Indigenous affairs

What’s in a name?

“When I was at school, my mum would say to me: ‘Son, write your name on your school property”, i.e. my school bag, or my hat. And I would say to her, ‘Mum, why would I do that? I know my name.'”

“She would say: ‘You might … but others might not’.

“And so, today, of course, we know that this is Noongar land — because it has our name on it.”

Professor Leonard Collard at the University of Western Australia’s School of Indigenous Studies describes the importance of Noongar place names in maintaining and respecting Aboriginal cultural identity and sense of place.

If you’ve spent even a short amount of time exploring the southwest corner of the continent you’ll notice that many places still carry their Noongar names – places like Mandurah, Narrogin, Pinjarra, Gelorup and Manjimup. In fact, more than half the place names in Southwest WA are Noongar or derivative of Noongar language.

Professor Collard has spent almost half a decade researching and identifying the meanings behind the Noongar names of almost 30,000 places across Perth and the Southwest, stressing the importance of these names in creating a sense of place both for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Boodja (country) and caring for country is one of the most significant parts of Aboriginal life. Connection to Boodja is seen as an inseparable part of the Noongar identity, and can teach non-Indigenous people a lot about appreciating and caring for the environment around them.

“Geologists believe Western Australia is one of the oldest exposed landscapes on the globe,” Professor Collard said.

“So what this means for all people — whether Western Australian or simply human beings on this place called Earth — is that place names are kind of a conversation, a conversation that the oldest parts of the earth are having with us.”

Unfortunately in metropolitan Perth many Indigenous place names were lost after colonisation, and their spiritual and cultural meanings disappeared forever. However, a growing trend of using Noongar place names in newly developed areas has begun to emerge.

The fast-developing suburb of Lakelands, in Mandurah, named after the large swamps at the centre of the estate, has honoured the spiritual significance of lakes to Aboriginal people by using Noongar names for many of its streets. The suburb can be accessed via Yindana Boulevard, with Badgerup Avenue, Woorabinda Rise and Munya Lane running adjacent, just to name a few.

Lakelands is not entirely unique however, with the number of Noongar place names on the rise.

Bunbury local and Noongar man, Brandon Bennell, 22, says it’s important to use original Noongar names for sites as it shows recognition of the history of the first Australians.

“It would be great if there were more Indigenous names around Perth so I could learn more about my culture,” Mr Bennell said.

“I think it’ll preserve the future of the Noongar language and may also be used as guidance in the teachings of younger generations to come.

“It’s a great step towards getting more people aware, and hopefully it makes a big impact on how non-Indigenous people see Aboriginal culture.”

The introduction of a new piazza in Perth’s bustling CBD, Yagan Square, honours a Noongar warrior leader from the time of colonisation and is one of the first public spaces in the modern city centre to be named after a Indigenous person.

“I’ve always been interested in finding out more about Yagan ‘cause he is a bit of a hero for the Noongar people, showing resistance and being a warrior-type leader back then,” Mr Bennell said.

“It’ll show a lot of respect from the government that they’re trying to make a difference in creating more awareness of Noongar culture, and I reckon it’ll spread some really good messages.”

The naming of the new $17.8m road connecting Rockingham to the Kwinana Freeway as Kulija Road — a Noongar name which honours the penguin symbol widely recognised as the icon of the city — and the use of Indigenous names for several roads in modern suburbs like Ellenbrook and Woodvale can have a profound impact on the Noongar community, Indigenous academics say.

Simon Forrest

Photo by Alice Leggett

Curtin University’s Elder in Residence Simon Forrest (pictured) says the use of Noongar place names could inform people, and is a well-needed sign of cooperation between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

“A name is an important cultural identifier, and Noongar people find it a really positive thing of having those names around as that’s what they’ve always been called to them,” Associate Professor Forrest said.

“What’s also really positive is when Aboriginal places are used for the same purpose they were used for in the past — when you look at the Aboriginal sites register and overlay that with parks, particularly along the river, most of the sites were camping sites, and they still are.

“So the areas where people are living, and the Aboriginal words and uses for these particular areas can be a huge influence.

“One of the most important things for all of us is maintaining those names.”

This story was produced as part of Curtin University’s Aboriginal Community Engagement unit. The story also appears on the website of one of that unit’s community partners, Noongar Radio.

Categories: Indigenous affairs

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