SYDNEY – The sandstone rock shelters on Tasmania’s Mount Wellington were built by indigenous tribes thousands of years ago, but it was only in 2014 that the mountain started officially being called by its indigenous name, Kunanyi.
The name comes from the Aboriginal language palawa kani, which has so far been the only language used in the gradual process of reviving indigenous names for the state’s culturally significant sites.
But a revised policy released by the government last month means more Aboriginal groups in the Australian island state will now have a say in how to name the features around them.
Tasmanian Aboriginal activists have praised the state government’s move to “reset” its relationship with the island’s indigenous population, saying it could serve as a template for government policy nationwide.
“The government has seen that there are other groups and it’s important to work with other people,” said Rodney Dillon, co-chair of the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance.
Tasmania’s original dual-naming policy, first adopted in 2012, gives Aboriginal names to geographical features that already have European names, so that both appear side-by-side on signage, maps and official documents and publications.
The version the state government approved in June opens up the naming process to a wider range of individuals and groups, and now allows the names to come from languages other than palawa kani.
About 13 traditional languages are still taught to children in Australia today, while elders speak another 100 that are at risk of extinction when they pass away.
Emma Lee, a research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology and a descendant of the Trawlwoolway people, said that “the beautiful thing about the dual-naming policy is that the government has said there are multiple pathways to finding that dual name.”
But critics say the revised policy will complicate an already difficult and delicate process and will end up pitting groups against each other as they disagree over which language to use.
The language of legacy
Indigenous Australians trace their lineage back 60,000 years, and across the country a growing number of groups want Aboriginal names used for geographic landmarks rather than the names given by settlers.
There are currently 13 places in Tasmania that have been assigned two names under the 2012 policy, all in the palawa kani language.
Along with Mount Wellington, which is now also known by the palawa kani word for “mountain,” Tarkine, a forested area in the island’s north has the dual name “takayna,” the name given to it by the people of that area.
And signs for the River Tamar now also carry the dual name kanamaluka.
But at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center (TAC), the federally-funded organization that has been leading the revival of the palawa kani language, program coordinator Annie Reynolds said the policy will hinder the naming process.
She explained that the center draws the elements of palawa kani from the little-known indigenous languages that were almost entirely lost in the years after British colonization.
That combination of vocabularies from various languages is the best way to honor all of Tasmania’s original tongues, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Because of the horrific historical circumstances, very little was captured of most of the original languages. Not enough of those survived to re-establish any one of them as it was,” said Reynolds.
“Unless you’ve done considerable linguistic and historical analysis of each of these words to determine if they are an authentic place name, then it’s just a reversal to the bad, old days.”
Tasmanian government officials declined to comment and referred the Thomson Reuters Foundation to indigenous rights activists.
Tasmania was the last Australian state to officially recognize its indigenous citizens, who make up almost 5 percent of the population, when it passed an amendment to its constitution in October 2016.
As part of the new relationship, the government holds regular forums between departments and Aboriginal Tasmanian organizations to help advance policies for indigenous rights.
That includes the creation of the authority’s first joint management plan for a protected area in the state, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, said Lee, who had a senior role in developing the 2016 agreement.
The area covers more than one-fifth of the state and is home to limestone caves that contain remains tracing back more than 20,000 years — to when humans first occupied the region.
The ongoing reconciliation could also lead to more land rights for indigenous communities, Lee noted.
The Aboriginal Lands Act of 1995 spurred the return of lands that are deemed to have historical and cultural significance.
The Tasmanian government says that it has returned more than 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) of land to the Aboriginal community through the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania.
Now, the state government is considering a new approach that would allow other regional indigenous groups to manage land returns for the first time.
Lee hopes that Tasmania’s strategy for opening a dialogue with Aboriginal communities will spread to other parts of Australia.
“We have had that experience of activism, marching and waving the flag. You can only get so far with that,” she said.
“We seem to have broken that stereotype relationship of protest and activism to gain our rights. Instead, we said, ‘Let’s have a cup of tea and share the goodness of Aboriginal culture.’ “
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.