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Indigenous Canberra: Connecting The Dots

The Australian Capital Territory government officially recognises the Ngunnawal people in its ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies and legislature but they are not the only indigenous groups who claim a connection to this area.

The stories that have been handed down from within the different indigenous groups that have travelled through and lived in the region we now call Canberra are fascinating and diverse.

Shane Mortimer says the name Canberra comes from ngambri, meaning cleavage and describes the space between Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie.

He is a Ngambri man with a strong connection to not only this area but also to the names Ainslie and Campbell as well.

In the 1820s, James Ainslie arrived with sheep for the Campbell family and according to Mr Mortimer was guided to this area by a Ngambri woman.

“She was being sacrificed to this white person she thought was a spirit and threatened with death if she didn’t take him back to her country on the limestone plains,” he said.

This woman, he says, was his great grandmother and therefore his connection to this country.

Jeanette Phillips parents are of Ngunnawal descent. She was born in Brungal, between Tumut and Gundagai, and she says her family has a strong affiliation with the region in spite of being scattered “to the four winds.”

Jeanette doesn’t understand why there is so much debate about who the traditional owners of Canberra are.

“We’ve never seen this before where people say, ‘I’m this’ and ‘I’m that’ … I look at it this way – if you call yourself one thing, that’s what you stay. You don’t chop and change with the weather,” she said.

She says the name Canberra probably comes from an early Aboriginal word meaning ‘meeting place’ or ‘neutral area.’

Ellen Mundy is a Ngarigu woman and has been researching her family connection to this area for over twenty years.

According to Ms Mundy, Ngarigu is a language group that deserves recognition from the ACT government for its use of Ngarigu history in heritage interpretations.

Ngarigu … is actually the name of the language, so a language boundary is our tribe, which is bounded [sic] by rivers, ranges and sometimes birds,” she said.

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