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Ngunnawal art, possibly an echidna

The Ngunnawal people, also spelt Ngunawal, are an Aboriginal people of southern New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory in Australia.


Ngunnawal and Gundungurra are Australian Aboriginal languages from the Pama-Nyungan family, the traditional languages of the Ngunnawal and Gandangara peoples respectively. The two varieties are very closely related, being considered dialects of the one (unnamed) language, in the technical, linguistic sense of those terms.[1][incomplete short citation] One classification of these varieties groups them with Ngarigo, as one of several southern tableland languages of New South Wales.[2]


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

When first encountered by European colonisers in the 1820s, the Ngunawal-speaking Indigenous people lived around this area.

Their tribal country according to the early ethnographer, R. H. Mathews, stated their country extended from Goulburn to Yass and Boorowa southwards as far as Lake George to the east and Goodradigbee to the west.[3] 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 former won, establishing the Ngunnawal country, which did not extend further south along the Yass River than Gundaroo.[citation needed]


The Ngunawal 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.[citation needed]

Dispute over traditional ownership[edit]

At present,[when?] 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 up to the Blue Mountains.[citation needed]

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 Ngunnawal, the Nyamudy/Namadgi and the Ngarigo.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[4]

Some Canberra-area Aboriginal people 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".[5] 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.[6]

Native title[edit]

The earliest direct evidence for Aboriginal occupation in the area comes from a rock shelter near the area of Birrigai near Tharwa, which has been dated to approximately 25,000 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.[citation needed]

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.[7]

Historical records of Australia record the last "full-blooded" Ngunnawal person, Nellie Hamilton, dying in 1897, however, this is disputed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, as there are many Ngunnawal people still around today.[8]


  1. ^ This map is indicative only.


  1. ^ Koch 2102, p. 17–18.
  2. ^ Dixon 2002, p. xxxv.
  3. ^ Mathews 1904, p. 294.
  4. ^ Towell 2013.
  5. ^ Osborne 2016.
  6. ^ ABC Australia 2005.
  7. ^ Bell, Eric Bernard (2011). "Looking Back: My Story" (PDF). p. 24. George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines in Victoria, who toured through the Yass area in 1844 and stayed with Hamilton Hume, commented "The Yass and Bathurst Blacks in the early settling of the Colony were said to have been troublesome, and that in consequence Commandoes had gone out against them", White and Cane repeat this. They also mention "one of these encounters involved the colonial government sending a detachment of soldiers in 1826 to disperse a large and hostile gathering of Ngunnawal Aborigines at Lake George". My friend, Dr Ann Jackson-Nakano, who has made a close study of the Lake George communities gives a detailed background to this hostility. "Communities banded together in large numbers to avenge the taking of their women by European stockmen at Lake George and Lake Bathurst. It incensed these groups enough when their Indigenous neighbours stole wives, as Govett and others described it, but they would not tolerate their women being taken by Europeans." (p 25; Weereewa History Series Volume 1).
  8. ^ McKeon 1995.