The ACT’s recognition of traditional owners has been challenged as Ngambri people launch proceedings in the ACT Supreme Court, claiming that the government has deliberately and systematically denied their rights and connection to country.
Paul Girrawah House and his mother, Dr Matilda House, say the ACT Government’s decision to run an effective “one tribe” policy recognising only Ngunnawal traditional owners is a breach of the ACT Human Rights Act and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
In 2009, the ACT government recognised the Ngunnawal people as “the Traditional Custodians of the ACT”, and all official government communications “acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region”. No other groups are officially recognised.
At the time, the government said that “one family group” had renamed itself from Ngunnawal to Ngambri, but there was no evidence to support the claims that it was the sole traditional custodian group in the ACT.
The practical effect of recognising traditional owners could include participation in treaty negotiations and other ACT Government initiatives and functions. However, the decision to recognise the Ngunnawal people is an executive policy only and could be overturned by the ACT Government without changing legislation.
Initial treaty discussions have already caused offence.
Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith was forced to apologise in July after some Ngunnawal traditional owners said they were not consulted on a 10-step process initially facilitated by Professor Kerry Arabena.
In June this year, a group of Ngunnawal traditional owners also announced their intention to lodge a native title claim over the ACT and parts of NSW.
Supporters of the Ngambri claim to ownership say that Ngarigu people from south of Canberra are also traditionally linked to country within the ACT, but their rights are not recognised either. They suggest that a Makaratta, or truth-telling process, is necessary to establish ownership and recognition but have little faith that the government intends to establish one.
Evidence for the Ngambri claims would rest, in part, with records housed in the National Library and National Archives and family tree research and oral histories. Mr House says these records can be traced back to the time of first European settlement in the 1820s.
Detailed research from primary sources was carried out in the 1990s by historian and journalist Ann Jackson-Nakano, who concluded that Ngambri people were rightful traditional owners of the ACT.
“Today, I and other members of the Ngambri have commenced proceedings in the ACT Supreme Court under the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) to stop the ACT Government from denying the existence of the Ngambri people and their connection to country,” Mr House said.
“For the past two years, my mother, Dr Matilda House and I have been trying to meet with the ACT Government to have our identity and ancestry as Ngambri recognised by the ACT Government. Our attempts at reconciling with the ACT Government have come to no avail.”
Mr House, who performed the Welcome to Country ceremony at the opening of the 47th Parliament last week, says that he and his family have “irrefutable evidence” of their lengthy connection to Canberra and the surrounding region.
“The fact remains that the name Canberra is derived from the name of our people and country: the Ngambri”, he says.