The problem of ‘tribal names’ in eastern Australia

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Deciphering the often conflicting accounts of group names in early records is problematic in land claims in eastern Australia south of Cairns. State parties see it as critical to establishing &#8216;the right people&#8217; for each claim area, while also the records are often subject to divergent readings and dispute among claimants themselves. An example is the Kuku Yalanji region, with over sixty group names on record, of which eighteen alone are based on <i>kuku</i> &#8216;language, speech&#8217; and for which highly contradictory locations are recorded: for instance in the south of the region one map has &#8216;Kuku Kulunggur&#8217; where others have &#8216;Kuku Nyungkul(u)&#8217; or &#8216;Kuku Buyunji&#8217;, whereas others have the latter two in the north or west where yet others have &#8216;Kuku Yalanji&#8217;.<br /> Although &#8216;Kuku Yalanji&#8217; has developed into the umbrella ethnonym,enough oral information on the wider stock of kuku names remains extant to show how the diverse emic paradigms underlying them gave rise to such confusing records.<br /> The case is instructive for wider eastern Australia, where breaking the code of group naming practices and considering their history in processual rather than static terms is critical. The least likely reason that the names claimants now identify with do not match those of early records is that the 1788 &#8216;original tribe&#8217; has since been displaced by another. What we should expect instead is a history more like that of the Yalanji case, with multiple and overlapping naming paradigms, names that are subject to slippage between levels of local organization and others to deictic referent-shifting, and some that do not denote a specific &#8216;tribe&#8217; or even a dialect variant but simply reflect inter-group relations at the time they were recorded.


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