Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

History revisited - geography plays a role in language

For some time, there has been a dispute about just which Aboriginal language group occupied that small patch of land now known as Armidale. I know that this has caused a degree of confusion among non-Aboriginal people who do not understand either the reasons for, or the significance of, the dispute. For that reason, I thought that I should provide you with some background material over the next few columns.

In this first column I want to start looking at the historical evidence, pointing to some of the dynamic elements involved. I write with caution and with great respect for all those involved. I fully accept that my views may be challenged on the basis of evidence.

To understand the dispute, we need to understand the geography of the Tablelands and surrounding areas and the relationship between that geography and traditional Aboriginal life. We also need to understand that Aboriginal language groups were not single entities, but combinations of local groups each speaking their own tongue that could vary greatly, while also displaying common features across space and time.

If you look at the geography of the Tablelands you can see to the east the coastal river valleys. These were occupied by large and powerful language groups whose territory followed watersheds, extending onto the Tablelands. These groups were not united, but displayed differences between those in the lower and upper valleys. Some modern Aborigines call this the salt water, fresh water divide. It was the upper valley Aborigines who were most closely linked to the Tablelands.

To the west, the geographic barriers between the river valleys are smaller. This allowed one powerful language group, the Kamilaroi or Gamillaraay. to spread so that their territory broadly stretched along the length of the Tablelands.

In geographic terms, the Tablelands stretches north-south, but is much narrower west-east. Further, it was a poorer area in ecological terms than either the coast or western slopes and plains. This made for smaller populations whose territories were relatively narrow in east-west terms, but elongated in north-south terms.

Squeezed between their powerful neighbours, the Tablelands’ language areas were the meeting place of multiple nations, the dividing line between the coastal and riverine traditions. This did not always make for an easy life, with the patterns of interaction including marriage varying greatly from place to place depending on just who the neighbours were.

Writing much later, Norman Tindale (1974) recorded the location of the Anaiwan language group in this mix as occupying the New England tableland from Guyra and Ben Lomond south to Uralla and Moonbi Range; north to Tingha; at Bendemeer and Armidale. He listed a variety of different spellings of the name: Anaywan, Anewan, Nowan, Enni-won, Yenniwon, Ee-na-won, En-nee-win, Eneewin, Inuwan, Inuwon, Nee-inuwon, Enuin

The evidence I have seen broadly supports this conclusion, placing Armidale squarely in Anaiwan territory. I believe that to be true. However, and as you might expect from the geography, the on-ground position was a little more mixed than that.

In my next column, I will look in more detail at the distribution of the Anaiwan language and the relations with other groups.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 11 December 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013.

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