When Noongar Elder Len Collard reflects on his upbringing in Western Australia, he remembers the “cock and bull” he had to hear from others around him.

Having spent his life studying traditional place-naming and language, his published theoretical work has helped advance the Noongar language in WA.

As a child however, Mr Collard was subject to backward questions about his cultural background.

“The sorts of things I’d be subject to are ‘oh are you an Aborigine? Or part Aborigine?’,” he said.

“And it was the most nonsensical yarn I’d ever heard because I never heard anyone ask when I was at school, ‘are you part European?’

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“They’d ask ‘so do you speak Aboriginal?’ And I’d say ‘no, I speak Noongar’.”

Collard shared more about how to understand the Noongar language in relation to place-naming at WA’s Disrupted Festival on Saturday, June 18

Previously an academic at the University of Western Australia’s school of Indigenous studies, Collard has dedicated his working life to studying and educating others on Noongar culture and language.

In 2011, Collard conducted a three-year study of Noongar place names creating a database which includes 25,000 Noongar words for different places in WA’s southwest.

Collard said he was pushed to study the Noongar language more because of how oblivious non-Indigenous people were about the language.

“Because all the terminology…it’s all colonial discourse and it’s disruptive, and it’s ambiguous and causes mass problems in the minds and hearts and souls of Australians,” he said.

“Because we don’t know what language we’re speaking and we’re living in people’s ancestral homelands.”

Now the director of Moodjar Consultancy, Collard is committed to sharing Noongar language and culture with the rest of Australian society.

Many Noongar words and place names are what they are because of how they were written during the colonial period.

“If we do draw some ideas from code-cracking and discourse analysis, then we need to work out which word is saying what and what it means and what are the variations of the spelling,” Collard said.

“But it’s got nothing to do with linguist, what does it have to do with? Charlie or Billy or Mary back in the day writing it down their personal way of writing it down.

“Depending on whoever and what they did, we end up with these spellings.”

While many locations in WA have their traditional names, Collard hopes locations with colonial names are renamed.

The movement to change colonial place names has been going on for decades.

In 2020, the King Leopold Ranges in the Kimberley region was renamed Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges.

The ranges were originally named in honour of Belgian King Leopold II who was responsible for brutal atrocities, oppression and the enslavement of the African people.

Collard said naming Country after colonial colonial figures has been a disgrace.

“What’s the one up in the Kimberleys, King Leopold (King Leopold Ranges)? He was a f*****g mass murderer,” Collard said.

“Whose idea was it to stick mass murderers on our Country?

“Imagine if we decided to change Stirling Highway to Hitler Highway, people would be outraged.”

Collard said colonial place names affected the story being told to the current and future generations of West Australians.

“What story are the current generations of West Australians being sold?” he said.

“Same with your children and your grandchildren. What do we tell them?”

Collard will continue his work of identifying Noongar place names in community workshops through Moodjar Consultancy.