This event is the latest in a growing number of Indigenous name repatriations across the nation. As a Butchulla person, and a researcher of the representation of Indigenous peoples in archives and historical narratives, I can appreciate the significance of something as seemingly small as a name change.
How common is it to revert to the Indigenous place name?
The reversion to the name K’gari has happened in stages over a number of years. In 2011, the Bligh government added K’gari as an alternative to the place name Fraser Island in the Queensland Place Names Register.
K’gari is among a growing number of places around Australia that have returned to their Indigenous names. One of the most famous examples is Uluru.
In Queensland, the National Parks First Nations Naming Project has been assisting in reverting national park names to Indigenous names where possible as a part of the government’s commitment to the truth-telling process. North Stradbroke Island and Moreton Island National Parks have reverted to Minjerribah and Gheebulum Coonungai, respectively.
According to then-minister for the environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Leanne Enoch:
This project is a positive step in our truth telling around First Nations Peoples’ significant and ancient connection to country.
Not renaming, reclaiming
Changing a place name will not fix racism in one fell swoop. No one is claiming it will. But name repatriation speaks to the importance of language in both culture and sovereignty.
Indigenous place names link Traditional Country to the history, culture and people that have been a part of that land long before colonisation. Overwriting Indigenous names with colonist names is an attempt to deny this deep, pre-existing connection and the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.
The renaming of Butchulla Country was one of the first things Captain James Cook did as he first sailed the east coast of Australia.
In 1770, as Cook’s ship sailed close to Tacky Waroo, a large basalt headland on the east side of K’gari, it was met by a party of Butchulla warriors standing on the headland. In the lexicon of the day, all dark-skinned people were called “Indians”, so Cook renamed Tacky Waroo “Indian Head”.
In other cases, colonial place names were, and still are, blunt reminders of colonial violence. Places like Murdering Creek, Massacre Bay, Skull Creek and many more litter the Australian landscape and indicate violent acts that occurred in those places.
The name Fraser Island is named after a Scottish woman, Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked on the island in 1836. Fraser lied about being mistreated by Butchulla people after being shipwrecked. Even in those days, her account of her time on K’gari was thrown into doubt.
Fraser was known to be a sensationalist who made her story more and more salacious as time went on, in efforts to garner more money from sympathetic supporters. Her accounts of her time on K’gari were syndicated as far as the Americas, and reinforced the narrative that Indigenous peoples were “savages” and “cannibals”. These classifications led to Indigenous peoples being vilified around the globe.
Colonial history is not Indigenous history
Language plays an important part in reinforcing the notion that history in Australia began with the arrival of Cook and his fleet.
Colonial place names are another subtle yet persistent reinforcement of the notion that this land only has a place in history once it intersects with the narratives of colonists.
K’gari was the name chosen by the Butchulla because that is the sky spirit the island was created from. The name goes back to the very creation of the island, and yet the name that stuck was the name of a woman who spent not more than two months on the island.
Re-adoption of Indigenous place names signifies the increased recognition of history and culture that predates colonisation. More importantly, these name repatriations recognise that history and culture continue today.
The history of colonisation is not Indigenous history. Indigenous history and the history of this continent predates, pre-exists and will eventually override colonial history. Indigenous place names are evidence of that.
Bringing our past into a shared future
Repatriation of Indigenous place names is a part of the process of reintroducing Indigenous perspectives into the narratives of our modern society.
Repatriation of Indigenous place names reaffirms that First Nations have always existed, and still exist in Australia today. Moreover, they are a source of distinction that sets Australia apart from the rest of the world for the one thing no other country in the world can come close to: being home to the oldest living cultures in the world. That should be a source of pride for all Australians.