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Language, totems and stories



In the Meriam Mir language, spoken throughout the eastern islands of the Torres Strait, octopus are called Arti

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 no longer spoken and have been lost, others are still spoken each day. 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.

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.

Common NameOctopusGiant TrevallyWhaleSharkSea Cucumber


Meriam Mir LanguageArtiGeigiGalbolBeizamAberKeiar

Common NameBarramundiCoral CodRed BreamStingray typeGroper
Kuuku Ya'u LanguageYalntatiWukuturuPuutaawuLuntitaPuuni

Common NameGreat Barrier ReefTurtleBlack BreamMullet
Wulguru LanguageMurgurYanguganGiibaDhanduru


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are bestowed totems from an early age. These totems can be marine animals, such as a turtle

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 pendents are worn and these pendents are mostly carved out of wood, turtle shell or shells and often represent the person's totem2. There are well established rules as to when the pendents can be worn, often only allowed during ceremonies or rituals2.

Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be identified by their totems, which can be birds, reptiles (like turtles), sharks, crocodiles and fish. They are an important part of their 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 Queensland1). Stingray is also the totem emblem for some Torres Strait Islanders2. Sharks are a totem of the Meriam Islanders (Murray Islands or Mer, eastern group of islands in the Torres Strait) and it is forbidden to hunt them3. 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 the sharks did not attack the man and his son as shark is their totem animal and would protect them4.


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 logoStory Place is a good place to search for stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that live next to and use the Great Barrier Reef. These stories show the relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have with their land and sea country.


Dhui Dhui Story of the Bandjin People

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 a while 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 their 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 the Dingaal Dreamtime, the Lizard 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).

Emu and the Jabiru Story

The 'Emu and the Jabiru' Dreamtime story is written by the Marrkula people of Arnhem Land. This story emphasises the role that food from the marine environment, such as stingrays, plays in Indigenous culture.


  1. Wilson, L., 1988. Thathilgaw Emeret Lu - A Handbook of Traditional Torres Strait Islands Material Culture. Department of Education, Queensland.
  2. Pring, A., 2002. Astronomy and Australian Indigenous peoples (draft). Aboriginal Cultural Studies and Reconciliation. Viewed on 20 January 2005.
  3. Scott, 1965. Our feet are on the land. In: Davis, R. (Ed.), Woven histories, dancing lives: Torres Strait Islander identity, culture and history. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
  4. Aboriginal Languages of Australia.