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This page is for the Indigenous Australian group. For their language see Ngunnawal language. For the suburban district in the Australian Capital Territory, see Ngunnawal, Australian Capital Territory.

Ngunnawal was the southern dialect of the Aboriginal Wallabalooa language of south-east Australia spoken in the now Yass District. The speakers possibly referred to themselves as the Ngunwal people, while European settlers called them the Yass Blacks. To better pursue native title claims, in 1996 with the active support of the Australian Capital Territory Government many Aboriginals living in the Territory came together to form the "New Tribe" of Ngunnawal people. However, with the failure of the claims, the grouping split up and the Ngunnawal people are once again those referred to by early settlers as the Yass Blacks. With the growth of Canberra some Ngunnawal people now live in the territory of their traditional enemies, the Nyamudy people.


Ngunnawal art, possibly an echidna

The description of the Ngunnawal country as given in Norman Tindale's Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (1974) was quite extensive, including south to Canberra. Due to the error by Tindall, the Ngunnwal were for a time incorrectly referred to as the original Aboriginal inhabitants by the ACT Government. However, as stated by the South Australian Museum where his published description is archived (Collection AA338):

The information in the Catalog is reproduced from NB Tindale's Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (1974). Please be aware that much of the data relating to Aboriginal language group distribution and definition has undergone revision since 1974.[1]

The latest significant research by such people as Koch (2011) shows that the Ngunnwal 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 Ngunnwal people was north of Canberra, approximately on a line from Gundaroo to Wee Jasper. This confirms that the Ngarigo/Ngarmal people were the original inhabitants of the Australian Capital Territory.

However, as detailed in the 2013 genealogical report by Dr Natalie Knok to the ACT Government for their project "Our Kin Our Country", there has been growth in the number of "new tribes"[citation needed] in the context of claims to country and land management in the current legal context. An example is the use of the traditional Nganawal language to propose in 1996 the existence of the new tribe "Ngannwal" with a substantial county, including Canberra, Goulburn, Queanbeyan, Tumut and Yass. The report concluded that with "the paucity of the written record it may be assumed that the issue of which groups held traditional association over which areas will remain uncertain".[citation needed]


The Ngunnawal people (alternatively Ngunawal tribe) are some of the Indigenous Australian inhabitants whose traditional lands extended around Yass. When first encountered by European settlers in the 1820s, they were referred to as the Yass Blacks or Yass mob with a reputation for hostility. The Ngunnawal people were neighbours of the Nyamudy/Namadgi (who lived to the south on the Limestone Plains), Wiradjuri (to the west) and Gundungurra (to the north) peoples. However an alternative view is that Ngunnwal was not a tribe but the southern dialect of the Wallaballoa clan whose territory extended north from Yass to Baorowa.

The 2013 report to the ACT Government as part of its "Our Kin, Our Country" project accepted that based on the difference between word lists collected at Yass and the Limestone Plain, the people of the Canberra area were Ngarigo speaking Nyamudy/Namadgi people not Ngunnawal people.

The report "Our Kin Our Country" on the connection to the area by present-day ACT Aboriginal inhabitants, concluded:

Therefore there appears to be no surviving traditional knowledge of lore, language, custom, kinship structures, oral history and genealogy associated directly with the ACT which would form the basis of a connection report. ... the historical record of Aboriginal culture and populations is very scant and contradictory, it was recognised that it would not be possible to prepare a full ‘connection to country’ report linking present day people through their families and surviving traditional knowledge to the past land holding groups.[2]


Traditional lands of Australian Aboriginal tribes around Sydney, New South Wales.[3]

Burragorang/Wallabalooa was the traditional language of the Ngunnawal and Gandangara peoples. There are contradictory claims as to whether the two peoples had one language or two slightly different versions of the same basic language.

In their 2004-05 Annual Report, the ACT Planning and Land Authority stated they had contributed to achieving an outcome of safe health and supportive family environments with strong communities and cultural identity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by "including consideration of the vocabulary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criteria for determining names under the Public Place Names Act 1989." The report stated that "Any names proposed for geographical features are researched thoroughly and then referred to relevant authorities for consultation, including the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies." The Planning and Land Authority had invited the Ngunnawal Elders Council to nominate a representative to the ACT Place Names Committee during 2004-05.[4] However the authority had made the invitation not based on historical evidence, but on the contemporary presence of people of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry. The Aboriginal connection was complex, due to intermarriage in the past hundred years between people originally from different tribal groups in SE Australia. These included the original warring Nyamudy/Namadgi from the Limestone Plains, Ngarigo from the Monaro Plains and the Ngunnawal from the Yass area

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

According to recollection of settlers living in the area in the 1830s, such as quoted in the Quenbeyan 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 first ownership of the Canberra district.

The present dispute originated when Tindall in his 1940 map incorrectly drew its boundaries with that of Ngarigo. In 2005, in response to a question in the ACT Legislative Assembly about the status of the Ngambri people, the Chief Minister 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.

In 2013 research for the ACT Governments One Kin One Country found "there is no basis within the description of country supplied by Tindale, or in the original sources. 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.[5]

Some Canberra-area people with Aboriginal heritage in inland SE Australia, including Matilda House and Shane Mortimer, say they are a part of the Ngambri people who spoke Walegulu not Burragorang, and are not part of the Ngunnawal people with its different language.[6] However, the claim of the nation status is disputed by most Aboriginal people who say that the Ngambri are a small family clan of the Wiradjuri nation who took their name from a creek located on Black Mountain in the late 1990s.[7]

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 Aborigines at Lake George protested an incident involving a shepherd and Aboriginal woman, though the protesters moved away peacefully.[citation needed]

Some histories of Australia record the last full-blooded Ngunnawal person, Nellie Hamilton, dying in 1897. However, it has been regarded by some Indigenous Australians as a biased attempt to claim that they were wiped out when there are many Ngunnawal people still around today.[8]

In spite of the historical record, there has been little success in gaining native title in the Yass area, and no success in the ACT when combined with Aboriginals from other tribal connections.


  1. ^ "South Australian Museum - 'Catalog of Australian Aboriginal Tribes'". Our Languages. Retrieved 12 March 2016. 
  2. ^ ACT Government Genealogy Project : Our Kin Our Country : August 2012 Report (PDF), ACT Government, August 2012, retrieved 24 February 2016 
  3. ^ This map is indicative only.
  4. ^ "Annual Report 2004-2005" (PDF). ACT Planning and Land Authority. 23 September 2005. pp. 40–41. Retrieved 16 March 2013. 
  5. ^ Noel Towell (9 April 2013). "Canberra's first people still a matter for debate". The Canberra Times. Archived from the original on 10 April 2013. 
  6. ^ "ACT split: Claims fly" (PDF). Koori Mail. 12 August 2009. p. 4. Retrieved 17 March 2013. 
  7. ^ "The Future of the Tent Embassy". ABC Australia. 25 November 2005. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. 
  8. ^ Rosemarie McKeon (20 October 1995). "SCULPTURE FORUM 95: ABORIGINAL ART at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space". Archived from the original on 6 September 2004.