In the days leading up to January 26, 2019, The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples put out a press release expressing its disappointment that the debate over Australia’s national day has gone on so long. The Congress is calling for action, and Westerly supports their call. With issues of sovereignty in mind, we present here Leonard M. Collard’s investigation into the significance of naming and country, originally printed in Westerly 63.1.
As a nop (boy) and later as I grew into a mamman (man) I travelled on many many bidi (roads), driving past a lot of placenames and signage across the south-western boodjera, or Nyungar country. At first, as a family, we drove out mainly from Walwalingup (Fremantle), up South Street, across to Armadale Road, left onto Albany Highway and right onto Brookton Highway. Over the coastal plains, up and onto the Kaarta (Darling Ranges), out through the forests and eventually to the cleared paddocks to the east until we reached Kalkarni (the home fire—Brookton) (Thomas). The Nyungar placenames always caught my attention—towns, national parks, hills, rivers, streams, forests and railway sidings—standing tall like sentinels, their words in my language telling the direction and distance to the destinations that I journeyed to many times with my family and loved ones. Whether driving through the day or night, the placenames always haunted me, mile after mile, and later, kilometre after kilometre. Many of the signs I didn’t understand nor was I able to read them properly and so I didn’t know what they were really saying to me. But the signage always stood patiently by the roadside as though waiting to reflect a coded message to me.
When I purchased my own car, I used to travel down along the south west highway to go surfing with my mates, and later, I’d take my wife Lisa and daughters Mia Joy and Ingrid Maria to visit an old and dear friend and mentor of ours, Errol Over. Errol’s house that he shared with his family in Margaret River was a place we all came to love and admire and we travelled every year to visit. On each trip, new roads with their new road signs and placenames would appear along the way: Myalup, Gelorup, Yallingup, Cowaramup and Miamup. Once we took a driving holiday to explore new places that were developed eastward. At first we used tents for accommodation but on subsequent trips, as we journeyed farther out to the south-east country, we took a camper-trailer. We travelled out to places such as Narrogin, Wagin, Katanning and then even farther east to Porongurup and Monjingup. New roads, highways and byways came with new road signs and placenames—this ‘new’ country we were experiencing in the vast territories of south-western Australia was the lands of the Nyungar, our people.
My pop, law boordier and keeper of the stories, Tom Yelakitj Bennell—a Nyungar from the Whadjuck and Balardong language speakers, once told me: ‘the Nyungar never call it Western Australia. Ngulla boodjar, our land, they call this ngulla boodjar our land,’ he said. ‘Nitcha ngulla koorl nyininy. This is our ground we came and sat upon’ (Bennell 73–95)1. I think back to those words often when I see the new signs erected with Nyungar placenames. Of course when the Wedjelas (white people) first arrived here to our country, they brought with them many new words to describe ngulla boodjar (our land)—‘Western Australia’, ‘The Swan River Colony’, ‘Perth’. All these wam (strange) names, new words in an ancient Country, imposed upon Nyungar who for thousands upon thousands of years had always described, known and experienced place as it related to the wangkiny (language) used and the stories told. It was this symbiotic relationship between Nyungar language and place that informed Nyungar worldview and that eventually merged with and continues to inform Wedjela worldview.
In 1829 Captain Fremantle came from across the sea as a boat person and arrived at wardan gab boodjera (where the land meets the sea—now known as Woodman Point) about seven kilometres south from the mouth of the Beeliar (Swan River), the homelands of my moort (relations), the Whadjuck Nyungar. Soon after his arrival, Captain Fremantle started exploring beyond Beeliar with his crew. He saw and heard ‘natives’ call out:
to us very loud and appeared to cry out, ‘warra, warra’. I had not proceeded very far before I heard yelling of the black fellows (as Jack calls them) and [leaving the boat] we gained the top of the hill where we saw a native with a firebrand in one hand and two spears in the other shouting, ‘warra, warra’ and pointing to the shore where the boat was desiring us to go away. (Fremantle 37)
Warra or warrah in Nyungar means ‘no good’ or ‘bad’ (Winmar 9). Here, at this intersection between language and boodjar (land), the Whadjuck Nyungar communicated with country or boodjarea wangkiny, ‘Warra! Warra!’ they shouted, pointing and gesturing with a ‘firebrand and two spears’ (Fremantle 41). Though Captain Fremantle could not speak Nyungar, he was left with little doubt as to what my moort meant. As my grandfather would say over and over, ‘Nitcha ngulla boodjar ngulluckiny koorl nyininy’ (Bennell), this is our ground we came and sat upon.
This interaction was neither the first nor the last between Wedjela and Nyungar peoples from our moort. For at least a hundred and fifty years prior to Captain Fremantle’s arrival in our boodjar, there had been contact with other early Dutch explorers on the west coast, but it was the establishment of the Swan River Colony in 1829 that made conversations across language, country and worldview evolve and continue at a rapid pace. Yeye (today), when I look around this space called Western Australia on official maps, the place that Nyungar still know as ngulla boodjar (our land), I still see those Whadjuck Nyungar waving their gij (spears) and holding the karla boorna (firebrand). I see and hear that our wangkiny (words and language) have continued on and throughout the Nyungar boodjar. This is especially true in terms of the Aboriginal placenames printed on those signs that appear throughout the length and breadth of the South-West of Western Australia. Many suburbs, freeways, towns, rivers, hills, streams and street signs are Nyungar names drawn from the knowledges of many different Nyungar peoples, from all points of Nyungar boodjar (The University of Western Australia). So prolific is the penetration of Nyungar language into the English language that is written and spoken in the south-west portion of the Australian continent that a lot of Nyungar words can be learnt simply by reading a street directory.
It was during my country driving trips that I’d often contemplate this and wonder what Nyungar names told us about ngulla boodjar. What did early interactions between Wedjela and Nyungar tell us about the way wangkiny and boodjar (language and land) come together in the way we think and feel about who we are and where we belong? In exploring these questions, I drew upon stories from my moort. Stories from kura (a long time ago) that demonstrated the strong Nyungar connection with boodjar, language and naming. I took a journey across time and landscape.
After Captain Fremantle’s encounter with Whadjuck Nyungar, and farther up the Beeliar (Swan River) near where Kings Park and the University of Western Australia are located today, a little whaleboat landed near a camp at Koortandalup (the place of love and betrothal). Yellagonga was a bidier (boss) of this particular part of Whadjuck boodjar by the Beeliar. The land was later to become known in the colonial maps as the suburb of Crawley. Yellagonga and some of the Whadjuck Nyungar of his moort recognised colonists like Stirling and Irwin and their men and women as djanga moort (ghost kin) who had returned from Kuranup (the land of the spirit beings from across the sea). George Grey, an early colonial Wedjela explorer in the Whadjuck lands in and around the Swan River, shared a similar experience that highlighted Whadjuck Nyungar connection to country:
This belief, that white people are the souls of departed blacks, is by no means an uncommon superstition amongst them; they themselves never having an idea of quitting their own land, cannot image others doing it;—and thus, when they see white people suddenly appear in their country, and settling themselves down in particular spots, they imagine that they must have formed an attachment for this land in some other state of existence; and hence conclude the settlers were at one period black men, and their own relations. (1: 302)
Grey observed that for the Nyungar, when originally making contact with djanga (white people), there was a social protocol employed that is known today as a ‘Welcome to Country’, where it was customary to incorporate outsiders into the social relationships of the local group by acknowledging one’s country publicly (Grey; Everett). To understand the reasons for this custom it is necessary to see Nyungar as kin-based societies (Radcliffe-Brown; Elkin). Within the Nyungar worldview of moort (family), and the relationship to people, country and placenames, knowledge or meanings is important. Such relationships determine marriage groups, positions at ceremonies, the gathering and distribution of food, avoidance, reciprocity, mortuary rituals, vendetta, and so on. Even today, one would be pressed to find some activity in the traditional Nyungar life that was not influenced by kinship relationships. ‘Welcome to Country’ speeches, now common at most national, state and local public official procedures, serve as an excellent example of ongoing and clear connection to country in modern times (Kowal). Traditional native title owners use their own local language, or at the very least a mix of old and new Aboriginal English, reinforcing the old and accommodating newcomers by creating a new blend of speaking Australian (Lyon; Moore Vocabulary; Moore Diary; Arthur). Understanding the importance of boodjar and moort, I can well appreciate the dilemma of the early Nyungar confronting these Wedjela, a group with no known relationships. There would have been priority to identify the relationship of the strangers to the inhabitants and then create a kin relationship—because how might one behave in the presence of these wam (strangers) if such relationships were not known? If the Wedjela did not know their relationships, it was up to the Nyungar to provide them with a basic education.
Nyungar knowledge, communicated through Nyungar means of oral communications (and, later, Wedjela historical records), demonstrates highly intricate and sophisticated human and land management skills that have been practised by Nyungar throughout the Swan and lower south coastal areas along Western Australia. Wedjelas have historically taken a great deal of interest in the Nyungar; the landforms, placenames and meanings. In the 1840s, for example, Lieutenant George Grey commented on Nyungar resourcefulness and use of the land stating that:
in his own district a native […] knows exactly what it [the land] produces, the proper time at which several articles are in season. According to these circumstances he regulates his visits to the different portions of his hunting ground. (2: 262)
Professor Sylvia Hallam in more recent times also talked about the complexity of Whadjuck Nyungar law protocols and how moort (family) relationships regulated access to land:
despite the immense omissions and misunderstandings which bedevil the contemporary documents from the pen of Europeans, we can build up a picture, fragmentary and disjointed though it may be, of the complex system of rights and responsibilities which tied Aboriginal families to the land of their mothers and their mothers’ mothers, their wives and their wives’ mothers, and gave them access also to the land of their mother’s husband, their husbands’ mother or their fathers’ mother and even to the land of a brother’s wife. (39)
Back in the old days the Whadjuck Nyungar knew that colonists were recording the Nyungar oral story of cultural moortunginy boodjera katitj, our people and understanding of our area. They knew that Robert Menli Lyon, a Swan River Wedjela resident, only four years after the Swan River Colony was established, wanted to observe and record Nyungar ideas on traditions and worldviews. In 1833, Lyon wrote, ‘I have reason to believe that Nyungar (or Aboriginal people of the Swan River) histories and geographies are handed down from generation to generation orally’ (8).
Such interactions and observations took place in other parts of the South-West, too. About 200 miles or so farther south of the Swan River lands, John Garrett Bussell and other members of his Wedjela family occupied and explored the local Wardandi Nyungar boodjar. On many occasions Bussell collected much local knowledge of the country from the local Nyungar, undergoing the same integration into the local Wardandi or Ocean Nyungar social mores as outsiders elsewhere in Nyungar boodjar had experienced (Bussell). Later on, Alfred John Bussell, a related descendant of this John Garrett Bussell, recounted that:
over a hundred years ago, it was about 1831 they [the Aborigines] gave everyone of the party that settled here [Vasse area] an Aboriginal name each, of those Aboriginals that had died some considerable time before for instance they gave my father [Alfred Bussell] the name of Mundle, and everyone [sic] of the others they gave an Aboriginal name also. (4)
Georgiana Molloy, a Wedjala woman living amongst the Pibelmun Nyungar—next-door neighbours south of the Wardandi on the lower south-west corner of Western Australia—recorded a similar situation, recognising the importance of naming and relationship. The local Nyungar people named her and her husband at Augusta. Georgiana’s name was ‘King Bin’ and Captain Molloy’s was ‘King Kandarunga’, meaning longtailed goanna (Hasluck 113). This response to the arrival of the Wedjelas shows the attempt by the Nyungar to explain these strangers into an established belief system or worldview, relating to kin and outsiders. As elsewhere, it was an ongoing process. Wam (strange) people simply did not arrive in another person’s kaleep or boodjar (homeland) and assert bidier (ownership) unless they had some form of relationship with that land from a previous existence. The Nyungar attempted to find the answer in accepting the strangers as djanga—spirits of the dead.
In some parts of the South-West the term djanga was openly used to refer to the strangers. This led the Nyungar to believe that the wam Europeans were relatives returning from the land of the dead, which was far away across the sea. Another example is that of Roth, who was living in the boodjera of the Wilmen Nyungar. He described an incident when Greensell, one of Robert Austin’s party, landed on the coast near Koombanup Bay (the large bay, or the bay of urine due to the smell emanating from the rotten seaweed on the seashore) where Bunbury is located today. Upon landing they were met by some of the local Nyungar people, who immediately recognised Greensell as one of their recently deceased kin. Roth goes on to tell us that they ‘immediately gave him the name of wor‑kap’ (51) and concluded that he indeed had now returned to this boodjar of his living kin or moort as a djanga maam (white ghostman).
Such naming practices may also help to explain why there was little anger or resistance to the first arrival of the English wam in this country. From the outset of contact, the Nyungar attempted to create a space for the outsiders by assimilating them into their kin systems. Later they acted as guides to assist the Wedjela or djanga or ghost kin in their explorations into their own country by showing them bidi (pathways or veins), mia mia (camping places), finding ngamma (waterholes) in and on the rocky outcrops, and hunting game or collecting edible vegetables and naming places as they moved into country (Green). In years to come these locations became as important to the Wedjelas as they had been for the Nyungar for many tens of thousands of years. The Nyungar had created and used foot-tracks between one place and another, long before the Europeans arrived in the southwest and continued to use these same roads to guide the Europeans into their own homelands. These tracks, called bidi, traverse the whole south-west and were used by the newcomers as sure roads to the next destination where water, camps and people could be found (Moore Diary 8). This tradition continues today where cities, such as Armidale and Newcastle in New South Wales, still use Indigenous placenames for new streets (Reid).
European maps are usually set out in such a way as to imply that places have fixed names over time and that those places have one only ‘true’ name with a shared consensus of meaning (Clark 62). Those who possess a basic understanding of Nyungar systems of reading and speaking about boodjar (country) would immediately recognise that introduced western cartographic conventions, in and of themselves, are inadequate analytical tools for talking about Nyungar (or Koori) place names. When I travel through the southwest of Australia reading the signs, or studying Nyungar cartography from the area, I can recognise the positive collaboration between Nyungar and Wedjela in the narrative—place names showing a clear oral contribution that is mediated between the two worldviews into a common language. But I can also recognise that the European cartographic conventions and systems of boundary making are not directly or easily transferable into Nyungar nomenclature systems of naming of land that explain its meaning. My interest lies in the critical review of dual names as another outcome of the colonial processes for validity and accuracy. For Nyungar, any one place may be called a number of different things by a number of different people at a number of different times of the year. For the Whadjuck Nyungar, for example, whose country is the Swan River including the iconic surrounding area of Kings Park, there is a significant difference in perception and naming. Kings Park, a major Perth icon, is known to the Whadjuck people as Karrakatta (hill of the crabs), but it can also be referred to as Yongariny (the place for catching kangaroos), Kaart Geenunginy Bo (the place of the hill for looking a long way) or, finally, Karlkarniny (the location of the fireplace or home fire). All of these names are equally correct; it depends on the language context in which they are being used and by whom they are being used (Palmer & Collard).
While the colonists introduced many standalone Wedjela/European names of places—including Fremantle named after Captain Fremantle, or Busselton after the Bussell family, both members of early colonial families who took up land in the lower south-west of Western Australia (Fremantle)—they also retained some standalone Nyungar names of places. After years of driving through the towns and places in Nyungar boodgar, I have come to learn more of the significance and meanings behind such names. In Wardandi and Pibelmen Nyungar boodjar (the Ocean people’s country), for example, placename nomenclature includes Yoonderup (the place of a great warrior named Undal), or Yoonderup (the bob tailed lizard); Cowaramup (the place of the blue paroquet—this parakeet still inhabits this particular area); Quindalup (the place of the short-nose quenda—a small kind of kangaroo); and Wonnerup (the place of the women’s digging stick). The name Wonnerup was adopted by George Layman when he named his Wonnerup Homestead located in the Tuart Forest east of Busselton and it was first recorded on the original colonial government land documents in 1834. Mokidup is used still by some Nyungar as the general name for the area where Ellensbrook Homestead is now located. Just behind Mokidup is Meekadarabee (the holy place of the moon, or the moon’s bathing place), a waterfall located at the back of the Ellensbrook Homestead. Gnoocardup is the place where Gnoocardan, the ancient Nyungar bidier (warrior), died. Other names such as Dalleep—a spring on the Kilcarnup Road and also Joe Culbong’s old property name—also carry Nyungar origin and will continue to attract my attention and further investigation in the future (Bussell 15–18).
The Wardandi Nyungar used the high natural features and lay of the land as lookouts to see where relations or visitors might be camped. This high country was also used to communicate by speaking in a shout or by lighting fires and sending smoke signals, or to assess where game might be feeding or fish may be schooling. Sometimes the trees or highest parts of the country were climbed for that same purpose. There are a number of high hills to the west of Wonnerup, such as Wardanup Karta (the hill by the ocean) from where Nyungar could see a fair distance. When the djanga sailed past on their ships, in the pre-settlement period, the Nyungar observed the wam and their craft from these high places (Bussell 15–18).
Across the estuary from the Wonnerup Homestead, and south of a place called Mallokup (the place of the shade—due to the forest which canopied the landscape from summer sun and heat), there is a small sandhill that rises above the estuary. This place is now referred to as Stirling’s Hill, and is one of the areas of the high country in the estuary where the Nyungar could get a view of the estuary and ocean. Around Mokidup (later known as Ellensbrook), where the National Trust property is now located, the high sand dunes were used by local Nyungar to communicate amongst themselves. Mokidup Hill, like Wardanup Karta, was used as a lookout place for schooling fish or to scan the ocean for djanga on ships (Collard ‘Map’).
From Wardandi and Pibelmen boodjarea (south-west Cape), my research has also taken me to where Ethel Hassell (49) lived in the Wheelman Nyungar boodjar around Jerramungup on the south-east coast of Western Australia during the 1880s. Hassell recorded local Wheelman Nyungar lifestyles, stories, names and meanings of places and customs as told to her by Wheelman Nyungar men and women boordier of that country and created a map out of the local wongi (talk) that she had collected. Places and their names such as Bullamealup (the great place of Many (faces) or Faced Hill also known as Bluff Knoll), Gnowangerup (place of the male hen’s nest or male hen speakers), Twertup (the place of the dogs or dingoes) and Coomal nintup (the place of the possum’s tail and the hill where the Hassell homestead was built at Jarramungup) are just a few examples where local Nyungar words for placenames and their meanings continue to shape and be shaped by the land (Hassell 231–234).
A casual glance at maps and placenames of south-western Australia boodjera shows how Nyungar placenames dominate the country. Tindale’s language map (1940), which can be used to form a localised nomenclature system, confirms that this land is indeed the boodjar of the Nyungar, be they Whadjuck, Wardandi, Wilmen, Pibelmen or Wheelman and all the languages of the Nyungar in between. Tindale’s map also highlights and recognises that Nyungar as a language group were (and still are) powerful language contributors to the making of the nation’s south-western maps and placenames. The state’s Landgate Department still holds data provided over many years for sources of ongoing naming resources today (Nomenclature Advisory Committee). It is reassuring to know that the Nyungar, my mob, are still the knowledge carriers and interpretators for meanings of all of Nyungar country. Knowledge that is handed down either orally from moort or in written documents from Wedjela who developed sources in collaboration with the Nyungar intellectual land knowledge holders for all people since kura (long time ago), yeye (today) and boordwan (in the future) (Bussell; Hassell; Mountford & Collard; The University of Western Australia).
It’s now a while since I was a young nop, but my fascination and interest in the Nyungar placenames hasn’t faded with time. All people, be they Nyungar or Wedjela, use some original language today within the lingistic, cartographic and geographical nomenclature of Australia—language and terms that have always been used to describe the land and other related dreamtime narratives, personal and situational experiences. Nyungar words continue to be used for naming cities, towns, railway sidings, rivers, streams, mountain ranges, streets, roads, sidings and natural phenomena—a clear testament to Nyungar and Wedjela relationships of working together using Indigenous south-western language to explore, collect, give definition to and register the details of place for future generations. I’ll continue to drive past the signposts and smile because it is this foundation that creates a culture of words, utilising Nyungar language to be spoken within the national language framework of Australian speakers. My interest in Nyungar placenames has led me to yarn with Monica Cane from CAN (Community Arts Network) as a way of bringing this kind of longstanding research to local Nyungar communities to explore culture, knowledge, identity through artistic and creative mediums across the south-west boodjar.
As my moort always said, ‘nitja ngulluck boodjarea noonar nyinniny’ (this is our land you are situated in). It makes me think back to when I was a nop and I first went to White Gum Valley Primary School. My mum told me many times, clearly and sternly, that I needed to put my name on my property: ‘Mick, someone else might claim it and you’ll have nothing left’. I’m glad the old people told the Wedjelas to put the Nyungar placenames right across our country. I’m glad that those names are now recorded on the official maps. It reminds us all that it is indeed Nyungar boodjar that we are located in.
Note1 A partial transcript of this tape-recording, produced in 2002, is available but it should be noted that the transcript covers only the segments that were of relevance to work being done at the time.
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Professor Leonard M. Collard is an Australian Research Council Chief Investigator with the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia. Len has a background in literature and communications and his research interests are in the area of Aboriginal Studies, including Nyungar interpretive histories and Nyungar theoretical and practical research models. Len is a Whadjuk Nyungar Elder who is a respected Traditional Owner of the Perth metropolitan area.