Darug Custodian Aboriginal Corporation | The Eora Dilemma

What’s in a word

From Attenbrow 2002, Page 35, Sydney’s Aboriginal Past

The term Eora is only briefly mentioned in the above discussion on clans and language groups. It is used today in a variety of contexts to refer to the original inhabitants of the area between Port Jackson and Botany Bay or sometimes to the people of the whole Sydney region.

However, neither the early colonial accounts nor the late 19th century anthropologists or linguists use the term in this manner. Earliest references to this term are in work lists compiled by first fleet officers William Dawes, David Collins, Phillip Gidley King and Daniel Southwell, and in vocabulary….

Their written forms and translations of the word are as follows:

Dawes             eeora          Men, or people

Collins             eo-ra           The name common for the Natives

King                 eo-ra            Men or people

King                 yo-ra            A number of people

Southwell       e-o-rah         People

Vocabulary     eo-ra            People

Dawes used it in a short sentence – naabaou eera, which he translated as “I will see people”. In other places he provides no translation for Eora or eorara, though the context suggests these words took the place of people. The only place the word is used in text is by David Collins and I quote the following fully in order to provide the context in which it was used.

…Conversing with Benillong (about beliefs/religion) after his return from England (Nov 1795), where he obtained much knowledge of our customs and manners, I wished to learn what were his ideas of the place from which his country men came, and led him to the subject by observing that all the white men here came from England. I then asked him where the black men (or Eora) came from? He hesitated; did they come from any island? His answer was, that he know of none; they came from the clouds (alluding perhaps to the aborigines of this country); and when they died, they return to the clouds …

Neither the word lists nor the early contexts in which eora is used in these early accounts suggest the word eora was associated with a specific group of people, or a language.  

In Matthews, Howitt’s and Ridley’s word list for the late 1800’s, the term is not used. However, two other writers of that time, W. Wentworth -Bucknell and the Hon. George Thornton, gave eora as the name of the tribe who inhabited Port Jackson when Governor Phillip came to Sydney and the Sydney district respectively, and this word is repeated in the 1908 word -list no further details are provided. None of these writers state their source, nor is it clear what area is included in the Sydney district as Thornton give the name of another tribe that inhabited the country between Long Nose Point (Balmain) and Parramatta. It is not until much later, 1943, that the word eora was included in the Australian Museum’s booklet New South Wales Aboriginal Place Names and Euphonious Words, with their meanings. It was listed as EORA Blackfellows of the Sydney District.

Since that time the word eora has been used more widely as a tribal name: for example, by Tindale in his 1974 Aboriginal Tribes of Australia in which the map shows Eora extending from Broken Bay to Botany Bay and beyond Parramatta on the West. The encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia  describes them as People of the south east region, present day Sydney, neighbours of the Kuring-gai, Tharawal and Dharug peoples, and Hortons map lists and shows it as a tribal/language group name.

Both McCarthy and Tindale were operating within the paradigm of tribes and tribal areas and looked for a term to refer collectively to the several clans of the Sydney peninsula. It appears that they adopted the word eora even though there was not evidence that Aboriginal people used it in 1788 as the name of a language or group of people inhabiting the Sydney peninsula.

Kohen says that ora, which forms part of some names of tribes means place or country and that E means yes, and on this basis he argues that Eora, which means people can be translated as place where “e” is the word for yes, in Troy’s recently published word lists she states simply that Yura (Eora written according to here reference orthography) was the Sydney language word for person thought it was not used to refer to non- Aboriginal people.

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