Language identifies who we are as Aboriginal People; it signifies our membership in a community, where we are from, our Country. When we ask ‘Who is your mob?’ – we are actually asking, ‘Where are you from? Where is your Country?’
Languages also carry the ethical values of our Ancestors; the knowledge systems that connect us to our Country, our Elders past and present, and to the generations of the future. They are the ‘blueprint’ for life, and the living of it. Access to language is fundamental to our health and wellbeing as individuals, families, and communities.
On 12 September 1803, the lifeworld of the First People of Lutruwita (Tasmania) changed forever. The British had arrived. After the initial act of invasion, colonisation of Country, people and language was swift and ruthless. In one of the darkest chapters in world history, within the space of about 30–40 years it was as if most of the First Peoples of Lutruwita had never existed; to the world, we were completely wiped out. Thousands of generations of history gone with only glimpses of the past resting in the pages of white men’s journals and papers.
The arrival of more and more colonisers saw Aboriginal people forced off their Ancestral homelands, thereby breaking connection with Country, a connection that had endured since the beginning of time, since the creation of the first black man, Palawa, the island of Lutruwita, the mountains, rivers, waterways, and outer islands. This story of creation, as told by Wurati, a man of the Nununi nation of Lunawuni (Bruny Island) to George Augustus Robinson, is preserved for the generations of us who have come since Wurati’s time; it is ours to tell, and re-tell:
“Muyini made the natives, that the devils stopped in the ground and that Muyini took him out of the ground and made Palawa; that when he was first made he had a tail and no joints in his legs, that he could not sit down and always stood erect, that Rrumitina (a bright star in the south) saw him (Palawa) in this situation and came to him and cut off his tail, rubbed grease over the wound and cured it and made joints to his knees and told Palawa to sit down on the ground; … Said Muyini made all the rivers, that he cut the ground and made the rivers, and that he dwelt off Louisa Bay.” (GA Robinson, 7 July 1831)
George Augustus Robinson arrived in Hobart Town in January 1824. By that time, the Black War (mid-1820s–1832) had begun. Relations between Aboriginal people and settlers had deteriorated to the extent that Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur was under pressure to solve the ‘problem’. The government advertised for ‘a steady man of good character to effect intercourse with the natives.’ Robinson applied for the position and was employed.
On 30 March 1829, Robinson set off on his first expedition around Lutruwita. Relying on Aboriginal people as guides and interpreters, his aim was to meet with, and persuade, Aborigines to leave their Ancestral homelands for a place where they would be ‘safe’. That place was given the name of Wybalenna by the white men, meaning ‘black men’s houses’, on Flinders Island. Our people were given names like ‘Napoleon’, ‘Mary’ and ‘Alfonso’, forced to wear settlers’ clothing, cease speaking their languages and practising culture, and live like white people in an attempt to Christianise them. Many people died of introduced disease, particularly respiratory-type illnesses. I suspect also of broken hearts, from the loss of their country-men and -women as well as being separated from their life-worlds, their Country, and the knowledge they would never again feel the earth of their beloved Ancestral homelands beneath their feet.
By 1847, only 47 Aboriginal people had survived the ‘Wybalenna years’. They were moved to putalina/Oyster Cove in southern Lutruwita.
Over the course of a decade, Robinson recorded his observations and information about the culture and language of Aboriginal Nations that he met with, and ‘rounded up’, including names of places, tribes and people. He also made wordlists of vocabulary, from people who still spoke their first language fluently. In fact, he is the most prolific of any of the twenty or so European recorders of the First Nations Languages of Lutruwita.
Dispossessed from their homelands, massacred, murdered and dying from introduced diseases, Aboriginal people began to disappear along with their languages. With loss of language came loss of knowledge. As a result, many original place names of Country are forever lost to us.
However, a few words, phrases and song fragments were remembered by some Aboriginal families into the twentieth century, including members of Fanny Cochrane Smith’s family, and families of Aboriginal women on the Bass Strait Islands. I am part of one of those ‘island’ families through Pularilpana, one of my Ancestral women who was abducted by sealers and taken to those islands.
Records of about twenty European men (recorders) comprise the only surviving representation of the original sounds of some of the Pakana languages. They are crucial sources for the retrieval, reconstruction and revival of Tasmanian Aboriginal language.
The Aboriginal community here in Lutruwita is painstakingly researching and piecing together stories and information relating to the night skies, stars, plants, animals, names of tribes, people and places through the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s palawa kani Language Program.
The records, in the course of linguistic research, have also provided important information, long absent in the living memory of our people. This includes knowledge about canoe building, basket weaving, land management and funerary practices.
I hope those same records will reveal more, as was intended (I like to think) by those old fellas like Wurati, Trukanini, Manalakina, Pagerly, Tanalipunya and the many more Aboriginal guides and interpreters who were also activists; who left these messages for the future generations – for us.
What is the Aboriginal place word for Queenstown?
The Aboriginal way of naming Country is quite different to that of non-Aboriginal methods. Country carries names of places for ceremony, where particular resources can be harvested or hunted and for geographical features, like mountains and rivers that may be boundaries between Nations.
For example, Nipaluna was recorded as ‘the country at Hobart Town’ so we are able to reinstate the original name for that country. Unfortunately, there are gaps within our knowledges. Those gaps include the place name for ‘Queenstown’. To date, the nearest place name to Queenstown is known as Timkarik, which was recorded as ‘the district north of Macquarie Harbour’ (which includes Strahan).
Queenstown is where I was born on 10 June 1958.
I can’t remember living there (we had left by the time I was three years old), and sadly, I can’t really say I feel any connection to the place of my birth. However at that time, a few Aboriginal families were living there. It was only seven years since the Cape Barren Island (Aboriginal) Reserve was closed and Aboriginal families, including my own, were forced to leave the island to live on ‘mainland’ Tasmania. My family lived mostly in Invermay, Mayfield and Mowbray however some members of our family went to Queenstown, including my Aboriginal grandmother, her partner and two teenage children. My mum, her brother and my grandmother’s brother all married Queenstown locals and regularly crossed the ‘border’ between ‘Queenie’ and ‘Gormie’. The mine provided work that was unavailable in other places because it was either there or not there, for Aboriginal men.
Some years later, my mother moved back to Queenie with my three siblings who all went to school there. My sister played hockey and won a ‘Best and Fairest’ at Murray High. My mum and sister also did some cleaning work at the motel. I remember visiting them in about 1976. It was during summer and the heat hit you smack in the face when you walked out the door. I simply could not believe it. I remember the old buildings as we walked around the town.
That is really my only memory of the place of my birth. Bit sad really. But for so many reasons, not knowing the original name of the place known as Queenstown since 1895 is even sadder.
Theresa Sainty is a Pakana woman from the north-east coast of Lutruwita (Tasmania) who is currently a Senior Indigenous Scholarship holder at the University of Tasmania working on her PhD. She has worked extensively with the Tasmanian Department of Education Aboriginal Education Services where she co-developed and provided Aboriginal cultural awareness training and produced curriculum resources for educators to assist in addressing the Australian Curriculum Cross Curriculum Priority Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture. Theresa is an Aboriginal Linguistic Consultant for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and has been working in the palawa kani Language Program since 1997. Passionate about Aboriginal language, culture and heritage, she continues to advocate for more original place names to be formally dual named and signed.
Header photo by Will Stackhouse