State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989

5

Why Use Koori?

The most sacred right of humanity is to be ourselves and to be in control of the making of ourselves. Identity, the idealised conception of ourselves, is formed from the language, culture and social group with which we identify. Our group identity is symbolised by the name with which we associate ourselves. This is personal and can be ever-changing as we make ourselves or our contexts change. We might be Melburnians, Victorians or Australians depending on the time or context. In recent times many descendants of the first people who lived in Victoria prefer to be called Kooris: but it was not always so. Is this a reasonable and rational request they make and how did this come about?
It is certainly a reasonable request given that Koori is the name by which many Victorian Aborigines now wish to be called and no other Victorian group seems disadvantaged by such usage. Many believe that ‘Aborigine’ and other terms, including derogatory ones, are the political and perjorative words of the colonizers, the invaders of ‘their land’. The only difficulty with ‘Koori’ is that it is a regional word for people in the south-east of Australia. People in Queensland prefer ‘Murri’; those in the West, ‘Nyunga’; in the North, ‘Yolngu’. We may be forced to rely on ‘Aborigine’ for some time yet, when referring to the descendants of the first Australians throughout the whole of the continent.
The use of ‘Koori’ is also a rational request, since the word ‘aborigine’ is the generic term for the native inhabitants of any region, and it is not descriptive of the people of a particular place and culture. As Eve Fesl, Director of the Aboriginal Research Centre at Monash University (a name she wants changed to Koori) has written: ‘just as the English, Dutch and French are referred to by the specific names of their groups, we should be demanding that the nondescript terms applied to us by speakers of the English language, be dropped and that the names which we use to describe ourselves and others of our race be used’.1 Thus there seems no reasonable or rational objection to the use of Koori, save that it will take time for it to seep into the language of white and even some black Victorians.
It derives from the word ‘man’ in the languages of the northern coastal peoples of New South Wales and was first recorded as Ko-re from the Awakabal people of the Newcastle area by Rev. L. E. Threlkeld in his An Australian Grammar (1834). Its alternative spellings are Koorie, Kuri and Coorie.2 Jeremy Beckett believes it had spread to the Murray area by early this century.3
Thus Koori is an ancient word but its application by the people ranging from Southern Queensland to Victoria to describe themselves is confined to recent times. Prior to this, Aboriginal Victorians called themselves by other terms. In the first years of contact they gave their local linguistic or tribal names to whites — Woiworong, Dant-gurt, Bunurong — because that is where their prime identity lay. Protector Robinson's journals are littered with such self-definitions. Then as various groups moved or were moved onto reserves after the 1860s and intermixed, new identities developed, focused on their new homes, where as time progressed many of them were born. Thus they called themselves Cummeragunja, Framlingham or Coranderrk people. After these settlements were broken up or weakened; as people from various regions intermingled in Melbourne; and as wider Aboriginal political organisations developed; there was a need for a more all embracing term. Of course clan and settlement identifications remained, and are still strong today, but wider terms were adopted as well.
Koori was probably in use then, but not in front of whites. Aboriginal people between the 1930s and 1950s, preferred to be called by whites, ‘the dark people’ — not ‘natives’, ‘blacks’ and so forth.4 Koori was, as Diane Barwick discovered in 1960, a semi-secret word used among the people themselves.5 Indeed the first newspaper reference to ‘Koori’ that I have so far discovered is a Sun report of 7 January 1969, referring to the creation of an ‘Aborigines only’ Koori Club in Fitzroy. Since then Kooris have used this word openly to define themselves although the press and whites in general have yet to take it up.
If Rhodesians are now Zimbabwians, and Peking is now Beijing, why not use Koori — a self identifying term with a sense of place and history — instead of the vague, generic term, ‘Aborigine’, when referring to people of south-eastern Australia.
Richard Broome has taught Australian History in universities for over ten years, has been a freelance historian for five years and currently teaches Australian history at La Trobe University. He is currently writing his fifth book, a history of Kooris in 20th century Victoria.

1

E. Fesl, ‘How the English Language is Used to Put Koories Down, Deny Us Rights, or is Employed as a Political Tool Against Us’, typescript leaflet, June 1987, Riley and Ephemera Collection.

2

W. S. Ramson (ed.), The Australian National Dictionary (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 354.

3

Jeremy Beckett quoted in D. Barwick, ‘A little More Than Kin. Regional Affiliation and Group Identity among Aboriginal migrants in Melbourne’, PhD, ANU, 1963, p. 21.

4

Letter, A. Vroland to Professor G. A. Browne, 4 October 1948, MS 9377 WILPF Records, La Trobe Collection (Box 1726, V/68).

5

D. Barwick, ‘A Little More than Kin’, p. 22