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Ngarrindjeri culture is centered around the lower lakes of the Murray River.

The term Ngarrindjeri means 'belonging to men.'[1] and refers to a 'tribal constellation'. They are the traditional Aboriginal people of the lower Murray River, western Fleurieu Peninsula, and the Coorong of southern, central Australia. The Ngarrindjeri actually comprised several distinct if closely related tribal groups, including the Jarildekald, Tanganekald, Meintangk and Ramindjeri[2] which began to form a unified cultural block after remnants of each separate community congregated at Point McLeay, now Raukkan. A descendant of these peoples, Irene Watson, has argued that the notion of Ngarrindjeri identity is a cultural construct imposed by settler colonialists, who bundled together and conflated a variety of distinct tribal worlds into one homogenized pattern now known as Ngarrindjeri[3]

Historical designation and usage[edit]

The name Ngarrindjeri, previously variously spelled Narrinyeri,[4] Narindyeri, Narindjeri or Ngarindjeri, denotes 'belonging to people', as opposed to ''Kringgari (whites).[5] The word was analysed by both George Taplin, followed by the Berndts, as an abbreviation of, or coming from, kornarinyeri ('belonging to men/human beings', which in turn was formed from the combination of narr (linguistically plain or intelligible) and inyeri, a suffix indicating belongingness.[6] The Berndts state that it implied that those outside the group were not quite human).[5] Taplin stated further that the Ngarrindjeri were a confederation of 18 lakinyeri (clans)[6][7] and 77 family groups, who speak related dialects of the Ngarrindjeri language. The name Kukabrak also refers to the tribes of the Lower Lakes, however the name Ngarrindjeri was popularised in the 19th century by missionary George Taplin.[8][9] "Much of the early literature on this south-eastern region refers to the Aborigines collectively as the Ngarrindjeri 'confederacy' or 'nation', but in the Berndt's view this is misleading. Although there was freedom of movement over the region, and many bonds linked the culturally similar 'tribes' or dialect-named units that comprise the Ngarrindjeri, there was no political unity to warrant the 'nation' or 'confederacy' labels."[10] However, other sources disagree. For instance, Donald Pate states:

Taplin (1879, p. 34) estimates that there were eighteen territorial clans or Lakalinyeri that constituted the Ngarrindjeri 'confederacy' or 'nation'. Each territorial clan was administered by a group of ten to twelve men or elders, referred to as the Tendi. The Tendi from each clan collectively elected the Rupulli or the head of the entire Ngarrindjeri confederacy. [...] Thus, the Ngarrindjeri were landowners who had a centralised and hierarchical government to administer the laws of the confederacy and its eighteen independent territories.[11]

Ngarrindjeri was originally the name of the language group; Europeans subsequently used it as a collective name for the lakinyeri following colonisation. Variations in spelling are common due to their use as family group names and include Narinyerrie, Narrin'yerree, Narrinjeri and Narrinyeri. In Ngarrindjeri grammar the –nyeri -ndjeri suffix means belonging to a specific place or area.[12]


The first linguistic study of their language was conducted by the Lutheran missionary H.A.E. Meyer in 1843,[13] Taplin built on this, though somewhat inaccurately, while supplying many more lexical items.[citation needed]

Traditional lands[edit]

The Ngarrindjeri's traditional areas extend from Mannum, South Australia downstream through Murray Bridge and Victor Harbor and along the coast through Goolwa to Cape Jervis, including Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert.


Approximate historical extent of Ngarrindjeri territory.

Pre-contact history[edit]

Archaeology, particularly in excavations conducted at Roonka Flat, which affords one of the most outstanding sites for investigating 'pre–European contact Aboriginal burial populations in Australia,' has revealed that the traditional territory of the Ngarrindjeri has been inhabited since the Holocene period, beginning around 8,000 B.C. down to around 1840 CE.[14]

History after contact[edit]

Whalers and sealers had been visiting the South Australian coast since 1802 and by 1819 there was a permanent camp on Karta, Kangaroo Island. Many of these men were escaped convicts, sealers, whalers who had brought Tasmanian Aboriginal women with them but they also raided the mainland for women, particularly Ramindjeri. Originally the most heavily populated area in Australia, a smallpox epidemic had travelled down the River Murray before colonisation, possibly killing a majority of the Ngarrindjeri. Funeral rites and cultural practices were disrupted, family groups merged and land use became altered. Songs from the time tell of the smallpox that came out of the Southern Cross in the east with a loud noise like a bright flash. In 1830 the first exploratory expedition reached the Ngarrindjeri lands and Charles Sturt noted that the people were already familiar with firearms.[15]

Numbering only 6000 at the time of white settlement in 1836 due to the epidemic, they are the only tribal group in Australia whose land lay within 100 km (62 mi) of a capital city to have survived as a distinct people with a population still living on the former mission at Raukkan (formerly Point McLeay).[citation needed] Pomberuk (Ngarrindjeri for crossing place), on the banks of the River Murray in Murray Bridge was the most significant Ngarrindjeri site. All 18 lakinyeri (tribes) would meet there for corroborees. Around 22 km (14 mi) further down the river was Tagalang (Tailem Bend), a traditional trading camp where lakinyeri would gather to trade ochre, weapons and clothing. In the 1900s, Tailem Bend was assigned as a government ration depot supplying the Ngarrindjeri.

European settlement[edit]

The Ngarrindjeri were the first South Australian Aborigines to work with Europeans in large-scale economic operations, working as farmers, whalers and labourers.[16] As early as 1836 it was reliably reported that Aboriginal crews were working at the whaling station at Encounter Bay, and that some boats were worked by entirely Aboriginal crews, and the Ngarrindjeri were employed in the processing of whale oil in exchange for meat, gin and tobacco, and reportedly treated as equals.[17] Following settlement of South Australia and encroachment of Europeans into Ngarrindjeri lands Pomberuk remained, until the 1940s, the last traditional campsite with the remaining Aboriginal occupants forced to leave in 1943 by the new land owners, the Hume Pipe Company, and resettled by the local council and South Australian government.[18] After hearing that the Aboriginal settlement was to be cleared, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, who were researching Aboriginal culture in the area, approached the last Chief Protector of Aborigines William Penhall and obtained a verbal promise that the clearance would not proceed as long as the senior Ngarrindjeri elder, 78-year-old Albert Karloan (Karloan Ponggi), was living. Shortly after the Berndts left to return to Sydney, Karloan was given an eviction order effective immediately. Adamant that only death would separate him from his land, Karloan travelled to Adelaide to seek help but returned to his former home in Pomberuk on 2 February 1943. He died the following morning.[19]

Now known as the Murray Bridge Railway Precinct and Hume Reserve, the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority seeks the renaming of Hume Reserve to Karloan Ponggi Reserve (after Albert Karloan) in honour of the old people who fought to retain the old ways. They have presented a development and management plan to preserve and develop the site as a memorial and an educational aid to reconciliation.[18]

Hindmarsh controversy[edit]

The Ngarrindjeri achieved a great deal of publicity in the 1990s due to their opposition to the construction of a bridge from Goolwa to Hindmarsh Island, which resulted in a Royal Commission and a High Court case in 1996. The Royal Commission found that claims of "secret women's business" on the island had been fabricated.[20] However, in a case brought by the developers seeking damages for their losses, Federal Court judge, Mr John von Doussa took issue with the findings of the Royal Commission and in rejecting the claims stated that he found Doreen Kartinyeri to be a credible witness.[21]

The evidence received by the Court on this topic is significantly different to that which was before the Royal Commission. Upon the evidence before this Court I am not satisfied that the restricted women's knowledge was fabricated or that it was not part of genuine Aboriginal tradition.[22]

As a result of the Australia wide 1995 - 2009 drought, water levels in Lakes Albert and Alexandrina dropped to the extent that traditional burial grounds, which had been under water, were now exposed.[23]


The Ngarrindjeri have their own language group and, apart from groups living along the river, share no common words with neighbouring peoples. Their patrilineal culture and ritual practices were also distinct from that of the surrounding people which has been attributed by Aboriginal historian Graham Jenkin to their enmity with the Kaurna to the west, who practised circumcision[a] and monopolised red ochre, the Merkani (Ngarrindjeri for "enemy") to the east, who stole Ngarrindjeri women and were reputed to be cannibals[24] and to the north the Ngadjuri who were believed to send mulapi ("clever men" i.e.:sorcerers) and, although not sharing a border, the Nukunu who were thought to be sorcerers, incestuous and prone to commit rape.[25] By way of contrast and due to a shared dreaming, the relationship between the Ngarrindjeri and the Walkandi-woni (the people of the warm north-east wind), their collective name for the various groups living along the River as far as Wentworth in New South Wales, was of significant mutual importance and the groups regularly met at Wellington, Tailem Bend, Murray Bridge, Mannum or Swan Reach to exchange songs and conduct ceremonies.[25] Quarrels with the Walkandi-woni were not unknown and in 1849 the Rev George Taplin recorded a fight between 500 Ngarrindjeri and up to 800 Ngaiawang who shared a border with them at Mannum.[26] Each of the eighteen lakinyeri had their own specific funeral customs, some smoke dried bodies before being placed in trees, on platforms, in rock shelters or buried depending on local custom. Some placed bodies in trees and collect the fallen bones for burial. Some removed the skull, which was then used for a drinking vessel.[27] Some family groups peeled the skin from their dead to expose the pink flesh. The body was then called grinkari, a term that they used to refer to the Europeans in the first years of settlement.[28]

Differing from most Australian Aboriginal communities, the fertility of their land allowed the Ngarrindjeri and Merkani to live a semi sedentary life, moving between permanent summer and winter camps.[27] In fact, one of the major problems encountered by Europeans was the determination of the Ngarrindjeri to rebuild their camps on land claimed for grazing. Unlike the rest of Australia, the South Australia Act 1834 (Foundation Act) which enabled the province of South Australia to be established, acknowledged Aboriginal ownership and stated that no actions could be undertaken that would affect the rights of any Aboriginal natives of the said province to the actual occupation and enjoyment in their own persons or in the persons of their descendants of any land therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such natives.[29] Effectively this guaranteed the land rights of Aboriginals under force of law but was interpreted by the colonists as simply meaning Aborigines could not be dispossessed of sites they permanently occupied. In May 1839, the protector of Aborigines William Wyatt announced publicly, it appeared that the natives occupy no lands in the especial manner described in the instructions. Bowing to the interests of prominent colonists and the Resident Commissioner who wanted to survey and sell the land without hindrance, Wyatt in his reports on Aboriginal culture and practices, never recorded that sites were permanently occupied.[27]

The Ngarrindjeri were widely known as "outstanding craftsmen" specialising in basketry, matting and nets with records indicating that nets of more than 100 metres (330 ft) long were used to catch emus. It was claimed by colonists that the nets they made for fishing were superior to those used by Europeans.[30] The nets, made by chewing the roots of bulrush (Typha shuttleworthii) until only the fibre remained which was spun into threads by the women to be then woven into nets by the men, were "considered to be a sort of fortune to its owner."[31] While the Aboriginals of the east coast of Australia also made nets, they were used for carry bags and there are no records of their use in hunting.


The Ngarrindjeri were well known to Europeans for their cooking skills and the efficiency of their camp ovens, the remains of which can still be found throughout the River Murray area. Some species of fish, birds and other animals considered easily caught were reserved by law for the elderly and infirm, an indication of the abundance of food in Ngarrindjeri lands.[30] In the early years of the colony, Ngarrindjeri would volunteer to catch fish for the "white fellow men".[32]

A wide range of foods were subject to narambi (taboo) prohibitions. In regards to ngaitji (family group totems), eating them was not narambi but depended on the family groups' own attitude. Some family groups banned eating them, some could eat them only if they had been caught by members of another family group and some had no restrictions. Once dead the animal was no longer considered ngaitji which is Ngarrindjeri for "friend". A ngaitji was not actually sacred in the western sense but considered a "spiritual advisor" to the family group. Other foods were narambi but had no supernatural sanctions and these relied on attitudes to the species. Male dogs were friends of the Ngarrindjeri so were not eaten while female dogs were not eaten because they were "unclean". snakes were not eaten because of the "feel of their skin". Some bird species considered to act cruelly to other animals were narambi and magpies were because they warned other birds to flee if any were killed. Some bird species were narambi because they were the spirits of people who had died. Birds became narambi during nesting season and the malleefowl was narambi because its eggs were considered more valuable for food although there were no penalties for violation. Foods with supernatural sanctions were limited to bats, white owls and certain foods that were narambi only to women or to pregnant women. A separate category of narambi was young boys going through initiation. They were themselves considered narambi and any food they caught or prepared was narambi to all women who were even forbidden to see or smell it. Violation, whether accidental or deliberate, resulted in physical punishments including spearings that applied not only to the woman but to her relatives. Taplin in 1862 noted that narambi prohibitions were regularly being broken by children due to European influence and in the 1930s Berndt recorded that most narambi had been forgotten and if known, ignored.[33]

The Dreaming[edit]

Many sites of Dreaming significance are located along the River Murray. Near the confluence of the Murray River with Lake Alexandrina is Murungun (Mason's Hill), home to a bunyip called Muldjewangk. An ancestral hero named Ngurunderi chased an enormous Murray cod named Ponde from a river in central New South Wales, creating the River Murray from its attempts to escape Kauwira (Mannum) is where Ngurunderi forced Ponde to turn sharply south. The straight section of river to Peindjalong (near Tailem Bend) resulted from Ponde fleeing in fear after being speared in the tail. The twin peaks, large permanent sandhills of Mount Misery on the eastern shore of Lake Alexandrina are known as Lalangenggul or Lalanganggel (Two watercraft) and represent where Ngurunderi brought his rafts ashore to make camp. Ngurunderi cut up Ponde, throwing the pieces into the water, where each piece became a species of fish.

While an established Dreaming existed, the various family groups each had their own variations. For example, some said Ngurunderi created the fish on the coast, other family groups believe he created them where the river enters Lake Alexandrina and some said that it was where the fresh water meets the salt. They also shared some Dreaming stories with tribes in New South Wales and Victoria.[34] In the late 1980s, the Dreaming stories were collected and one related to a creation story involving Thukabi, a turtle. There was no mention of Thukabi in the anthropological record and this example was later used as evidence for the survival of Ngarrindjeri stories that were unknown to anthropologists in support of the secret women's business.[35]

Ngarrindjeri lakinyeri[edit]

According to George Taplin, writing in 1879, there were 18 Ngarrindjeri "lakinyeri ",[6][7] Each lakinyeri had its own nga:tji/ngaitji.[b] He lists them in the followed order with their locality and totem.

each occupying a distinct area of land (ruwe). The lakinyerar in turn comprised 77 family groups in the 1930s, each with its own distinct dialect. Every member of a lakinyeri is related by blood and it is forbidden to marry another member of the same lakinyeri. A couple also may not marry a member of another lakinyeri if they have a great-grandparent (or closer relation) in common.[26]

Norman Tindale's research in the 1920s and Ronald and Catherine Berndt's ethnographic study, which was conducted in the 1930s, established only 10 lakinyerar. Tindale worked with Clarence Long (a Tangani man) while the Berndts worked with Albert Karloan (a Yaraldi man).[12]

  • Malganduwa - No references before Berndt. No family groups identified.
  • Marunggulindjeri - No references before Berndt. Two family groups.
  • Naberuwolin - No references before Berndt. No family groups identified, may be related to Potawolin.
  • Potawolin - Also spelt Porthaulun and Porta'ulan. David Unaipon said this was the language name and that the lakinyeri was called Waruwaldi. No family groups identified but recorded by Radcliffe-Brown (1918: 253)
  • Ramindjeri - Also spelt Raminyeri, Raminjeri, Raminderar or Raminjerar (ar = plural), also known as Ramong and Tarbana-walun. 27 family groups.
  • Tangani - Also spelt Tangane, Tanganarin, Tangalun and Tenggi. 19 family groups confirmed and eight recorded but not located. The Kanmerarorn and Pakindjeri lakinyeri named by Taplin are recorded as Tangani family group.
  • Wakend - Also spelt Warki, Warkend, also known as Korowalle, Korowalde and Koraulun. One family group.
  • Walerumaldi - Also spelt Waruwaldi (see Potawolin) Two family groups.
  • Wonyakaldi - Also spelt Wunyakulde and Wanakalde. One family groups.
  • Yaraldi - Also spelt Yaralde, Jaralde and Yarilde. 14 family groups. In the 1930s, the ruwe (land) of six of these family groups extended along the coast from Cape Jervis to a few kilometres south of Adelaide, land traditionally believed to be Kaurna. The Rev. George Taplin recorded in 1879 that the Ramindjeri occupied the southern section of the coast from Encounter Bay, some 100 km south of Adelaide, to Cape Jervis but made no mention of any more northerly Ngarrindjeri occupation. Berndt posits that Ngarrindjeri family groups may have expanded along trade routes as the Kaurna were dispossessed by colonists.[40]

Some lakinyeri may have disappeared and others may have merged as a result of population decline following colonisation. Additionally, family groups within the lakinyerar would use the local dialect or their own family groups name for lakinyeri names, also leading to confusion. For example, Jaralde, Jaraldi, Jarildekald and Jarildikald were separate family groups names as were Ramindjari, Ramindjerar, Ramindjeri, Ramingara, Raminjeri, Raminyeri. Several of these are also used as names for the lakinyerar.[12] Family groups could also change their lakinyeri, Berndt found that two Tangani family groups who lived close to a Yaraldi family group had picked up their dialect and were thus now considered to be Yaraldi.[41]

Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority[edit]

The Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority (NRA) is the peak representative body of the Ngarrindjeri people.[42] It is made up of representatives from 12 grassroots Ngarrindjeri organisations, plus four additional elected community members. Its purpose is to:

  • Protect and advance the welfare of the Ngarrindjeri people,
  • Protect areas of special significance to the Ngarrindjeri people,
  • Improve the economic opportunities of the Ngarrindjeri people,
  • Facilitate social welfare programs benefitting aboriginal people,
  • Pursue Native Title over the traditional lands and waters of the Ngarrindjeri people,
  • Enter into agreements of contracts with third parties on behalf of the Ngarrindjeri people,
  • Manage land of cultural significance to the Ngarrindjeri people, and to hold any interest in such land as trustee or otherwise on their behalf,
  • Act as the trustee under any trust established for the benefit of the Ngarrindjeri people,
  • Protect the intellectual property rights of the Ngarrindjeri people.

Famous Ngarrindjeri[edit]

Inventor and writer David Unaipon was a Ngarrindjeri man

Some words[edit]

  • korni/korne (man)[43]
  • kringkari,gringari (whiteman)[43]
  • yanun (speak, talk)[44]
  • muldarpi/mularpi (travelling spirit of sorcerors and strangers)[43]
  • kondoli (whale)[43]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ The Kaurna called the Ngarrindjeri the Paruru. The word was Kaurna for both "un-circumcised" and "animal".
  2. ^ Taplin glosses the meaning of this term as 'friend'.[36]
  3. ^ Unaipon adds Cape Jervis[37]


  1. ^ Tindale 1974.
  2. ^ Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, p. xvii.
  3. ^ Watson 2014, p. 75.
  4. ^ Taplin 1874, pp. 34ff1.
  5. ^ a b Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, p. 19.
  6. ^ a b c d Taplin 1879, p. 34.
  7. ^ a b Pate 2006, p. 239.
  8. ^ Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, p. 21.
  9. ^ Ngunderi.
  10. ^ Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, p. xxvii.
  11. ^ Pate 2006, p. 238.
  12. ^ a b c Status of Indigenous Languages in South Australia Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. May 2002
  13. ^ Meyer 1843, pp. 1–121.
  14. ^ Pate 1995, p. 226 ?
  15. ^ Simons 2003, pp. 18–19.
  16. ^ Jenkin 1979, p. 50.
  17. ^ Russell 2012, p. 34.
  18. ^ a b Ngarrindjeri Murrundi Management Plan, No. 1 Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority
  19. ^ Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, p. 7.
  20. ^ Brunton 1998.
  21. ^ Bell 2008, p. 18.
  22. ^ Bell 2010, p. 15.
  23. ^ ABC News, "Drought exposes Aboriginal burial grounds", 31 May 2008, Accessed 22 October 2010.
  24. ^ Jenkin 1979.
  25. ^ a b Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, pp. 20–22.
  26. ^ a b The Native Tribes of South Australia M'CARRON, BIRD AND Co 1879
  27. ^ a b c Fforde, Hubert and Turnbull 2004.
  28. ^ Simons 2003, p. 19.
  29. ^ Ngadjuri Walpa Juri Lands and Heritage Association n.d.
  30. ^ a b Jenkin 1979, pp. 14–15.
  31. ^ Krefft, p. 361.
  32. ^ Jenkin 1979, p. 284.
  33. ^ Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, pp. 22–26.
  34. ^ Simons 2003, p. 26.
  35. ^ Simons 2003, pp. 44–45.
  36. ^ Taplin 1879, p. 35.
  37. ^ Unaipon 2001, p. 145.
  38. ^ Smith & Wobst 2005, p. 245.
  39. ^ Unaipon 2001, p. 19.
  40. ^ Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, pp. 312.
  41. ^ Berndt, Berndt & Stanton 1993, pp. 32.
  42. ^ [1]
  43. ^ a b c d Bell 1998, p. xiii.
  44. ^ Bell 1998, p. xiv.


External links[edit]