JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Canberra's first people still a matter for debate

A view of Canberra from Mt Ainslie.

A view of Canberra from Mt Ainslie. Photo: Karleen Minney

The long-running battle over Canberra's indigenous heritage may never be definitively settled, a confidential ACT government briefing says.

The new evidence means that the government's approach to indigenous affairs since self-government, with the Ngunnawal people recognised as the traditional custodians of the land, has been built on shaky foundations.

An anthropological report released under freedom of information says that the struggle between Ngunnawal and Ngarigu for the mantle of the Canberra's "first people" is unlikely to be solved by science with the evidence gathered from the mid-eighteenth century onward just not good enough to make the call. Another group - the Ngambri - that claims custodianship of the land receives only scant mention in Dr Natalie Kwok's report.

In her study, marked "ministerial in confidence", the anthropologist has found evidence that the local indigenous groups were part of a "broad Aboriginal sociocultural bloc" covering a vast area from Bulli in the north and as far south as the modern Victorian border and to the Snowy Mountains in the west.

The report was commissioned as part of a settlement of a legal action between the Ngarigu of the Monaro and the ACT government, with the indigenous group agreeing to drop

legal action in return for new investigations into the region's Aboriginal heritage.

The legal claim on behalf of the Ngarigu people argued that the group has been left out in the cold for decades by the government when acknowledging Aboriginal culture and history and in providing services to the territory's indigenous people.

Dr Kwok's findings, which she describes as tentative because of the time limits imposed on her research, found no evidence to rule out the ideas of earlier scholars that Canberra was built on the site of a linguistic divide.

She found much evidence to support the view that Ngunnawal lands stretched off to the north of the present-day capital while Ngarigu territory was centred on the Monaro tablelands.

But the records kept in the early days of European settlement are just not good enough to determine definitively which groups lived in what areas of the capital region.

''With few exceptions the early observers failed to take any interest in or record their observations about Aboriginal landed associations,'' Dr Kwok wrote.

''The fragmentary information within official records and local reminiscences is insufficient to recapture the original configurations of identity maintained in the area.''

Dr Kwok said she believed that the Canberra area before European settlement would have had highly complex systems of associations with the land found elsewhere in Australia but that those systems broke down early in the colonial historical piece.

''It is clear that the combined effects of massive demographic stress, alienation from country, forced adjustments and necessary engagements with European settlers led to an early breakdown of original relationships to land and landed identity,'' she wrote.

''Only a detailed ethnographic study conducted at the time when classical structures were still in place could adequately give account of the social and territorial organisation originally existing in the ACT region.''

Dr Kwok concluded that the identity of Canberra's ''first people'' was likely to remain uncertain.

12 comments

  • I can see why groups would want an answer to this, but really there is not way that the ACT region would fit nicely into this - the two areas had nothing to do with each other when being established. Its important to acknowlegde indigenous use of the land before settlement but clearly we don't have the ability to say it was this group or that group. The focus should be on the broader concept that there wqere people here, from different backgrounds and they lived in the wider area together - sometimes they got on, sometimes they didn't, sometimes they did thinsg the same, sometimes they didn't.

    Commenter
    Tom
    Date and time
    April 09, 2013, 8:43AM
    • Nothing new here. What has not been done is properly funded research, including exhaustive oral history with local families, with an appropriate time frame. Even that may not resolve the question.

      Commenter
      Archaeologist
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 9:04AM
      • I think you'll find lots of research of that type has been done, but no definitive answer emerges.

        Commenter
        John121
        Location
        Singapore
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 9:13AM
    • Well that's going to lengthen my email signature block if we have to have three groups to acknowledge.

      Commenter
      farnarkler
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 9:07AM
      • "She found much evidence to support the view that Ngunnawal lands stretched off to the north of the present-day capital while Ngarigu territory was centred on the Monaro tablelands."

        Nothing new here. In Canberra you're either "North side" or the "South side".

        Seriously, we should respect all three groups as having prior occupation and ownership of the land and not just artificially declare this as Ngunnawal.country.

        Now let's move on.

        Commenter
        Tjilpi1
        Date and time
        April 09, 2013, 9:23AM
        • Too late now, even to talk to local families about their stories. Maybe 20 years ago. What I hope doesn't happen, but I fear will, is an untidy messy argument between different groups over ownership and their right to government funding. All groups need acknowledgement for their identification with our region. Leave it at that.

          Commenter
          Badger
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          April 09, 2013, 9:42AM
          • Have to contrast this with the Brisbane area where tribal boundaries were more established and better understood - due to a settled and growing British population? Same timeframe but very differnt to the experience here which saw scattered farming communities radiating around Goulbourn and an awful winter that saw movement to the relative warm of the coast.

            Commenter
            Outraged of Palmerston
            Date and time
            April 09, 2013, 9:53AM
            • I was told by a group elder at a meeting re land many years ago that Ngunnawal was an actual language only and not a community name, the same elder also told me that the site we on that day contained no aboriginal artifacts etc but they definetly heard spirit voices.

              Commenter
              OLD DOG
              Location
              ACT
              Date and time
              April 09, 2013, 10:46AM
              • Yeah and I bet all these inquiries and research has nothing to do with money.

                Commenter
                Mickyb
                Location
                Canberra
                Date and time
                April 09, 2013, 10:53AM
                • This is mildly interesting from a historical perspective, but I won't be losing sleep over this issue. I recently had to front one of these so-called welcome to country ceremonies, the irony being that the venue was within a kilometre and a half of my birthplace.

                  Commenter
                  Ben C of Canberra
                  Date and time
                  April 09, 2013, 11:10AM

                  More comments

                  Comments are now closed
                  Featured advertisers

                  Special offers

                  Credit card, savings and loan rates by Mozo