3 May 2023

Ngunnawal say recognition of other ACT groups is 'an affront' to their traditional ownership

| Genevieve Jacobs
Join the conversation

Ngunnawal people say they will defend their claim to traditional ownership of the ACT and parts of NSW. Photo: Photo: Ana Londono Botero.

Canberra’s Ngunnawal people have indicated they will defend their right to be recognised as the ACT’s traditional owners, describing claims by other Aboriginal groups as “an affront to the traditional custodianship of our lands”.

They’re calling for clarity following the recent resolution in the Supreme Court of a dispute between the ACT Government and the Ngambri people, represented by Paul Girrawah House and Leah House.

Under the terms of a mediated agreement reached last week between the parties, the ACT Government must apologise for recognising only one group of traditional owners since 2004, the so-called “one tribe policy”. The government must also undertake a comprehensive review of its Indigenous recognition policies and change its protocols to respect the terms of the settlement.

But a statement released by Ngunnawal traditional custodians on Wednesday (3 May) warns that “recent events risk … setting a dangerous precedent for self-identification as evidence of traditional custodianship”.

“Self-identification must not be misconstrued for, nor is it the intent of, self-determination. We understand and respect the right to self-identification, but this should not supersede traditional custodianship.”

READ MORE ACT Government apologises to Ngambri as Territory’s traditional ownership is re-assessed

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith flagged a community determination process regarding Ngambri acknowledgement, and official acknowledgement of country must now include the phrase “any other people or families with connection to the ACT and region”.

But Ngunnawal traditional owners say the recent decision raises more questions than it answers and have indicated they don’t intend to participate in community determination.

“Our intention is not to respond to or engage in processes not supported by evidence. Instead, we invite any group that seeks to assert their claims to our land to produce independent evidence that identifies their connection to the lands and waterways of Ngunnawal Country and supports their decision”, the statement says.

The traditional custodians say their claim to ownership is supported by evidence and proven genealogical facts.

“We have always maintained our cultural authority as Ngunnawal Traditional Custodians. This has always remained the same. We always have, and always will be, Ngunnawal people”.

The statement also flags an intention to proceed with a land claim over the entirety of the ACT and parts of NSW based on “evidence-based processes”.

READ ALSO 100 young Canberrans help Adam Duncan create debut First Nations picture book

Paul Girrawah House said that ethnographic-historical evidence, including the earliest white settler records and genealogical research, supports claims regarding the Ngambri people, who lived in the central area of what is now the city of Canberra.

“The acknowledgement was all we were ever seeking,” he told Region last week.

“The honouring of our identity and connection and provenance to country has been compelling. It’s been a 20-year journey to get there, to have some form of acknowledgement as self-determined people based on our customs and traditions.

“This is an important step in the long journey ahead to repair the damage of colonisation.”

However, the Ngunnawal people say their cultural authority is recognised across multiple family groups.

“It’s not about one family group; instead, it’s about a collection of families who have continued to maintain, preserve and strengthen our culture and what it means to be Ngunnawal since time immemorial”, the traditional custodians say.

“We seek to engage in a respectful and good faith process. This discussion must move beyond just one or two family groups asserting their rights to our land. This discussion needs to be grounded in facts and underpinned by respect”.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

Are there any couples from the opposing peoples? What if they have children? This could get complicated.

Who will The Voice represent exactly?

I think you’re posting in the wrong thread. This is not about the Voice.

Stewardship became custody became ownership.

HiddenDragon7:39 pm 04 May 23

The ACT government should handle this with a clear focus on what will best contribute to (and not distract from) closing the gap targets for the ACT – and if that means some people’s (or peoples’) feelings are hurt, because current processes are bypassed or done away with, then so be it.

More genuine interest in the people who find themselves in front of a magistrate, and less pandering to people who have access to SCs and KCs, would be a good start.

What a waste of time.

A circus in the making, no doubt funded by the tax payer,

Victor Bilow4:15 pm 04 May 23

Lots of smoke and mirrors and is always to do with money.
Over the last decade, the Productivity Commission’s Indigenous Expenditure Reports (IER) have consistently shown that total Commonwealth, state and territory government per capita expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is approximately double the per capita expenditure on non-Indigenous Australians.

Popcorn in the microwave, ready for the mounting legal challenges

GrumpyGrandpa2:36 pm 04 May 23

We’ve got two groups squabbling over whose ancestors were here before there were records, threats of legal action and the ACT Government dancing around trying to appease them and others who are yet to claim that they were here too.
It makes you wonder how the Voice to parliament would go?

Agree with David. I grew up in the outback and land claims (and subsequent royalties) were entirely based on tribal ownership. So if one group happened to have linkages to rich land and another had the misfortune of living on plain dirt- too bad. One group went hungry. It’s not democracy and it’s definitely not for the good of all indigenous people. It’s all about tribalism.

Why if the ACT government have acknowledged and apologised to the Ngambri, why have they then negotiated with the Ngambri to only keep using the name of the traditional custodians as Ngunnawal??? It does not make sense-( but it is the ACT government). Have the Ngambri rolled over and accepted a negotiated payment? What if Eddie Mabo did the same?

Capital Retro2:13 pm 04 May 23

If they can’t reconcile between themselves what hope have they got with the invaders?

@Capital Retro
That comment typefies your divisive perspective, CR.

Two white groups have a dispute over land and you’d call it just that a dispute and let them sort it out.

Two indigenous groups have a dispute over land and you lable it a reconciliation issue which calls into question any future interaction with whites.

I’d like to call it what it is but it wouldn’t pass the moderator.

Balance needed5:51 pm 04 May 23

That’s a good question CR, and one that thinking people are asking. This imbroglio just doesn’t bode well for a Voice that so many of us are hoping will actually work well and make a real difference which is long overdue.

“Two white groups have a dispute over land and you’d call it just that a dispute and let them sort it out.”

Justsaying, Really?

Have you got an example?

I would think we would typically expect the groups to provide robust evidence to support their position. How exactly do you think “white” groups would just “sort it out”?

Whilst crude, CR’s comment highlights the ambiguity of the issue, where there are limited detailed records and racial characteristics are being used to define eligibility for special rights.

Whilst you obviously want to ignore that ambiguity, even the judges who devised the accepted rules around indigenous status recognised the problems inherent to them.

Who says there were only two groups?
There are many that claim to have come from the lands of the ACT. Funnily enough the ACT border doesn’t match any Aborginal land ‘ownership’. I’ve counted at least 4 families / mobs.
Also the names are practically meaningless they never called themselves by these names until the british settled here. Which then wanted them to adopt english traditions of family names and locations.

Penrith: This clan is believed to have been based around the Molonglo River and Lake George area.
Pialligo: This clan is associated with the area around the modern-day suburb of Pialligo, to the east of Canberra.
Ngambri: This clan is associated with the area around Black Mountain and the Australian National University campus.
Ngarigo: This clan is associated with the region around the Snowy Mountains, to the south of Canberra.

Penrith is based on a british word or misunderstanding of a british word for local word.
Ngarigo translate to man, Ngunnawal means Woman.
Ngambri means black duck, sounds very Canberra to me.

Our welcome to country is basically welcome to the place the woman lives.

JustSaying – two white groups arguing over land doesn’t impose a cost to the ratepayers of the ACT. That’s the difference

My criticism of CR’s comment is his undertone, by questioning future interaction with “the invaders”.

You call it crude … fine.

Capital Retro9:32 am 05 May 23

Your attack on me JS, is more about me challenging the narrative you subscribe to.

Disputes like this were often settled by violence:


This wouldn’t be acceptable these days so the “first nations” people have to learn to sort it out the way the invaders resolve disputes.

If they can’t do that then there is no hope for “reconciliation” and we should give them spears, not a voice.

@Capital Retro
Interesting that you provide a link to historical violent interchanges between indigenous groups, CR.

As you well know, “back in the day”, violence was SOP for resolution of most disputes – irrespective of their colour.

The genealogy, place of birth and family linage of those claiming to be both Ngunnawal or Ngambri needs to be thoroughly examined and assessed. Early formation of Canberra in SMH by the early pioneer families referred to the custodians as kamberri

Which Voice? How sad. So much hostility around the world due to tribalism.

I always thought that Aboriginal people claimed that they didn’t own anything and that they only cared for a particular patch of land.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.