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Ngunnawal art, possibly an echidna

The Ngunnawal are an indigenous Australian people of southern New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.


Ngunnawal, or Gundungurra, is an Australian Aboriginal language, the traditional language of the Ngunnawal and Gandangara peoples. There are contradictory claims as to whether they are one language or two. The name Burragorang is applied to either. A dialect of the Gundungurra or Burragorang people is classified, together with Ngarigo, as one of several southern tableland languages of New South Wales.[1]


Map of the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal peoples of New South Wales.[a]

When first encountered by European settlers in the 1820s, the Ngunnawal speaking indigenous people were called the Yass Blacks, and lived around there around and to its north.

Their tribal country according to the early ethnographer, R. H. Mathews stated their country extended from Goulburn to Yass and Burrowa southwards as far as Lake George to the east and Goodradigbee to the west.[2] To the south of Lake George was the county of the Nyamudy speaking a Ngarigo dialect. Recent research by Harold Koch (2011) and others shows that the Ngunnawal country was primarily the land surrounding the Yass River extending between Lake George to the east and the Murrumbidgee to the west, while the southern boundary of the Ngunnawal people was north of Canberra, approximately on a line from Gundaroo to Wee Jasper. Sometimes the whole of the Burragorang language speaking area as far north as near Young is included as Ngunnawal, giving them a population in the 1830s of well over a thousand people.

A major battle for ownership of the country was fought at Sutton between an invading Ngunnawal band and the Nyamudy inhabitants, which the latter won, establishing the Ngunnawal country, which did not extend further south along the Yass River than Gundaroo.


When first encountered by European settlers in the 1820s, the Ngunnawal speaking people were called the Yass Blacks or Yass mob with a reputation for hostility. The Ngunnawal people were northern neighbours of the Nyamudy/Namadgi people who lived to the south on the Limestone Plains. The Wiradjuri (to the west) and Gundungurra (to the north) peoples also bordered the Ngunnawal. However an alternative view is that the Ngunnawal people were not a people but the southern dialect of the Wallaballoa clan whose territory extended north from Yass to north of Borrowa.[citation needed]

The 'Black Yass tribe' gradually merged with the European settlers, and by 1890 there were no full-blooded people. The mixed race people primarily lived in or close to the town of Yass. Between 1920 and 1930 some of those people left to live in Canberra so that they could work in the rapidly developing city, which had been first settled by Europeans a hundred years earlier, when it was populated by the Nyamudy/Namadgi tribe who spoke a Ngarigo dialect. Once there some lived in communities calling themselves Ngunnawal, a 'new tribe', although they only spoke English and were mainly descended from European settlers.

Dispute over the traditional ownership of Canberra and the surrounding region[edit]

At present, three groups contest ownership in the Canberra area: the Ngambri, the Ngarigo, and the Walgalu speaking Ngambri-Guumaal, represented by Shane Mortimer, with widespread connections from across the Snowy Mountains down to the Blue Mountains.

According to settlers living in the area in the 1830s, such as quoted in the Queanbeyan Age, there were three groups in the region: the Yass Blacks (Ngunnawal), the Limestone Blacks (Nyamudy/Namadgi) and the Monaro Blacks (Ngarigo). Battles for ownership of the territory took place at Goondaroo/Sutton with the Yass Blacks, and at Pialigo with the Monaro Blacks, in both cases the Nyamudy/Namadgi tribe won to retain the first ownership of the Canberra district.

The present dispute originated when the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory at the time, Jon Stanhope, inaccurately stated that "Ngambri is the name of one of a number of family groups that make up the Ngunnawal nation." He went on to say that "the Government recognises members of the Ngunnawal nation as descendants of the original inhabitants of this region." He made the error after talking with multiracial people of part Ngunnawal descent whose forebears had come from Yass in the 1920s to find work.

In 2012 research for the ACT Government, "Our Kin, Our Country", found "there is no basis within the description of the country supplied by Tindale. The research confirmed that the language spoken in the Canberra region was a dialect of Ngarigu, 'related to but distinguishable from the dialects spoken at Tumut and Monaro'". The report stated that evidence gathered from the mid-1700s onward was too scant to support any family's claims to be original owners.[3]

Some Canberra-area people with part Aboriginal heritage in inland southeast Australia, including Matilda House, identify as Ngambri. Shane Mortimer defines himself as one of the Ngambri-Guumwaal, Guumwaal being a language name said to mean "high country".[4] This claim to be a distinct nation is disputed by many other local Aboriginal people who say that the Ngambri are a small family who took their name from the Sullivan's Creek area located to the east of Black Mountain in the late 1990s.[5] There are others, whose relatives are mainly European, but in small part are Aboriginal descended from the Yass Blacks, who identify themselves as English Ngunnawal.

Native title[edit]

The earliest direct evidence for Indigenous occupation in the area comes from a rock shelter near the area of Birrigai near Tharwa, which has been dated to approximately 20,000 years ago. However, it is likely (based on older sites known from the surrounding regions) that human occupation of the region goes back considerably further.

They were gradually displaced from the Yass area beginning in the 1820s when graziers began to occupy the land there. Some people worked at properties in the region. In 1826 many Aboriginal people at Lake George protested an incident involving a shepherd and an Aboriginal woman, though the protesters moved away peacefully.[citation needed]

Historical records of Australia record the last full-blooded Ngunnawal person, Nellie Hamilton, dying in 1897. However, it has been regarded by some part Indigenous Australians as a biased attempt to claim that they were wiped out when there are many part Ngunnawal people still around today.[6] Others argue they are Australians with a multiracial heritage, and to claim they are just Aboriginal is racist.[citation needed]

Due to the lack of historical records, there has been little success in gaining native title in the Yass area, and no success in the ACT when the Ngunnawal, combined with Aboriginal people from other tribal connections, tried to recreate an Aboriginal presence.


  1. ^ This map is indicative only.



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