Language, Totems and Stories

At the time of European colonisation there were hundreds of different traditional Aboriginal languages and several geographically defined Torres Strait Islander languages spoken in Australia.

Historically, clan groups could speak not only their own language but also the language belonging to their neighbours. This was very important when trade and travel occurred across traditional language boundaries. Language helps us to understand and identify the many Indigenous groups in Australia.

While some languages are still spoken each day some are not, they have been lost or are only ever recollected by elders. Even though English is widely used, many groups are still actively researching and reviving their traditional languages and are teaching them to their younger generations. The North Queensland Regional Aboriginal Corporation Language Centre in Cairns conducts workshops to train community members to use technology to document various languages and record speakers.

There are many regional, state and national conferences held that focus on language education, survival, research, recording and teaching indigenous languages through the school curriculum.

Examples of different language names

An example of the differences in language names for sea animals is in the Guugu Yimmithirr language group (which originates in Cooktown and the area north to the Starke River) who call a dugong Girrbithi and a turtle Ngawiya while the eastern Torres Strait Islander language groups call the dugong Deger and the turtle Nam in their Meriam Mir language. Some other examples of the differing languages spoken along the Queensland coast are:

  • Meriam Mir language is spoken throughout the eastern islands of the Torres Strait
  • Kuuku Ya'u language is one of three closely related dialects spoken at Lockhart River, situated near Iron Range on Cape York Peninsula
  • Wulguru language is spoken at the south end of Halifax Bay, around Townsville including Magnetic Island and inland to Hervey Range.


A totem is an object or thing in nature that is adopted as a family or clan emblem. Different clans are assigned different totems and in some cases individuals are given personal totems at birth. In the Torres Strait personal pendants are worn and these pendants are mostly carved out of wood, turtle shell or shells and often represent the person's totem. There are well established rules as to when the pendants can be worn, often only allowed during ceremonies or rituals.

Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be identified by their totems, which can be birds (like sea eagles or pelicans), reptiles, sharks, crocodiles and fish. They are an important part of cultural identity and are especially significant in song, dance and music as names and on cultural implements. Some clans forbid their individuals from eating the animal that is their totem, while other tribes make exceptions for special occasions such as ceremonies.

The Diamond stingray (Yama) is the totem of the Wuthathi tribe (Shelbourne Bay, northern Queensland). Stingray is also the totem for some Torres Strait Islanders. Sharks are a totem of the Meriam (people from Murray Islands or Mer in the eastern group of islands in the Torres Strait) and it is forbidden to hunt them. There is a story about a Meriam man and his son who had an accident at sea and lost their boat. During the night as they waited to be rescued sharks brushed past their legs. The Meriam people believe that sharks did not attack the man and his son as shark is their totem animal and would protect them.


Story telling is an important oral tradition of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Across Australia, Dreaming and Creation stories convey how ancestral spirits created all things on earth, such as our land, sea, rivers, mountains, animals, plants and other things. These stories have been handed down for thousands of years. Story telling is such a special part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's culture as it explains the creation of all things, why things happen, where to go and not to go, how to find food, cultural practices, laws, history, family, associations, tribal boundaries and the relationships with every living creature and feature of land, sea and air.

Like traditional Australian languages, cultural stories belong to specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Permission to tell these stories can only be given by the custodians of these stories and this should be respected.

Story Place is a good database to search for stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the Great Barrier Reef. These stories explain the relationships that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have with their land and sea country. 

The Dhui Dhui story

The Dhui Dhui (pronounced Doo-ee Doo-ee) Story appears courtesy of Russell Butler of the Bandjin People. The sea country belonging to the Bandjin ('Saltwater') people includes Hinchinbrook Island and Lucinda Point on the adjoining mainland of north Queensland, as well as Gould and Garden Islands and part of Dunk Island.

Where you look due south toward Hinchinbrook (Muddamuddanaymy, pronounced Mudda-mud-ah-nah-me) from Dunk Island (Coonangalbah, pronounced Koo-nang-gol-bar), two boys paddled out in a canoe and dropped their stone anchor. The elders had told them not to fish on that sand spit because there was a big shovelnose ray (Dhui Dhui) that lived there. The boys fished anyway. The ray bit their line and started to tow them around in the canoe but the boys wouldn't let go of the line. It towed them around the ocean for awhile before going down the Hinchinbrook channel. They disappeared into the horizon. By then, it was getting dark and everyone was worried about the boys. As they were looking south with the night sky rising, the Southern Cross appeared, which was Dhui Dhui (the shovelnose ray and the two pointers (the two warriors in the canoe).

Lizard Island

To the Dingaal (or Dingiil) Aboriginal people of north Queensland, Lizard Island is a sacred place and is known as Jiigurru (and also known as Dyiigurra). During Dingaal Dreamtime, the Lizard Island group of islands was formed. The Lizard group of islands is thought to be a stingray (Jiigurru being the body and the other islands forming the tail).

The Story of Nageg and Geigi

The story of Nageg (pronounced Nar-gegg) and Geigi (pronounced Gay-gee), a mother and son, is a creation story of the Tig Dowareb Clan of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait. It tells how Nageg and Geigi became what are now known as the triggerfish and the great trevally.

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