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Wednesday 24 May 2023

'These lands now called Australia'. A most problematic phrase

'Australia' is a name given this continent by colonisers who came from another hemisphere (the 'north'). Thus, 'Australis': 'of the south'. The perspective built into the name is not our perspective. It is the perspective of people who come from elsewhere: the 'north'. The naming of this continent as 'Australia' is therefore part of the colonial project of subjugation and erasure.

From an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander perspective, the difficulty with naming the whole continent is that we never saw continental scale as important, and therefore we don’t have a traditional, received, name for the whole continent. For us, this continent is primarily many lands and many dreamings: Naarm (Melbourne), tebrukuna (Cape Portland), Meanjin (Brisbane) and so on.  The AIATSIS map of the continent, showing the territories of individual nations and clans, is therefore a tool that can usefully help settlers reimagine where they are.

Some people, in recent times, have decided to refer to the continent as 'these lands now called Australia'. I’m not a fan of this phrase because, whilst it reminds people that ‘Australia’ is a recent name, it also proclaims the supercessionist victory of the colonial imagination. I, personally, wish to problematise that victory at its most fundamental level.

I am sometimes asked why compass points encode a colonial imagination. Aren't they just neutral, applicable everywhere? Well, no, they came to these lands as part of the colonial imaginary. And I am not just talking about words and language here. I'm talking about a whole cosmology. There are not, in fact, 'equivalent' terms or ideas in traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cosmologies. Our cosmologies relate, almost entirely, to smaller biospheres associated with particular regions of this continent. Our spatiality is actually far more complex than European notions of space and difference precisely because they deal primarily with the local rather than the global or continental. We indicate directionality or distinction in space via a completely different imaginary apparatus. Landmarks such as creeks and rivers, represented in relation to each other via songlines, for example, better represent Indigenous spatiality than European compass points - which were, and remain, non-sensical to many of our people.

I am also asked if there may be alternative phrases to 'Australia' or 'These lands now called Australia'. I usually encourage people to use the local mob names for places as much as possible. This encourages the Indigenous discipline of thinking locally and regionally. When referring to the whole continent, however - as it seems we must in the age of the colonial nation state - I encourage the use of terms which highlight the contested nature of that reality. Some examples: 'the colony', 'the continent', 'the Gondwanan sub-continent' and so forth.  Using 'Australia' in inverted commas also draws attention to that contestation, especially if it is prefaced by a phrase such as 'the settler colony of . . .'

Garry Worete Deverell

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