Canberra is on Ngunnawal Country

Canberra is on Ngunnawal Country. The neighbouring peoples are the Gundungurra to the north, the Ngarigo to the south, the Yuin on the coast, and the Wiradjuri inland. The first European settler was Joshua John Moore who established a stock station called ‘Canberry’. It’s thought the name Canberry is based on an Indigenous name for the area ‘Kamberra’ or ‘Kambery’. The middle of Moore’s property is approximately where the city centre is today. The ACT was declared on January 1, 1911; Canberra became the official name for the area on March 12, 1913; Yass–Canberra, Bombala, Orange, Albury, Tumut, Cooma and Armidale were all long listed as Capital City sites; and Melbourne served as the capital until 1927, when Parliament House (now Old Parliament House) first opened on May 9. There are two Ngunnawal mobs: Canberra and Yass, and they’ve been in the area for at least 21,000 years or more.

I was born at the Royal Canberra Hospital in May 1973 — this is the same hospital the ACT Government ‘imploded’ on July 13 in 1997 to make way for the National Museum of Australia; the same Government that accepted the lowest tender from a demolitions company that had only ever executed explosions before; the same ‘implosion’ that killed 12-year-old Katie Bender when she was hit in the head by a piece of flying steel some 430 meters from the blast site, across Lake Burley Griffin. The explosion was promoted by Mix 106.3fm as a family day out and ran a competition where the winner triggered the ‘implosion’. The Government encouraged people to come out and watch.

I left in 1998. Not for any one reason, but I grew up there and couldn’t wait to get out. I’ve since lived in Melbourne (Woiwurrung, Boonwurong, Wathaurung, Daungwurrung and Dja Dja Wrung); Newcastle: aka Muloobinba (Awabakal and Worimi); Dili (Timorese); and now the Brisbane area: aka Mian-jin (Turrbal, Jagera, Yugarabul, Yuggara, Yugambeh and Kombumerri). I’m not Indigenous, but can I say I was born on Ngunnawal Country? I’m not claiming anything, I just want to acknowledge the truth. The land and country around Canberra affect me, and I keep being drawn back, which was never my intention.

On January 26 1972 — sixteen months before I was born — the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was proclaimed on the lawn in front of Parliament House (now Old Parliament House), in response to the McMahon Government’s refusal to recognise Aboriginal Land Rights. The history of the Embassy mirrors this nation. Some say symbolically so. McMahon favoured a general purpose lease for Aborigines which would be conditional upon their ‘intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use of land’ and it would exclude all rights they had to minerals and forestry. This is pretty much what John Howard did. His ‘10 Point Plan: TPP’ (or the Native Title Amendment Act) in the ‘90s stripped the Native Title and Land Rights acts and legislations of any meaningful legal weight, and undermined the Mabo and Wik decisions; the TPP also placed unrealistic obligations, restrictions and conditions upon Indigenous people to ‘prove economic and social use of land’; and when the Howard Government unilaterally activated the ‘intervention’ in 2007 it used the Australian Army to invade Australia (undermining principals and parameters established as part of the legal recognition of Indigenous land rights, and, according to UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya, the ‘intervention’ was ‘racially discriminating and infringed on the human rights of Aboriginal people in the NT’). Those associated with the Embassy in ‘72 include Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey, Bertie Williams, Pearl Gibbs, Roberta Sykes, Sam Watson, Alana Doolan, Cheryl Buchannan, Gary Foley, Isobelle Coe, Shirley Smith, Paul Coe, Chicka Dixon, Gary Williams, John Newfong, Pat Eatock, Kevin Gilbert and Denis Walker. In February ‘72 they presented a list of demands to the Australian Parliament:

  1. Control of the Northern Territory (of South Australia) as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia (the Northern Territory was ‘given’ self government in 1978)
  2. The Northern Territory Parliament to be predominantly Aboriginal, with title and mining rights to all land within the Territory.
  3. Legal title and mining rights to all other existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia.
  4. The preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia.
  5. Legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all Australian capital cities.
  6. Compensation money for lands not returnable to take the form of a down-payment of six billion dollars and an annual percentage of the gross national income.

History shows these demands were rejected and the police were sent in in July. They removed tents and arrested people. Since then, the Embassy has continued in different guises on and around the original site: it was in a house in Red Hill for a time; in ‘79 it was briefly on Capital Hill, the site of the current Parliament House (construction began in ‘81 and it opened in ‘88);  there have been sit-ins and protests; Prime Ministers have both met with and completely ignored the Embassy; in ‘95 it was added to the Australian Register of the National Estate; and in ‘98 a sacred fire was constructed by Kevin Buzzacott and lit by Wiradjuri man Paul Coe. Today the Embassy stands on the original site, and is a visual and symbolic representation of and connection to the human history of this continent, but during its life it has been the target of racially motivated physical attacks, police raids and fire bombings (in June 2003, 31 years of records were lost in one such attack). The Embassy’s history does in fact mirror the wider history of this nation.

In May 2017 I was a sound artist at the Noted Festival and was privileged to hear Ngunnawal Elder Nin Jannette Phillips deliver the Welcome to Country in the foyer of the National Library. At times our surroundings exerted a slightly surreal juxtaposition and contradiction when related to the histories and stories being shared with us. The sound piece accompanying this article is an extract from Nin Jannette Phillips’ Welcome. The music is from Bangarra’s Our Land People Stories album. A warning, though; the song ‘Diary’ which features in this piece, while factual, contains disturbing content.

4zzz Reporter Craig Garrett

Images: National Library of Australia

Songs: ‘Sunrise’, ‘Diary’, ‘Clan’ and ‘Wiradjuri’ from Our Land People Stories