Island ‘home’ again known by its rightful name, K’gari

Rudi Maxwell |

K’gari has had its traditional name restored after a long fight for the local Butchulla people.
K’gari has had its traditional name restored after a long fight for the local Butchulla people.

The traditional placename K’gari is officially back on the map almost 200 years after being replaced by Fraser Island in a sordid set of events.

The world’s largest sand island, 300km north of Brisbane, was the scene of a ceremonial celebration on Wednesday attended by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation.

K’gari, the white spirit who was sent from the sky to help make the land and the seas, was officially welcomed home by generations of Butchulla people and guests with a smoking ceremony, traditional songs and dances.

“It was through disrespect to the Butchulla people that her name, K’gari – the home of the Butchulla people – was taken away,” the corporation’s chair Gayle Minniecon said.

“Thankfully, it is now through respect to the Butchulla people that K’gari, her name, has been reclaimed.

“Our oral history, our creation story, will now be told and learnt as it should be.”

In 1836, after the ship her husband captained was wrecked on the reef, Eliza Fraser and several sailors landed by leaking lifeboat on the island.

Butchulla people fed the shipwrecked visitors and attempted to integrate them into the community, assigning them food preparation and other tasks and trying to treat their sunburn.

Captain Fraser did not survive and is variously described as dying from disease, malnutrition or spear wounds.

Some of the other sailors made it to the colony and sent a rescue party for Mrs Fraser.

When she arrived in the colony, she told authorities she’d been tortured and kept as a slave, writing an account – debunked by other survivors – that depicted Aboriginal people as barbaric, cannibalistic savages.

Over following decades, the colony massacred Butchulla people, rounded up survivors and forced them onto missions.

Mrs Fraser parlayed her misadventures into a lucrative speaking career, embellishing and changing her story multiple times after she remarried and returned to the UK.

Ms Palaszczuk said as Queensland moved towards treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the government would continue to recognise Indigenous languages through place names, in the spirit of truth-telling and reconciliation.

“While steps like this can’t change the wrongs of the past, it goes a long way to building a future where all Queenslanders value, trust, and respect each other,” she said.

“This always was and always will be Butchulla Country.”

Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation language and cultural coordinator Aunty Joyce Bonner said the K in K’gari is silent, meaning that it is pronounced ‘GUR-rie’ or ‘Gurri’.

“K’gari means to me, home,” she said.

“Home amongst my people, the descendants, the ancestors, the Midiru (traditional owners).

“It’s our place. 

“It’s what we call home.”

In 2017, the Fraser Island section of the Great Sandy National Park was renamed K’gari (Fraser Island) and in 2022, the island’s World Heritage Area was renamed K’gari (Fraser Island) World Heritage Area.

To coincide with the restoration of K’gari, more than 19 hectares of land was transferred to the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation.

K’gari is a popular destination for domestic and international visitors. 

“The experience that tourists will have now is something no one’s ever experienced on K’gari because no-one’s ever had the chance to sit down with the Butchulla people and been shown the beauty of K’gari, along with the hidden spiritual belief,” Ms Minniecon said.

“People around the world will know that the Butchulla people fought and won to have the name of their home, their country, put on the world map as it should be, K’gari.”