NAIDOC Week 2020.

NAIDOC Week 2020 will be celebrated 8-15 November due to the impact of COVID-19. This year's theme Always Was, Always Will Be recognises that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years. 

2020 National NAIDOC logo.

This year's theme highlights the ongoing spiritual and cultural connection to land and the intimate knowledge of country. Within the State Library's Indigenous Languages Project, this knowledge is exemplified through language and how country is described. This blog post will explore some of the ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages describe country, particularly everyday reminders such as placenames. Many landmarks have a Creation story in their origins, depicting the journey of an ancestral spirit such as the Rainbow Serpent who shaped the landscape.

2020 National NAIDOC Poster.

The 2020 National NAIDOC Poster, Shape of Land, was designed by Tyrown Waigana, a Noongar and Saibai Islander man - the following text from the NAIDOC Week website provides the meaning and background story to the artwork.

Tyrown’s artwork tells the story of how the Rainbow Serpent came out of the Dreamtime to create this land. It is represented by the snake and it forms the shape of Australia, which symbolises how it created our lands. The colour from the Rainbow Serpent is reflected on to the figure to display our connection to the Rainbow Serpent, thus our connection to country. The overlapping colours on the outside is the Dreamtime. The figure inside the shape of Australia is a representation of Indigenous Australians showing that this country - since the dawn of time - Always Was, Always Will Be Aboriginal Land.

Road sign showing the distance to other locations from Boulia. JOL Negative Number 201070.

Today, while the story may be lost, the placename is often the only obvious reminder of the connection to country. Generally the traditional name has been 'anglicised' as shown in the above image of a road sign showing distances from the Western Queensland town of Boulia. While the sign is located in Pitta Pitta country, the placenames on the sign are drawn from a number of languages in the region:

  • Camooweal is from an unknown/unrecorded language meaning 'a strong wind'.
  • Cloncurry, while sounding Aboriginal was named by Burke after a friend Lady Cloncurry from Ireland
  • Dajarra is from an unrecorded language believed to mean 'an isolated mountain'.
  • Urandangie (also known as Urandangi) is reportedly a corruption of Aboriginal words uranda-ngie, language and dialect unknown, indicating 'much gidyea'.
  • Bedourie means 'dust storm', again in an unrecorded language, possibly one of the local dialects.
  • Coorabulka - while attributed to an Aboriginal language, there are no details on meaning or origins.
  • Marree in South Australia is believed to be a corruption of a Dhirari word referring to place of possums and the site of an ancestral journey.
  • Windorah is an example of uncertainty of the original meaning - it is listed as referring to a freshwater bream or a catfish.

'Native names of places near Cooktown', Phillips (1898).

Placenames were documented very early by a range of individuals, including pastoralists, missionaries, anthropologists and others who had interactions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For example, the image above shows a selection of placenames in the Cooktown region by Phillips in 1898 - this list of placenames was an appendix to an article "Vocabulary of Australian Aborigines in the Neighbourhood of Cooktown, North Queensland". There is a growing recognition of traditional placenames existing prior to English names; the wordle below shows a short selection of the hundreds of placenames from across Queensland with Aboriginal origins or meanings.

Wordle showing selection of Aboriginal placenames.

It should be acknowledged that placenames, while a contemporary concept, held different interpretations by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Rather than a single name for a river, there would be several names for the different bends, stretches of the watercourse. In the Torres Strait, the image below from the Haddon/Cambridge collection is of Mer Island, depicting the traditional Meriam names for numerous features on the island such as bays, rivers,mountains, etc.

Sketch map of the island of Mer, Haddon (1908).

This NAIDOC Week, State Library encourages you to find out more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander connection to country and the rich diversity of placenames across the landscape. There is a range of activities planned for the week including panels, discussions, culture quest, Black Diggers webinar, etc. - visit the What's On webpage for further details!


Additional material for this blog post was sourced from the National NAIDOC website; there is a range of resources including posters, teacher guides and other materials for schools and community groups to participate in NAIDOC Week 2020.


Desmond Crump

Indigenous Languages Coordinator, State Library of Queensland

State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Webpages

State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Map


Spoken: Celebrating Queensland languages exhibition

Spoken Virtual Tour

Jarjum Stories exhibition

Old Words, New Ways upcoming exhibition

Minya Birran: What next for Indigenous Languages?



Cover image: Aboriginal land rights march in Brisbane, Queensland, 1982. State Library Image number: 30298-0001-0007

2020 National NAIDOC Logo from NAIDOC website.

2020 National NAIDOC Poster from NAIDOC website.

Road sign showing the distance to other locations from Boulia. Negative number: 201070.

Phillips, R. (1898) "Vocabulary of Australian Aborigines in the Neighbourhood of Cooktown, North Queensland".

Wordle - selection of Aboriginal placenames of Queensland.

Sketch map of the island of Mer, Haddon (1908).


References and Further Reading

State Library of Queensland has a range of materials relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander placenames, landmarks as well as Creation Stories highlighting connection to country - a selection is shown below; use One Search to find more items.

Brisbane History Group (1990) Brisbane: local, oral and placename history. Brisbane History Group: Brisbane. G 994.31 1990

Dixon, R. M. W. (1991) Words of our country: stories, place names and vocabulary in Yidiny, the Aboriginal language of the Cairns-Yarrabah regionG 499.15 1991

Eseli, P. (1998) Eseli’s NotebookS 306.089 001

Helon, G. (1994) The Goreng Goreng tribe of South-East Queensland: its’ traditional tribal territory, clan divisions and proper names. (Map) Gurang Land Council: Bundaberg. MAPS 840 1998 02000 F

Hercus, L.; Hodges, F and Simpson, J. (2002) The land is a map: placenames of Indigenous origin in AustraliaQ 919.4003 LAN

Hodes, J. (1998) Far North Queensland place & street names : their origins & meaningsREFJ 910.014 hod

Lamington Natural History Society (199?) Place names in Lamington National ParkVF 910.3 pla

Lawrie, M. The Margaret Lawrie Collection of Torres Straits MaterialsTR2082 

OM64-17 Archibald Meston Papers

Milne, R. (1993) Dahs and bahs: Aboriginal Placenames of Southern QueenslandQ 910.014 MIL

Phillips, R. (1898) "Vocabulary of Australian Aborigines in the Neighbourhood of Cooktown, North Queensland". In The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 27(1898), pp. 144-147. Online access via One Search.

Queensland Place Names Board (1963) Interim Gazetteer of Queensland Place NamesREF 919.43 1963

Queeensland Place Names Board (19-) Aboriginal place names, words and meanings collected at 'Terrick Terrick', Blackall, Central Queensland, about 1886VF 919.43003 que

Sharp, N. (1993) Stars of TagaiJ 994.38 SHA 

Simpson, J. (1975) Placenames of Southern QueenslandP 910.014 sim

Steele, J. G. (1984) Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond RiverQ 994.3102 ste


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