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Why we should use First Nations place names when we travel

Gomeroi woman Rachael McPhail is leading the charge

Whether you’re soaking up the sunshine on Western Australia’s postcard-perfect Coral Coast, sipping on chardonnay in Victoria’s Yarra Valley or hiking up craggy cliff faces in Tasmania, you’re standing on Aboriginal land. Land that has been inhabited by Indigenous people for more than 60,000 years; land that holds a deep significance for its traditional owners; and land that has an original First Nations place name – which probably differs from the one you’re (and we’re) using right now.

Gomeroi woman Rachael McPhail was standing on Wiradjuri Country when she made a move that would bring Australia’s Traditional Place names swiftly into the spotlight. “I was doing some online shopping and it was a spur of the moment thing,” she recalls, “I thought I would try adding Wiradjuri Country to my address while placing the order – and it worked. I received my parcel, addressed to me on Wiradjuri Country, shared a picture on social media, and everything grew from there.”

McPhail created an Instagram account (@place_names_in_addresses) calling on Australia Post to recognise Traditional Place names, and received a groundswell of support. Her stance was clear and simple: “Every area in this country had an original place name, prior to being given its colonial town/city name, and I believe that it’s important to acknowledge this.”

The people listened, with tens of thousands signing her online petition. Australia Post publicly endorsed her campaign, and now encourage Australians to add First Nations place names when addressing mail (follow the guidelines here). 

“I can only speak for myself, not for all First Nations people, but for me acknowledging the first people of each Country or Nation is important because it’s a way for all Australians to celebrate the culture of each place, and the special relationship that the old people and their descendants today have with the land, animals, birds, waterways and oceans,” explains McPhail. “It also celebrates the beautiful names that these places have always had, despite the (often abhorrent) names given by colonialists.”

McPhail’s campaign takes on new meaning when the discussion turns to travel. Should Traditional Place names be adopted by tourism boards and travellers alike? Keep in mind that until 2002, Uluru was widely known as Ayers Rock – so changing the public lexicon is entirely feasible. What about Instagram geotagging? How do we recognise Aboriginal land and sacred sites on social media, given these platforms’ immeasurable impact on contemporary travel? In the US, a native climber created Instagram geotags for more than 40 mountains in a bid to highlight Indigenous history.

“I would love to see tourism really embrace Traditional Place names and the language and culture of the first people of that area,” says McPhail. “I recently read on the NSW National Parks website about a place in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park called Red Hands Cave [in Sydney’s north]. It would definitely require consultation and engagement with the custodians of this area, but I would like to see NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service call this cave by its original name, to pay respects to the significance of this area.

“I’ve also been speaking with the Indigenous team of a hotel chain about acknowledging the Countries that they do business on. I think it would be great if other hotel chains could do the same.

“Imagine walking into a hotel and knowing exactly whose Country you’re visiting, because it is clearly displayed and celebrated in the hotel lobby.” 

Of course identifying what Country you’re on is not always straightforward, and McPhail is currently calling on Australia Post to consult with elders and create a comprehensive and accurate database of Traditional Place names. But as her campaign continues to break ground, its core purpose remains the same: to push for equality and truth.

“Looking at the broader view of systemic racism and oppression of First Nations people is something that I am quite passionate about,” she says. “I love to think of small things that I can do to decolonise the way that I live my life, and make the systems that we live under more inclusive of First Nations people.

“I did not grow up knowing that my family and I are Gomeroi,” she continues. “It was only in 2015 that I discovered this, and began connecting with family who we were separated from generations ago. I honestly feel that the old people have begun guiding us back to our culture and family, because we live in a time in history where it is safe to do so. I celebrate my heritage, and the intergenerational resilience of our ancestors, because they were not able to – and my Traditional Place names campaign is part of that.”

Here, McPhail shares her advice on how YOU can help make a change…

 

On rewriting town entry signs….

“I have made contact with my local council to request that the town entry signs as well as the shire signs be updated to acknowledge that we live on Wiradjuri Country. I would strongly encourage every Australian to write to their local council and ask for the same. How amazing would it be to do a road trip through Australia and see all of the Nations and Countries acknowledged on signage as you enter each town!

“I’ve been advised that if a written letter is posted to a council, they must respond within a certain period of time under current legislation. So, why not find out the PO Box address of your local council and send them a letter – and don’t forget to include the traditional place name of the Country or Nation that you live on.”

On identifying Traditional Place names…

“I cannot stress how important it is to go to the actual elders or community leaders to get the correct information directly from them. The reason for this is that sometimes councils/museums/tourist centres/websites use names that are disputed by the local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. By continuing to use the incorrect name, it is contributing to the ongoing oppression of First Nations people. Similarly, the AIATSIS map is disputed by a number of communities, however it is the most up-to-date and comprehensive data source we have at this time.

“To find out what Indigenous Country you’re on you could also do a Google search, but please make sure that the information source you use is Indigenous-informed. If you support the creation of a database of Traditional Place names that can be cross-referenced by postcode, visit change.org/traditionalplacenames and sign my petition to get this happening!”

On Instagram geotagging…

“It would be really great if everyone could tag Traditional Place names, however my understanding is that Instagram will allow certain traditional place names to be tagged, but not others. Lonely Continent readers, if you know anyone at Instagram, please pass on a message that we would love this function to be added!”

On making real change…

“I really hope to inspire people to think of all the different ways that they can make their life more inclusive of First Nations people, and advocate where they can. If you notice something that is unfair or unequal, reach out and ask for change. People power is the only way to create systemic change.

“Ask your workplace/council/school if they have a Reconciliation Action Plan – and if not, take part in a committee to get one up and running (See Reconciliation Australia for more information on this). There are also so many grassroots organisations who are trying to create social change, and need our support. A few of my favourites are Clothing the Gap, Deadly Science, ID Know Yourself, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and Winangali Infusion.”

On the books you need to read…

“Aunty Marcia Langton’s book Welcome To Country is a travel guide to Indigenous Australia. There is an adults’ version and a schools’ edition, so all Australians can learn a bit more about our beautiful lands. As a follow on from this, Uncle Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou have just released Loving Country, which is a guide to sacred Australia. Both of these resources provide the Traditional Place names of the Countries and areas that are featured, and would be a wealth of information when planning your next road trip.”

On Indigenous travel experiences….

“My top tip is to make contact with community groups in the areas you wish to visit, and try to link in with as many First Nations tours or cultural experiences as you can. That way, you’ll know that you’re allowed to go to the places you are shown, and that you’re not breaking any cultural protocols. It will also allow Indigenous locals to share the beautiful history and culture of that particular area, which you may not learn otherwise.

“I really hope to be able to go and see the Brewarrina fish traps on Ngemba/Wailwan Country, and all of the beautiful wildflowers over on Noongar Country one day soon.”

Join or donate to Rachael McPhail’s campaign for change here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathryn Madden

My life in travel

Favourite Aussie holiday memory
“When I was 10 we did a family road trip around the Northern Territory, followed by a jaunt on the Ghan. I’m not sure I fully appreciated it at the time, but when I look back now, it was magical.”

Next local holiday
“Melbourne at any given time, to see friends and family.”

My spirit destination
“I feel most at home in the wind-swept Scottish Highlands and, in the starkest of contrasts, on the ritzy rivieras of Italy and France.”

On my Australian bucket list…
“Western Australia’s Coral Coast – or check out my full bucket list here.”

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