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ICOS 2008 Conference Abstract

Political Issues in Australian Aboriginal Toponymies

M J Walsh
University of Sydney, Australia

Place names in Aboriginal Australia can be seen to have a political dimension in a number of different arenas. For over 30 years, Australian Aborigines have attempted to be recognized under Australian law as traditional owners of their territories. To some extent, place names are used as proof of land ownership and, in any event, form an essential part of the documentation of their case. This has led to greatly increased recording and documenting of Australian Aboriginal place names. On the one hand this may be viewed as beneficial in that the legal process has sponsored a tremendous expansion in research into place names, but on the other hand that very process in many cases renders this heritage mostly inaccessible. Aboriginal land councils have become quite reluctant to make detailed information on traditional matters (including place names) readily available. Nevertheless a great deal of cultural information will eventually become available for posterity – for instance, through discussions by Aboriginal witnesses during land claim proceedings which are then recorded in the transcript. In some instances this leads to disputes about territorial ownership and these sometimes hinge on place names. Because the transcript is compiled by and relied upon by non-specialists, pernicious misunderstandings concerning place names can arise. Some examples of these problems will be presented.

More broadly, there has been a widening movement to recognize Australian Aboriginal toponymies, especially through the process of dual naming. This involves retaining the introduced name but reinstating the Aboriginal name. One example is the famous Australian landmark, Ayers Rock, which has taken on the Aboriginal name, Uluru, to give the dual name: Ayers Rock/Uluru. Not surprisingly the process of dual naming has political dimensions – sometimes concerning the form of the Aboriginal name: where a feature has a number of distinct Aboriginal names, should, for instance, the name from the traditional owners take precedence over other names? Sometimes debates revolve around the meaning of the place name and this in turn leads to discussions about how readily access should be given to cultural knowledge.

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