Aboriginal Nations and Language – Confusion, Convolution, and Controversy

Something painful about Black politics in Australia is the number of blackfellas that are greatly uninformed. One person makes one baseless claim, and, the next thing you know, it has spread like wildfire. For example, this one bloke I know thinks that the word, “Aboriginal,” is a word that the Crown in Australia tries to use to make people say they are not original people of these Lands. His reasoning is that in English, the suffix, “ab,” means, “not,” as in “abnormal,” “not normal.” Sounds convincing at a surface level, but when you actually look at the origins of the word, it’s a load of rubbish. The true etymology of the word is found in Latin, where, “ab,” is a word which means, “from,” and, “orgines,” means, “beginning.” Therefore, “Aboriginal,” really does mean, “from the beginning.” This kind of misinformation and the irrational anger that it kicks up is a dominate part of Black politics.

I mean, sure, there’s a lot of silliness tied in with the idea of being Aboriginal/Black/Tribal (even the terms used are often bickered about). A lot of people claim what is called, “Aboriginality,” and yet have little association with, connection to, or care for Aboriginal cultures, worldviews, or causes. That kind of being Aboriginal is pretty gammon as far as an Aboriginal understanding of it goes. Though the issue of what Aboriginal is, is a topic for another time. In fact, terms that are bickered about would be something worth exploring too, like the stupidity about the difference between lore and law. More on that at a later date.

The use of language in terms of the knowledge that has been created about Indigenous Australia over the years has never been standardised. This creates a lot of confusion about and convolution of the anthropological terms and the social/cultural realities of tribe, nation, clan, language group, etc.. The names of tribes/nations/clans/language groups have been recorded by so many different white people over the years, also in an unstandardised format (being solely oral languages pre-invasion, Aboriginal languages didn’t have graphic phonetic systems for the people creating knowledge about Aboriginal people to record that knowledge in a standardised way). This lead to the situation we have today, where we have (in writing, and often orally too) many different names for tribes/nations/clans/language groups, not too mention that the “correct” names for those social/cultural realities are often confused and convoluted.

For example, the name of the Kamilaroi Nation has many different spellings. According to the AIATSIS, some of those alternate names are Gamilaaray, Kamilaroi, Cam-ell-eri, Camel Duhai, Camilerei, Camleray, Camlerey, Cammealroy, Comleroy, Cumilri, Cummeroy, Cummilroy, Euhahlayi, Gamilaroi, Gamilray, Gamilroi, Ghummilarai, Gumilroi, and Guminilroi. That’s a lot of names. Why is this? Well, first, the aforementioned reason: historically, there had been no standardised written text for Aboriginal languages, and so when the invaders recorded information down, they did so according to the English language, spelling what they heard however they deemed appropriate. Hence we get some of the different spellings (like Camilerei, Camleray, Camlerey, Cammealroy, Comleroy, Cumilri, Cummeroy, Cummilroy). Then there other spellings like Kamilaroi and Gamilaroi – why the difference there? These differences are present because of the nature of the phonetic systems of Aboriginal languages. In most Aboriginal languages, the phonemes, “g,” and, “k,” are interchangeable (same with the phonemes, “b,” and, “p,” and also, “d,” and, “t”). Therefore, when the invaders heard Kamilaroi people saying who they were in different areas of Kamilaroi Country, they, being English speakers, heard different things. One heard Kamilaroi, another heard Gamilaroi. Then there are standouts, like Euhahlayi, which are likely clan groups within the Kamilaroi Nation, or separate nations altogether who speak the same language or a dialect of the language (I mean no disrespect to the Euahlayi Nation and the Euahlayi People’s Republic if the information presented here is inaccurate. Please contact me if it is, and I will correct this).

The point is, there’s a hell of a lot of confusion about names and spelling and pronunciation of the names of tribes/nations/clans/language groups, and, therefore, about the social/cultural reality of them.

I saw a great example of the confusion about this recently on a Facebook page called Blackfulla Revolution. There was a “poll” asking people what tribe they were from, and bunch of people had said they were from the Yuin Nation (or variations on that term). I saw a group called “Stop Tribal Ethnic Cleansing in Nsw” call out to the people claiming to be from the Yuin Nation. They said, “Yuin is not a Tribe.”

I jumped on this comment immediately, “On what grounds do you claim Yuin is not a tribe?” They replied,

“You will notice on this map the Tribe of Aunty Rosalie Kuoth Monks and other respected tribal Elders…..Yuin is not on there because it appears later on a government AIATSIS map to wipe out hundreds of tribes so the government can slowly wipe all tribes out.”  

[“this map” is the Tindale map (1974), which can be found here: http://archives.samuseum.sa.gov.au/tribalmap/. The AIATSIS map (1996) can be found here: http://www.abc.net.au/indigenous/map/]

[Speaking of Tindale, here is an informative piece from the Tracker magazine on his life and work]

Following is part of the rest of our exchange. Hopefully this blog has been informative enough for you to end your reading here if you wish. If not, there’s some more to learn in the exchange detailed below, so carry on:

COEN: Stop Tribal Ethnic Cleansing in Nsw, that’s the most absurd of conspiracy theories. Do you see the Gadigal people on that map? Do you contest their existence? The reason that Yuin is not on that map is because in the place where the Yuin people are on that map, the clans (presumably, according to reason) in that area are listed. Notice that the Tindale map is of the “Tribes” not the “language groups” (that’s what the modern AIATSIS map covers) – these things (tribe, language group, clan) were of course often convoluted and confused. The Tindale map was not concerned with language groups, and was also incredibly inconsistent (which we can see by comparison) and based on limited knowledge.

You’ll notice an interesting feature of the Tindale map is the dotted line boundaries, indicating some sort of overlap and connection between tribes, which we can deduce is to do with language – because when you compare the Tindale map to the AIATSIS map, in the Gurindji area (spelt Korindji on the Tindale map), you see that a collection of “tribes” including Gurindji are connected with these dotted line boundaries. We can deduce that is because they all spoke the same language, and that these “tribes” are clans/tribes/nations connected because they all speak the Gurindji language. Interestingly, when you look at the Yuin area on the AIATSIS map and compare it too the Tindale map, there are dotted line boundaries. It seems apparent that the “tribes” in that area on the Tindale map are tribes/clans/nations connected by speaking a language that was latter identified as the Yuin language. This is not a conspiracy, it is different knowledge. It doesn’t mean it’s all accurate, but Yuin people have known they are Yuin people (and even with their specific clans) well before AIATSIS even existed. I know Yuin elders in that boat. Just like Gadigal people aren’t on either of those maps, they are a people, regardless of the knowledge that people make about them.

STOP TRIBAL ETHNIC CLEANSING IN NSW (STECN): Its all just a white fulla fabrication Coen. The national parks and wildlife pushes the term a lot. If you research the term it actually means black man….or even “yes”. There is no way its a tribe. I don’t have to be careful of anything bruz….that is the facts right there. You cannot wipe out over 10 or more tribes with one term called “Yuin” just because it feels good…..and its happening all around the land mass. I’m fairly certain the handback of the tribal mountains on the south coast named and recognised all the original tribes in their gazzette and that was all authorised by the Elders of those tribes. Get your facts straight man.

And there is no such thing as Yuin language, the language of that area would have been the Dhurga, Djiringanj and Narigu if I remember properly.

COEN: Stop Tribal Ethnic Cleansing in Nsw, well now you’re just ignoring my arguments. You know Eora means a similar thing to that right? And like I said, Yuin people still know more specifically which clan they are from from within the Yuin speaking clans, so of course they can be specific with that (and do you have a source for that, re: the mountain hand back? If it’s the mountains I think you mean, I know that, even if they identified the specific clans there, that they identified as Yuin too, as I know the people involved in that – if we’re thinking of the same mountains). My point is, there’s no conspiracy to wipe out tribes there. It’s just anthropology.

There are bigger issues of actually attempts to destroy us that deserve more attention than this thing which is a fabricated problem – focus on the things that are actually destroying our mobs.

STECN: “us”? You have no argument just government “aboriginal” rhetoric. Go down to the REAL (not the fair “aboriginal”) tribal peoples of that area and they will tell you that Yuin is not a tribe or a language. Also checkout the Gazette for the mountain handback down that way and you will find that they named their TRIBES within that government gazette…..and with that any presupposed argument you had is easily disposed of.

COEN: Stop Tribal Ethnic Cleansing in Nsw, here is a photo with myself and Yuin elder Max Harrison in November last year. Does he look like a (and I quote you) ” REAL (not the fair ‘aboriginal’) tribal” person to you?

Any chance you could reference this Gazette for me?

You seem to be completely missing how knowledge has been created about Aboriginal peoples in Australia. Hence your confusion.

[following is the photo that I attached to the above comment]

Uncle Max and Coen

I do concede that there may not be a language called “the Yuin language,” per se. That word is just used as a word from the language to identify the language, and the Dhurga, Djiringanj and Narigu languages are actually dialects of that same language. Also, something else interesting, is that the name “Yuin” was also recorded as “Thurga” or “Dhurga.” Therefore, confirming my hypothesis. Same language and nation, different dialects and people groups within that nation.

I don’t see you complaining that there is no such thing as the Eora Nation because the clans of that nation (Cadigal, Wanegal, Cammeraygal, Wallumedegal, Burramattagal, Boregegal, Cannalgal, Birrabirrigal, and Gorualgal peoples) are not represented on the AIATSIS map. Why are they not? Because they all spoke the same language.

Also, the word “Eora” comes from two Eora words that mean “yes” and “here” – and that’s not a whitefella invention. Do you have a problem with that?

[the subsequent replies from Stop Tribal Ethnic Cleansing in Nsw were less argument and more personal attack from then on, so I have omitted the rest of the conversation, which didn’t last much longer than what is presented here anyway]

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