Reconciliation Week and lost languages

Melissa Jackson from the Library's Indigenous Services branch was recently involved in a discussion about place names and identities of Aboriginal Sydney in the colonial era, drawing from the rich array of images, manuscripts, realia and maps held in the Library's collection. Melissa shares her thoughts on Reconciliation Week and the importance of  language.


Photo of woman talking
Talk by Melissa Jackson, ‘Has Sydney always been called Sydney? Waranara Yuwing = seek the truth’, 21st Biennale of Sydney Family Day on Cockatoo Island, 29 April 2018. Photographer: Levon Baird


What does Reconciliation Week mean to you?

Reconciliation Week observes the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo High Court decision that gave Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people back their land. What began as a week of prayer, developed into a movement that strives to bring all Australians together. This year’s focus is 'Don’t Keep History a Mystery' and it’s striking how much of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lived experience is totally unknown to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

What is your ancestral heritage?

I was born on Gadigal land, I lived in the country of the Bidjigal people on the Georges River, and I identify as a Bundjalung person – are you confused yet? There is so much information to take in from that one sentence but I hope, by the end of this piece, you will understand what it all means.

What was the focus of  your Biennale talk?

It explored the concept that the whole of this continent was in the custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who nurtured their paradise through finely tuned food collection practices, seasonal migration and cultural burning. The land and sea scapes all had their own names, stories and cultural significance. When the colonists arrived this delicate balance, which was up to 80,000 years in the making, was totally unfamiliar to them and this lack of understanding almost lead to the  destruction of the Indigenous culture. Almost – and I have the following example to prove it is still with us.

James Cook’s primary reason for being in the Pacific was to observe the Transit of Venus for longitudinal purposes. Once he had completed that mission he embarked on his secondary secret mission to find the much-postulated Terra Australis Incognita. What he found was a country that was so full of life that he named his first landfall Botany Bay. He continued up the east coast assigning new European placenames to geographic features, land and sea scapes. These places had already been given names by the Indigenous people. 

Hidden within the town and suburb names are subtle clues to their Aboriginal origins. The Sydney suburbs of Parramatta= Burrumattagal, Cabramatta=Cahbrogal and Cammeray=Gamaraigal are just some that were named after the clan that lived in the area before colonisation. Some suburbs, like Coogee=koojah (rotting seaweed) and Bondi=boondi (sound of crashing waves) are named after significant features of the area. While others, like Kirrabilli=Kiarabillie and Kurnell=Kundal, are the anglicised version of the local language.

How can people find the original placenames?

In the first instance, you must communicate with the local community as they are the keepers of the oral traditions.

The Library has uncovered and digitised over 200 language lists through the Rediscovering Indigenous Languages project and they're freely available online. This is a useful resource and can help you find the original name of the place that you call home.

Melissa Jackson, Librarian, Indigenous Services

This blog comes from a talk that was given for this year’s Biennale of Sydney and it explores the notion that Aboriginal language and culture is all around us – we just need to seek the truth.