The world’s largest sand island and the popular tourist destination Fraser Island off the southern-east coast of Queensland, Australia, has reverted to its Indigenous name, K’gari.
The title change comes following a long campaign by Indigenous groups, who argued naming the island Fraser was a “disrespect” to their people.
As the name was restored, more than 19 hectares of land was also transferred to the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Butchulla people of the island.
K’gari, which is pronounced as “gurrie,” means ‘paradise’ in the native tongue of the local Butchulla people. It originates from an Aboriginal Dreamtime story about a goddess named K’gari who was sent from the sky to help make the land and the seas.
In 1836, the island was named Fraser Island after Eliza Fraser, a Scottish woman who was shipwrecked there with her husband, Captain James Fraser and 18 crew and passengers.
Captain Fraser did not survive and was described as dying from spear wounds, starvation or disease. Meanwhile, Eliza managed to return to England and said she was captured by the Butchella people, describing them as “savages” and “cannibals.”
But the Butchulla people claimed her version of the story was false and accused the shipwrecked visitors of trying to integrate them into the community.
They also alleged that Eliza’s stories had contributed to the massacre of the Butchulla people under the hands of British colonisers over the following decades.
“It was through disrespect to the Butchulla people that her name, K’gari—the home of the Butchulla people—was taken away,” said Gayle Minniecon, chair of the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation, on June 7.
“Thankfully, it is now through respect to the Butchulla people that K’gari, her name, has been reclaimed.”
“Our oral history, our creation history, will now be told and learnt as it should be.”
The placename was restored in a ceremony on Wednesday involving generations of Butchulla people and guests with a smoking ceremony, traditional songs and dances.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who attended the ceremony, said the government would continue to recognise Indigenous languages through place names to align with its goals of truth-telling and reconciliation.
“While steps like this can’t change the wrongs of the past, it goes a long way to building a future where all Queenslanders value, trust, and respect each other,” she said.
“This always was and always will be Butchulla Country.”
The Move Was Criticised For ‘Virtue Signalling’
However, some have described the move as “virtue signalling” and that the name change was undemocratic as the government mainly consulted with Aboriginal activists.
Other people warned that tourists have gotten used to the name Fraser Island, and K’gari would be a harder name to market.
K’gari, which is about 123 km long and 22 km wide, is Queensland’s largest and Australia’s sixth-largest island. It is made up of sand that has been accumulating for an estimated 750,000 years on volcanic bedrock and has rainforests, eucalyptus woodland and coastal heaths.
It is also a highly popular destination for domestic and international visitors.
“The experience that tourists will have now is something no one’s ever experienced on K’gari because no one’s ever had the chance to sit down with the Butchulla people and been shown the beauty of K’gari, along with the hidden spiritual belief,” Minniecon said.
“People around the world will know that the Butchulla people fought and won to have the name of their home, their country, put on the world map as it should be, K’gari.”
Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation language and cultural coordinator Aunty Joyce Bonner said K’gari means home for her.
“Home amongst my people, the descendants, the ancestors, the Midiru [traditional owners],” she said.
“It’s our place. It’s what we call home.”
Previous Title Changes Of Australian Landmarks
This is not the first time Australian state or territory governments have returned to using Indigenous names for landmarks or regions.
In 2002, Ayers Rock, a massive sandstone monolith in the heart of Northern Territory’s arid “Red Centre” was renamed Uluru, which means Great Pepple in the Anangu dialect of the Yunkunytjatjara people.
In 2022, Moreland City Council in Melbourne’s north was renamed Merriebek, meaning “rocky country,” in the local indigenous language to end its ties with a Jamaican slave estate.
Australian governing authorities have also changed the names of areas to avoid ties to the attacks on aboriginal people by European settlers.
In 2018, the Australian Electoral Commission renamed the division of Batman, in Melbourne, Victoria, to Cooper after Indigenous political activist William Cooper.
It was originally named after John Batman, an Australian explorer, entrepreneur, and one of Melbourne’s founding fathers.
However, despite reports he was considered sympathetic towards Aboriginal people, he has been accused of killing Aboriginal people in Tasmania during the early 1800s.
Additonally, in 2016, Batman Park in Northcote changed its name to Gumbo Park after Gumbo, the great-niece of an Aboriginal leader.