The Ngunnawal People of Australia

  • August 25, 2019      Joy Marie Salgado

Canberra – Trying to discover the history of Aboriginal life in Australia? There are numerous Aboriginal heritage sites to visit. These sites have been discovered through different heritage surveys and archaeological expeditions throughout the years. Other places have been accidentally found by the public.

One interesting group to understand is the Ngunnawal people. They are a rich indigenous group who are considered the first inhabitants and the traditional guardians of the Canberra region. They are a community who has passed on their knowledge and history from one generation to the next through word of mouth; this time through the course of written history.

Who are the Ngunnawal?

In the Ngunnawal language, their name means “we” or “us.” There is some debate, however, on how the name is correctly spelled. Regardless of the spelling of their name, the Ngunnawal people know their communities well. The entire Ngunnawal community is composed of various clans that are distinguished by their own language groups. They have the Gundungurra to the north, the Ngarigo at the southeast of Canberra, the Yuin on the coast, the Wiradjuri inland, and Walgalu.

Within the Ngunnawal people are seven clans who occupy certain territories. The clans’ names also influenced the current names of those areas in Australia. To illustrate, these are the clan names: Biyaligee (in Pialligo), Cumbeyan (in Queanbeyan), Kanberri (in Belconnen), the Maloongoola (in Molongolo), Namitch/Namwitch (in Namadgi), the Toogoranoongh (in Tuggeranong), and the Yarr (in Yass).

The Ngunnawals’ territory is a common meeting location of these various neighboring people, as evidenced by the original spelling of Canberra, which is Koyanberra, meaning “meeting place.” This suggests that their people have had reliable sources of food and water as their place is a common ground where different Aboriginal clans can meet.

Life Thanks to Budjabulya

Aside from the distinct practices and geographical importance of the Ngunnawal people’s community, their distinct faith in Budjabulya is also noteworthy.

Budjabulya is believed to be the water spirit who lives in Lake Ngungara (now known as Lake George). According to the Ngunnawal lore, it is this being who has taken care of the Ngunnawal since the beginning of time.

It is said that when Budjabulya is happy, they receive plenty. But when the water spirit is unhappy, the water disappears. This is the explanation their local lore provides for when Lake George completely dries up. When this occurs, the Ngunnawal conduct ceremonies to appease Budjabulya to have the water come back to their lands.

The Ngunnawal People Now

The Ngunnawal people of today continue having that strong connection with their tradition and culture. Through their stories and local history, their names and beliefs have been preserved. Nowadays, even local members continue to build a better sense of understanding within and beyond their community. There have been efforts to introduce their rich history to both locals and tourists through various activities and engagements.

Image from Tegan Osborne,

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