From Wollongong to Woodenbong, Mooloolaba to Booragoon, Tangambalanga to Manangatang, many of Australia’s most sonorous place names have Indigenous origins. But while it’s virtually impossible to go anywhere in Australia without encountering a street, suburb, town or natural feature that got its name from a language spoken by the country’s original inhabitants, how often do we think about what that means?
A new collaborative project, Native Land, shines a light on the conventional maps of the world and reveals a whole slew of alternative countries hiding underneath. The website and app tracks Indigenous territories and language groups in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas, allowing users to zoom in on a postcode, address or place and discover its pre-colonial bona fides. Type in Melbourne, for example, and you’ll learn that it straddles traditional Boon wurrung and Woiwurung land. From there, links to external references encourage deeper delving, and suddenly, past and present are one.
Native Land is a work in progress, with its founder – Canadian “settler” Victor Temprano – inviting users to submit their own data and knowledge. (Which raises the question: is anyone out there qualified to help him map Tasmania’s Indigenous heritage yet? It’s looking a little underdone at the moment.)
Far from claiming any kind of authority, Temprano reminds us that “maps potentially function as colonial artifacts and represent a very particular way of seeing the world”. He even questions whether Native Land will ever really get things “quite right”. But even if it fails at this goal, it’s still a good way to start adjusting our understanding of the world we inhabit.