Places that name us

Ricky Maynard, Death in Exile, 2005, gelatin silver print, from Portrait from a Distant Land. Courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney, licensed by Viscopy, 2011
Ricky Maynard, Death in Exile, 2005, gelatin silver print, from Portrait from a Distant Land. Courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney, licensed by Viscopy, 2011

Aboriginal explanations of the way an individual relates to the world contain remarkably unified concepts, such as that embodied in the word “djalkiri”, used by the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land. “Djalkiri”, which literally means foot or footprint, is translated by the more poetic philosophical Yolngu in their bilingual literature centre as “foundation”, referring to culture, society, and individual identity.[1]

Movement, traversals and journeying are integral to Indigenous identity itself, with the many Songlines and ceremonial paths woven through the land now known as Australia, being the foundation of Indigenous culture before colonialism as expressed in the unified concept of “Djalkiri”. The embodiment of the Tjukurrpa or the Dreaming through movement is an ancient expression of Indigenous peoples’ earth-centric cultural and language systems, and serves as a homage to the belief that Australia was never an empty space, as it occurs within Western epistemology.

According to Dhayirra Yunupingu, a Yolngu writer “This land of ours, it provided our ceremonial objects ... and it wasn’t only the sacred things which were given but the land also provided the sacred names, the kinship, the sub-sections, the homelands, and whatever language you might speak”.[2] For Indigenous peoples, moving through Country was and continues to be about cultural heritage rights and gives us meaning as well as responsibility. It is here that the idea of an Indigenous Diaspora serves as a cultural interface, where the clash of ideas and epistemologies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous language systems occur.

Within colonialist discourse, Australia was an uninhabited land, a country of unconquered wilderness. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson puts it, the “non-Indigenous sense of belonging is inextricably tied to the original theft through the fiction of Terra Nullius ...”[3] For Indigenous peoples, the land is alive with Ancestral beings and includes kinship systems that transcend the idea of human and unhuman, animate and inanimate binaries. For Indigenous peoples in modernity, connections to Country and kinship systems have been disrupted through the force of colonialism.

I will speak to the idea of an Indigenous Diaspora to name this force, to name the homogenising of the Indigenous cultural and subjective experience within a colonial epistemological frame. If there was an Indigenous Diaspora, then I would belong to it. Having grown up south of the lands of my mother and father in New South Wales, I came to know another people’s land as home. Stories of a place far away, a place so familiar because I had spent part of my childhood there, stirred memories, sometimes dreams.

With adulthood came journeys to these places, greeting them like friends from childhood tales. Names I recalled, from all the stories told within my family of life, lived in places remembered with fondness, and sometimes not, as “home”. It was the place, the people, and the relationships interwoven in these stories that gave the stories meaning. It was what was done in these places, through stories of oysters, fish, old people, and trauma. In the telling of these stories perhaps one does not realise what is occurring: that a path is being reignited, ever so gently, one’s physiognomy, neurology fired.

I exist in my body: this is its first dimension of being. My body is utilised and known by the Other: this is its second dimension. But in so far as “I am for others”, the Other is revealed to me as the subject for whom I am an object.[4]

As a Goenpul woman from Stradbroke Island, having never lived there, as my grandfather left to marry my grandmother, whose family came from Tanna Island in Vanuatu, I recently returned to Stradbroke to visit my family and my country. The name I now bear, “Moreton” was used by Captain Cook while sailing past Stradbroke Island in 1770 to honour Lord Moreton, president of the Royal Society. Cook named Moreton Bay and consequently, all who lived there.

The name Moreton represents a moment whereby one epistemology sought to annihilate another, much like the term “Indigenous Diaspora”. Yet that Diaspora is a threat of something yet to be achieved, rather than an accepted reality. The words, the names, seek to extinguish the prior, the original. In the context of my family, we still tell the story of Captain Cook sailing past and stand witness to a temporality, an epistemology and another perspective on the idea of invasion and colonisation.

Freedom implies space; it means having the power and enough room in which to act. Being free has several levels of meaning. Fundamental is the ability to transcend the present condition, and this transcendence is most simply manifest as the elementary power to move. In the act of moving, space and its attributes are directly experienced.[5]

Diaspora as a term theorising Indigenous displacement and dispossession assumes the success of this incursion. The idea of an Indigenous Diaspora speaks to the metaphysics of presence as well as absence, of how oracy serves Indigenous temporality to maintain a connection to Country through ongoing kinship relationships. Moreton-Robinson argues that “Indigenous belonging challenges the assumption that Australia is postcolonial because our relation to land, what I call ontological belonging, is omnipresent, and continues to unsettle non-Indigenous belonging based on illegal possession”.[6] 

In discussing the idea of ownership of this country, non-Indigenous Australians have “a sense of belonging derived from ownership as understood within the logic of capital”, unlike “the Indigenous sense of belonging, home and place in its incommensurable difference”.[7] This incommensurable difference is epistemological, ontological and philosophical.

The moment of Being qua Being is the presence of Spirit to itself, all at once, no longer history, no longer becoming, no longer mediated.[8]

Can Indigenous peoples be out of place in our own country? I have borrowed the title of this article from Ricky Maynard’s essay in the catalogue to his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, “Returning to places that name us”[9], as a reflection on how Maynard as an Indigenous photographer uses photography to reinstate the primordiality of Indigenous being. There is co-primordality in the moment at which an Indigenous person and non-Indigenous person appear to each other, but the Indigenous epistemology from which Indigenous primordiality occurs is not recognised. The idea of an Indigenous Diaspora is the property of colonialism; of the Indigenous body in the land now-known as Australia being capable of being “alien”.

This is linked with the idea of empty space, and the normalising of the white body within it. As an Indigenous person with Ancestry of multiple languages and kinship groups, I have many more places to return to in this lifetime. I have the country of my father, my mother and family that waits for me there. I also have the country of my great grandfather, Tanna Island in Vanuatu. While culturally we as Indigenous peoples may be experiencing the duress of colonialism, and being forced from our countries, many of us have not forgotten that place that names us, that place that we come from. For those of us who have for the moment forgotten, it is a matter of finding those who are able to help us remember.


  1. ^ Jennifer Isaacs, Spirit Country, Hardie Grant Books, 1999, p. 5.
  2. ^ Ibid. p. 6.
  3. ^ Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “Home and away, Indigenous belonging and place”, in Sara Ahmed et. al., Uprooting/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, Berg, 2003, p. 24. 
  4. ^ Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Routledge 2003, p. 375. 
  5. ^ Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 52.
  6. ^ Moreton-Robinson, op. cit., p. 25.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 23.
  8. ^ Wolfgang Walter Fuchs, Phenomenology and the Metaphysics of Presence: An essay in the Philosophy of Edmund Husserl, The Hague, Nijhoff, 1976, p. 12. 
  9. ^ Ricky Maynard: Portraits of a Distant Land, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2008, p. 58.

Romaine Moreton is a poet and research fellow at Umulliko, the Wallotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle.