Background image: Ngullukbang Kurrunbang (Ngul-luk-bang Kur-run-bang) - Turtle Rock. This cave or rock is now known as Yankee Hat.

Ngambri Culture and Heritage

The Ngambri are available to discuss and share many aspects of local ACT and surrounding NSW region culture and heritage.

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Ngambri Readings

What’s in a name?
In the case of ‘Canberra’, quite a lot – as Ann Jackson-Nakano explains
On 12 March 1913 the wingguraminya (whirlwinds) swirling around ‘Camp Hill’ stirred up a great number of ironies.

Lady Denman, wife of the Governor-General, was officiating over the laying of the foundation stone and commencement column of the new capital of Australia and announced that its name would be ‘Canberra’.

There were those among the crowd who would have politely applauded and masked their disappointment that a more ‘European’ name had not been selected.

Some of the well-established local landowners, on the other hand, would have burst into delighted applause, for they’d successfully anglicised the name and taken ownership of it.

The news would have temporarily relieved the devastation of that other, earlier news that their estates were to be the first to be resumed compulsorily for Federal Capital land.

At least these dispossessed landlords had been well compensated for their loss, unlike the raggle-taggle of Ngambri survivors working on the construction of the provisional Parliament House and helping to remodel Yarralumla to make it an acceptable residence for the Governor-General.

They would have been among the crowd of onlookers.

Search for meaning
Once the name of the new capital had been announced, debates raged in Sydney-based newspapers on the meaning or origin of the name.

Some pompous, self-appointed experts offered some quite absurd suggestions, dating its anglicised version far back into ‘English’ history. This was another irony, since the ‘English’ were of German origin, and few would have been aware of the meaning or origins of their own ‘English’ capital, London.

Ironically, debates still rage about that, too, but after 2,000 years of trying to decide whether it was named after a bold man, Londinos, or derived from a Welsh name, Llundein or Llyn-don (lake town), we’ll probably never, ever know for sure.

In comparison, the name of our capital was officially declared only 92 years ago. There is overwhelming evidence to support the argument that it is an anglicised version of the Aboriginal name, Ngambri.

Ironically, this name, too, is many thousands of years old. Let’s face it, the etymology of the name is so ancient its original meaning may have long since been forgotten by, or no longer considered relevant to, Aboriginal family groups who identify as such today.

With the centenary of this naming ceremony coming up in eight years time, perhaps it’s time to avert our focus from the etymology of the name to the survival of Ngambri descendants who are still among us.

Search for truth
In our search for truth we tend to travel down many highways and byways because there are as many truths as there are paths to it.

The focus of history is on change and it’s a sad fact that historical truth often gets carried along with the forces that create such change.

When I first came to live in the Canberra region in 1986, I learned through reading the only books on the subject that were available then that all the Aboriginal people in the area had ‘died out’ in 1897.

This was an historical ‘truth’ accepted back then in the general Canberra-Queanbeyan community consciousness.

It started with the death of Nellie Hamilton, depicted in the photo of the Lowe family on this page, the so-called ‘last of the full-blood Queanbeyan Aborigines’, in January 1897. This photo was taken a year before her death. Surely the Lowe and other families depicted with her didn’t all ‘die out’ too? I decided to try and find out.

More than a decade passed.

During this decade, I had located Ngambri and other descendants of neighbouring groups in the wider region around Canberra. At their request, I started compiling their genealogies from the huge number of documents available.

As it turned out, Aboriginal people in New South Wales were the most over-administered group in the State and this made my task very easy as the records were endless.

From this evidence, which is overwhelming, I’m pretty convinced that Aboriginal people in this region certainly did not collectively ‘die out’ in 1897.

How did such a lie get perpetrated?

Definitions of Aboriginality in the 19th and 20th centuries
Back in the 19th century the New South Wales Colonial Government considered Aboriginal peoples in the colony as ‘a problem’.

Aboriginal people were allegedly a problem because their presence interfered with the settlement of non-Aboriginal people. They became particularly upset when large tracts of their land were given to ‘whitefellas’ almost immediately after the explorers arrived in previous impenetrable inland areas such as the Canberra region.

From 1788 onwards, a number of policies were introduced to try and solve the ‘Aboriginal problem’. Some tactics employed are described as follows.

During the first 50 years after the First Fleet arrived, government officials had Aboriginal children kidnapped so the officials could learn local languages and the children could learn English, thus assisting in communications between the officials and Aboriginal adults.

They also appointed ‘friendly’ Aboriginal individuals as ‘chiefs’ so the government officials could gain control of Aboriginal hierarchical and decision-making structures. This practice still continues today.

From the 1860s, government officials and missionaries started kidnapping children again so those with non-Aboriginal parentage could be ‘assimilated’ into the general population. Many of them were trained as labourers and domestics.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there was even more pressure placed on government officials to deal with the Aboriginal ‘problem’ because of the plans for the Federation of Australian States and Territories to unite as one nation: the Commonwealth of Australia.

As a result, state laws were introduced that were designed to ‘stamp out Aboriginality’. This meant separating children of mixed ancestry from their families in the camps and missions and placing them in ‘white’ families or in special homes to bring them up as white people.

Adults with mixed ancestry were put to work.

From the 1880s onwards, the Government waited impatiently for the good news that the Aboriginal people of mixed ancestry in their State had finally outnumbered the Aboriginal people with full ancestry.

This news finally came at last towards the end of the 19th century. Phew! Just in time for Federation!

‘Assimilation’ policies could now be put in place to ‘eradicate’ Aboriginality and therefore the ‘Aboriginal problem’.

Nellie Hamilton was of full ancestry. Most, though not all, of her Ngambri contemporaries were of mixed ancestry. Thus, on her death, the local Queanbeyan newspapers declared almost triumphantly that the ‘last of the Queanbeyan Aborigines’ had gone.

These definitions of Aboriginality lasted at least until the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was established in 1989.

One of the first tasks it tackled was the definition of Aboriginality. In these more enlightened times, Aboriginality is now defined by three criteria: identifying as Aboriginal; being of Aboriginal descent; and being acknowledged as Aboriginal by the Aboriginal community with which the subject identifies.

Aboriginal individuals, like people everywhere else in the world, have multiple identities due to inter-marriages and so on. This often includes multiple Aboriginal as well as other national identities.

It is up to Aboriginal people themselves to determine their identity, although connecting ancestral identity to ancestral country is not always as simple as it may seem.

Ngambri survivors
The Lowe familyIt is clear from the photograph of members of the Lowe family, pictured with Nellie Hamilton and her third husband, King Billy from the south coast, that there were Aboriginal families still living and working in the Canberra region at that time.

This photo was taken in front of the scarred tree at Lanyon, probably by George De Salis, who then still owned Cuppacumbalong station.

Most members of the Lowe family pictured here survived into the 20th century and they have descendants living all around the Canberra region and beyond today.

In his diaries, George mentions Richard ‘Black Dick’ Lowe and his good mate and fellow worker, Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams, many times. In fact, it is mainly thanks to the diligent record keeping by local station owners and fellow workers that records about Dick, Harry and their families and contemporaries are endless.

We owe a great debt to the De Salis and earlier settler families that the Ngambri have not been eradicated from their country altogether.

The written history of the Ngambri commences from the reports of the earliest surveyors and explorers who first arrived in the region from the 1820s onwards.

JJ Moore was arguably the first to establish a station in the district, and of course he called it ‘Canbury’ station, using the first anglicised version of the name of the local Aboriginal group who claimed custodianship of the area. We can see this and the other scattered contemporary claims on Surveyor Dixon’s map of 1829.

Remains of this station are still there on the site of the modern National Museum of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

It was a major Ngambri corroboree ground, much of which is now under the lake.

The best known Ngambri in the times of the first settlers were Onyong and Noolup. Noolup is better known as ‘Jimmy the Rover’.

Nanny, who was reputed to be the daughter of a union between James Ainslie and a Ngambri woman, became Onyong’s ‘consort’ when she was about 16. She had a couple of children with him before he died in the early 1860s. Her other children were mainly fathered by white men.

Sarah McCarthy Duncan, who is seated to the left of Nellie Hamilton in the Lowe family photograph, is Nanny’s daughter.

The written records, including the extant diaries mentioned above, also bring into focus other second generation Ngambri.

Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams, for example, is, with Sarah and her husband, Richard ‘Black Dick’ Lowe, a Ngambri survivor and major link between Onyong’s generation and the modern generation of Ngambri still living in the Canberra region today.

Black Harry was interviewed by his friend George Webb at Uriarra Station, in 1903. George was researching stories about the hairy men of the Brindabellas. This story appeared in the Queanbeyan Observer that year. Thanks to the carefully preserved Webb family records, we know that George also photographed Harry at the time. The photograph was taken when Harry was about 65 and grieving for the loss of his wife, Ellen.

Harry and Ellen had three children: Daisy, Harold and John Roderick. Daisy settled mainly in her mother’s country in the Yass region. Roddy never married and lived and worked in the Canberra region until his death at his camp at Russell Hill in 1952. He is buried at Woden cemetery.

Some of Harold’s descendants still live in the Canberra region and fiercely guard their ancestral heritage.

Ann Jackson-Nakano is the author of The Kamberri: A History of Aboriginal Families in the ACT and Surrounds, published by Aboriginal History Inc, Canberra, 2001.

Walkabout Man © William (Billy T) Tompkins
In the early days when he was a lad
He’d leave camp and go walkabout with the man.
They’d hunt the roo, and spear the fish
And the women, all sorts of grubs and yams.
And walking with the boomerang, spears in their hand
They had to hunt to survive on this land.

Yeah Walkabout man, they were the Walkabout men.
Hunting to survive on the land.
Yeah – Walkabout Man.

But now he’s an old lad, getting wiser and turning grey
Telling younger kids stories, about his early walkabout days.
And the same tradition still goes on, in each tribal clan
Where’d they still go hunting, living off the land.

Yeah Walkabout man, they were the Walkabout men.
Hunting to survive on the land.
Yeah – Walkabout Man.

What’s Wrong With The Way We Used To Live © William (Billy T) Tompkins
Sometimes I sit and wonder about my culture
And sometimes sit and wonder about my kin.
And sometimes I sit and wonder about family
The way we used to roam being free.

What’s wrong with the way we used to live?
The way we used to for years.
Tapping sticks and playing the Didgeridoo
And telling dreamtime stories to our kids.

Sometimes I sit and wonder all by myself now
And think of what might have been done.
But I know we will live in harmony
Living in our country under the sun.

What’s wrong with the way we used to live?
The way we used to for years.
Tapping sticks and playing the Didgeridoo
And telling dreamtime stories to our kids.

Dreams Do Come True © William (Billy T) Tompkins
I was born up in Cowra in 1965
I didn’t really know that much
I was only about so high.

They put me in a children’s home
Where I spent many years
Crying in the night time to hide all my tears.

But dreams do come true
They did come true for me
Cause I got a mum and dad
And a whole big family.

We used to have lots of fun playing in the sun
Acting as cops and robbers with sticks as guns.
By the time it was four o’clock we had to go inside
Where we sit in front of the TV and watch Sesame Street live.

But dreams do come true
They did come true for me
Cause I got a mum and dad
And a whole big family.

Ngambri spellings

The Kamberri

Weereewaa History Series Volume 1
The Kamberri: A History of Aboriginal Families in the ACT and Surrounds

by Ann Jackson-Nakano

The Pajong and Wallabalooa

Weereewaa History Series Volume 2
The Pajong and Wallabalooa: A History of Aboriginal Farming Families at Blakney and Pudman Creeks

by Ann Jackson-Nakano

Ngambri Ancestral Names

Ngambri Ancestral Names
For Geographical Places and Features in the Australian Capital Territory and Surrounds

by Ann Jackson-Nakano

Onyong and Noolup

Tales from Ngambri History: Book 1
Onyong and Noolup, Ngambri and Ngurmal Warriors

story by Arnold Williams, illustrations by Robert Williams

Ngoobra the Ngambri

Tales from Ngambri History: Book 2
Ngoobra the Ngambri, Cleverman

words and pictures by Paul House, Reuben House and George House

Kymin and Kangaroo

Tales from Ngambri History: Book 4
Kymin and Kangaroo, an Aboriginal Love Story

words by Matilda House, pictures by Leah and Ruby House

Kywun and the Gunji

Tales from Ngambri History: Book 5
Kywun and the Gunji

words and pictures by Darren, Dylan, Travis and Jacinta Williams

Ngambri Welcome to Country for Heads of State Visit, 2009
King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd
Parliament House, Canberra 24th June 2009

Ngambri Welcome to Country for 43rd Opening of Federal Parliament, Canberra, 2010

Welcome to Country