gheebulum Kunungai National Park [on] Mulgumpin (Moreton Island), both of which are home to the Quandamooka people.”

The National Parks First Nations Naming Project assisted in the reverting of the aforementioned national park names to traditional Indigenous names. This project is part of the Queensland Government’s commitment to identifying national parks across the state for the possible renaming in First Nations languages, as part of the truth-telling process (Queensland Government, 2021). Moreover, the current increase in Indigenous name repatriation is an excellent step towards, not only reconciliation, but the increased recognition of First Nations culture, tradition and history that predates colonisation, and continues today.

From a colonial perspective, written language has played a significant role in the history of overwriting traditional Indigenous place names. Since Indigenous peoples didn’t have any written language prior to colonisation, colonists took advantage of this in an attempt to deny all pre-existing history and connection to traditional lands. Here, it is important to note that the action of just changing a colonial place name to an Indigenous place name cannot erase the blunt reminders of colonial violence in one fell swoop. This is especially the case in place names that indicate violent acts have occurred, such as Massacre Bay, Massacre Point and the Bay of Martyrs to the west of Peterborough in Victoria, and Skull Creek in Gippsland (The Conversation, 2021). 

Dolphins splashing in the ocean on K’gari Country. Courtesy of Unsplash, 2021.

To the Butchulla people, Fraser Island has always been called K’gari, ever since its creation in the Dreamtime. In the Dreamtime, Beiral, the Great God in the Sky, made all people, but realised they had no lands. So, he sent a messenger Yendingie down from the sky to create the lands and oceans upon the earth. K’gari, the spirit princess, helped Yendingie make the mountain ranges, the lakes, rivers and sea shores. After working tirelessly and dedicating her time to creating such a beautiful place, K’gari fell deeply in love with the earth. Princess K’gari pleaded with Yendingie to stay there forever, but he could not allow for that as they were spirits, not physical beings. Finally, Yendingie agreed for K’gari to stay but she could not stay in spirit-form, so he transformed her into a beautiful sand island, which was to be named after her. Yendingie set out to make animals and people to keep her company and trees and flowers to shade her body; he made lakes specially mirrored so that K’gari could see into the sky and watch the spirits above; and he made ‘laughing’ waters (creeks) so that she could talk. And so, K’gari is still here today, laying for eternity in and as ‘paradise’ (ABC News, 2021). This Dreamtime story is a way for the Butchulla people to understand the world around them and how it came to be; it’s a way for them to pass down and record the beliefs and history of their people.

So, now we know how the traditional place name K’gari came to be, but where did the colonial place name Fraser come from? In the New York pamphlet 'Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser', published in 1837 by Charles S. Webb, is a detailed account about her time spent of K'gari. Below, Fraser wrote how she came upon the Island:

“It was by the solicitations of my poor, unfortunate husband, that I consented to accompany him, on voyage to New South Wales, and from thence back to Liverpool, on board the ship Sterling Castle, of which he was the commander…

“...early the next morning [the 25th May, 1836] the sound of breakers was distinctly heard, and in less than half an hour afterwards the ship struck with great violence upon a hidden reef.”

Frontispiece to the 1837 New York pamphlet, 'Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser,' published by Charles S. Webb 1837. Courtesy of National Library of Australia, 2021.

Supposedly, in this account, upon reaching the island, Mrs Fraser, along with Captain Fraser and other crew members were captured by the Butchulla people after shipwrecking on the island. Her husband was then taken to a remote part of the island where he was "doomed to hard labour" and later stabbed to death with a spear by one of the tribal members after he refused to labour. A steward who managed to escape from the island in an “Indian canoe” reached the mainland and then Moreton Bay, where he gave information on Fraser and her unfortunate companions' situation. Later, a party of “thirteen resolute young men, under command of Lieut. Otter, and the said Mr. Graham, presented themselves," rescued Fraser and took her back to Liverpool. Mrs Fraser was also supposedly subjected to labour looking after children and harvesting food. Fraser’s accounts of her time on K’gari reached as far as the Americas, reinforcing the negative stereotypes of Indigenous peoples around the globe being vilified as ‘cannibals’ and ‘savages.’ 

It is important to note that Fraser’s accounts were thrown into doubt quite a few times in her days. She was known to be a sensationalist, spinning several different stories of torture, slavery, murder and cannibalism in the efforts to garner more attention and money from sympathetic supporters. There are at least three different variations of Eliza Fraser’s narrative that we know of that were provided on her behalf (National Library of Australia, 2021). So, from Eliza Fraser’s highly exoticised accounts, we can see that her portrayal of the Butchulla peoples is clearly from a colonial perspective and narrative; one in which favours dispossession and degradation of race.

Scene from Mrs Eliza Fraser’s escape from the savages, “Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle,” John Curtis. Courtesy of the National Library of Queensland, 2021.

So, the next time you visit Fraser Island, try calling the Island by it’s traditional place name, K'gari. By doing so, you are not only acknowledging the pre-colonial history of the Butchulla peoples,' but are paying respect to their land, culture and traditions. Now that you have been given a brief insight as to the history of K’gari, we hope you can take away the important fact that colonial history is not Indigenous history. 

If you would like to learn more about traditional place name recognition check out our previous article Nangun wruk - First Languages Australia's National Place Names Project