Reconciliation takes action

RACHEL PEMBERTON is a Fremantle councillor. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED she reflects on the decision to rename its town square to reflect the traditional owners of the land. 


NGALA kaaditj Whadjuk moort keyen kaadak nidja Walyalup boodja wer djinang Whadjuk kaaditjin wer nyiting boola yeye.

This is the acknowledgement of country that is read out at every council meeting – but in Noongar rather than English – which is also printed in our agendas, but sadly rarely used. 

Walyalup Koort is Fremantle’s Heart – a way of expressing what we already know and feel but in the language of, and with respect to the ancient custodians of this country – custodians who have been displaced, discriminated against and disadvantaged for almost two centuries now.

But despite this, the incredibly strong Noongar people have proven their continuous occupation of this place, and the retention of their ancient culture – among the oldest in the world.

We are privileged to have the opportunity to share and learn about Noongar culture and with it, get a much deeper understanding about the land that we share today. 

While the renaming of Kings Square may be symbolic, the recognition of the ancient Noongar name for this place is also an important step along the journey of reconciliation we are on as a city, a community and a culture. 

It was pointed out that Fremantle’s Aboriginal population is just 1.6 per cent – therefore when something comes down to a popular vote, they will usually loose. However, that has not been the case in this instance, with overwhelming support for a change to a Noongar name from people across the City of Fremantle, as was shown by the results of community consultation. 

To quote a few of the comments from community on this matter:

“Walyalup was the name of the place, in use for thousands of years, Koort meaning heart, as in the centre of Walyalup – eg the centre of Fremantle – perfect.” 

“I believe traditional place names are an important way to recognise, respect and celebrate traditional cultures… People will learn and adapt quickly and we will all be richer for it.” 

These comments reflect the findings of Reconciliation Australia’s 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia report which concluded “reconciliation is growing and more Australians now understand the impact of colonialism and the modern Australian state on First Nations families and communities. That the reconciliation movement in Australia is at a ‘tipping point’, and that the nation needs to move from ‘safe’ to ‘brave’ on issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” 

Reconciliation Week begins tomorrow and the theme for 2021 is More than a Word. Reconciliation takes Action urging Australians towards braver and more impactful action.

While naming is literally a word – this is also a brave bold step towards reconciliation and aligns to Action 19 to Speak Up for Languages. Their website states: Language is inseperarable from culture, and culture is empowerment.

SAFE Actions are to know your local area language(s) of the Traditional Custodians of the land on which you live. 

BRAVE actions are to actively support First Nations language revival programs. Know and use Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander placenames and petition councils and governments to use placenames. 

I am deeply proud that this council is choosing to take these actions. And of course, many more actions through our WRAP.

This decision will have important community benefit in keeping Whadjuk Noongar language alive. 

While some may consider this cancel culture or disrespectful to our colonial history, it is actually an important nod to the ancient heritage of our home, and there is still plenty of recognition and celebration of our historic city. 

Working at both the Maritime and Shipwreck Museums, I am fortunate to be in daily contact with the rich tapestry of the history of our city. I have been impressed by the WA Museums 

 ability to acknowledge both the Indigenous and the colonial history, and its ability to confront the difficult truths of our shared history. This is even more apparent in the new Boola Bardip museum.

My love for Fremantle’s history runs deep, in fact in recent weeks I have personally undertaken an audit of heritage homes in White Gum Valley in order to ensure their protection and retention. So, I want to reassure people that this is not about denying or re-writing our history, but rather about writing the next chapter, together in a respectful and collaborative way. 

When I grew up, I knew the place as St Johns Square – which makes sense given they own the land. But that was only temporarily used. In 1991, the idea of using an Aboriginal name was first debated, but in a close vote 6 votes to 7 the name reverted back to Kings Square. 

Therefore I think we can cope with this change. In fact, our community has called for it. Local traditional owners have asked for it and I hope that today we will do it. 

As another respondent said: 

“It is the heart of Fremantle therefore it makes sense to call it Walyalup Koort” 

Re-naming does not erase the previous names and stories – but rather sets out a positive vision for our collective future as a community. 

This proposed name, Walyaup Koort fills my heart with pride, joy and hope – I am so grateful to those community members who came up with it and those who supported it. 

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