Monday, October 18, 2010

Things I'd like to see - Traditional Nation Signs

I've got a pretty reasonable handle on the towns and rivers and other geographic features of the bits of the east coast of Australia that I've travelled around. If someone mentions a town, I've probably got at least a vague idea of where it is. This is almost exclusively because as I've driven around, I've seen signs that tell me which town I'm driving through, or could turn left to reach, which river I'm crossing, and which mountains are around abouts. It's knowledge by osmosis.

On the other hand, I can tell you two fifths of bugger all about the lands of the peoples who were here before the Poms decided to send their criminals over here. I decided that this was a distinct gap in my knowledge, and went looking for instructive materials. One of the first things I found was this map. I haven't shown it here, because I think that might be breaching copyright, but you can look at it at that site (or download the pdf here for detail). The first thing that will hit you is that it's a mug's game to try to memorise who lived where, or even all the names of the nations - just like no-one thinks anyone is going to memorise all the towns and rivers in the country.

So want I want to see is signs on major highways and arterial roads, the same places that have signs for towns and other landmarks, letting me know which traditional territory I'm in now. So that same osmosis can work for me. So that we can all become familiar with the local peoples.

You may be wondering why I care about what may seem to be just historical lines on a map. It's because it isn't about where people lived, it's about who people are. When we refer to those people who were here before, we use white man's words to describe them - Indigenous, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders. We do it because we don't actually know who they are. Most people (myself included) don't even really understand the structure of their identities, much less know the names of them. I know that they identify loosely with large groups, such as Koori and Murri, but I can't even rattle off these broad identities (beyond these two) without looking it up, never mind more specific national identities. Fixing this is on my to-do list, but me learning about it isn't going to change much. I want to see this information floating out there, everywhere, so that if a person takes the time to tell me (or anyone else) who they are, the names they use won't fly away the way unfamiliar terms tend to do. They'll mean something, they'll ring a bell.

I'm also not looking for some grand gesture of massive funding to go out and put a bazillion signs all over the place. Just a commitment to make it happen over time. To start somewhere and keep going until the sign telling me that this is Tharawal land is as familiar as the one telling my I'm driving down Mt Ousley. This isn't history, this is who people are, here and now, and it's shameful that none of know the first thing about them.


  1. I have seen a few signs like that around the Parramatta and Kuring-gai areas, who knows, it might not take that much to get them to spread.

  2. There are some such signs down my way (Gippsland in Victoria) but with even the local Aboriginal people arguing over where the boundaries are, it makes it kind of difficult. The mob down here can't even agree if they are Gunai or Kurnai so they are forever known as the 'Gunai-Kurnai'. My husband is Ngario-Gunditjamara.

  3. I did kind of think it was likely to be a bit messy, and certainly the signs can't be carefully placed on borders - more like putting them in generally agreed upon locations. But still, I think there could be some more general dissemination of the names.

    In fact, that's another reason to do it kind of slowly and organically, so that it's done with some consultation with the people themselves, rather than a government department.

  4. So I've gone off to the map to try to concrete this, and I see the map registers no controversy down your way and calls the land Kurnai. Where are your husband's people from (if you don't mind me asking)? I see this map of mine has Ngarigo in the Snowy Mountain area - but since I have not the slightest familiarity with the languages, I don't know whether that could be a mild variation in pronunciation or a wildly different name.

    It's depressing being so ignorant.

  5. My bad, I spelt Ngarigo wrong! (bows head in shame). Most locals down here (black or white or purple) wouldn't know there is a conflict between the Gunai and the Kurnai. One of those titles (can't recall which one) is based on the translation made by Dutch (I think) explorers when the Aboriginal locals told them their tribal name. So the argument is that the local mob should be called the traditional name, not the translation. But there is no consensus on it and there is never likely to be one. My husbands mob are from the lower NSW east coast (the Ngarigo people) and then the Gunditjmara are from SW Victoria around Lake Condah area. My level of ignorance has been lowered a little since I have been with J but there is still a hell of a lot I don't know about obviously. The one thing that does annoy me is when people (not meaning you) assume that there is one standard Aboriginal language (or lore) for the entire of Australia rather than realising there are hundreds of different areas that each had their own language and traditional lore. For example down here, Koori means of Victoria and part of NSW Aboriginal descent. In other places, koori means 'dog'. So you see, you have to be careful! lol

  6. Heh. Typos happen. As do translation errors! I was wondering if that had something to do with the conflict.

    Yeah, the languages thing, but especially the lore thing frustrates me too. The idea that there is just one set of traditions and stories is so common. When the kids learn stories at school, they are told they are "Aboriginal stories", without specifying who they come from. No wonder people don't get the fact that there are multiple languages and traditions.