A group of Victorian Traditional Owners are struggling to have their proper name recognised by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

The Wadawurrung people are the Traditional Owners of Country that covers over 10,000 square kilometres on the western side of Melbourne and includes Geelong and Ballarat.

On the AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia that Country is labelled ‘Wathaurong’.

Wathaurong is an alternate spelling but not one used by the Traditional Owners, and the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation (WTOAC) says it doesn’t represent them.

WTOAC identifies the Wadawurrung people as the seven family groups descended from their apical ancestor John Robertson, who died in 1919. His descendants are Wadawurrung according to Wadawurrung law and tradition.

The families were recognised in 1997 as Traditional Owners and the WTOAC was incorporated to act on behalf of all Wadawurrung people.

WTOAC chief executive Paul Davis said the current spelling on the map is not one used by the registered Traditional Owners.

“The problem that the Traditional Owners have is that AIATSIS don’t spell Wadawurrung properly on its map, and that actually really upsets the Traditional Owners.”

Many mob names can have alternative spellings, but Davis said this particular spelling carries connotations for the Traditional Owners.

“[The alternate spelling] is one that’s kind of been adopted by people that live in the area but don’t belong to [the Traditional Owner group],” he said.

“They’re people coming from other parts of Australia, or other parts of Victoria, and that’s great. But they’re not the Traditional Owners of this Country.

“Using that name on the map means the new people have taken over, rather than the people that have been here for tens of thousands of years.”

Davis said WTOAC contacted AIATSIS but was not able to get the spelling changed.

“We’ve written to AIATSIS, and the response was, ‘Well, we don’t have the money to do it,'” he said.

“I’ve looked up their financials, they’ve got $27 million sitting in cash in term deposits.

“I don’t expect them to reprint the whole map, but online? That would be like a 10 minute job for someone surely.”

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for AIATSIS said the map was “not perfect” and is only intended to give a visual representation of the diversity of Aboriginal Australia.

“The AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia includes the disclaimer that the map attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Indigenous Australia,” they said.

“The map is based on published resources from the 18th century up until 1994. It is not presented as current, exact, nor with fixed boundaries. It is not suitable for Native Title or other land claims.”

According to the spokesperson, the map is a static object and has not been updated since it was first published in 1994.

Changing the map would require “significant work and funding”.

“AIATSIS is currently scoping the requirements for a new map of Australian languages that will reflect contemporary expectations and be more easily updatable while still retaining all of the benefits of the current map,” they said.

“The development of a new map will necessarily involve broad consultation with Traditional Owners and language experts.

“This will be a major and very complex undertaking, and, if we were able to secure appropriate funding and complete the project, it would be an important achievement.”

The spokesperson said the WTOAC had not been told that the change would require the entire map to be revised, not that it was “too expensive” to make changes and quoted the following from a 2019 email exchange.

“In correspondence with AIATSIS in 2019, Wadawurrung CEO Paul Davis replied:

Thanks for your reply. I am pleased to hear that AIATSIS is currently scoping for a systematic revision of the current map. When the time comes, we trust that your first point of call will be recognised Traditional Owner groups, such as Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation, trading as Wadawurrung. [Now called Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation].”

AIATSIS has updated their Australian language resource, Austlang, to reflect Wadawurrung Traditional Owners’ preferred spelling.

By Sarah Smit