1. Ngunnawal Country

1.1 Background: Caring for Country

Gurbur Duhaura ochre quarry in north Canberra. Photo: ABC News

The Ngunnawal people’s knowledge of Country and water, understanding of seasonality and harvesting routines, and the practice of taking only what is necessary, enabled them to live in the Canberra region for many thousands of years.

But their capacity to care for Country changed in the early 1800s with the arrival of Europeans. Many Aboriginal people in the region were forcibly moved to missions and reserves where European language, customs and religions replaced the Dreaming and Aboriginal Lore.

Ngunnawal people have a deep cultural understanding of conservation, water and fire management. Looking after Country involves maintaining physical, social and spiritual relationships between people and the environment.

The knowledge held by Traditional Custodians is vital to understanding how the environment works and can help us develop sustainable ways to care for Australia. Respectful collection and sharing of traditional knowledge will improve our management of the environment.

Passing cultural knowledge on

Aunty Loretta was born in Yass and spent her early life on the Hollywood Mission. She spent time away from home in Wurundjeri Country (Melbourne) before returning to live on the borders of Wiradjuri and Ngunnawal Country at Tumut. She is now a vital contributor to communicating culture.

She remembers the trying conditions under which her family and community lived on the Missions, but she also remembers the passing on of cultural knowledge. She recalls her father taking the children around to all the rabbit traps that he had set, barefoot on the frosty mornings, and she remembers helping him skin the rabbits. She recalls him fishing late in the evening ‘when the fish get sleepy’. As children, they weren’t allowed to make any noise. The fish would come in closer to the bank, and her father would reach down and scoop them out onto the banks. ‘He was so fast with his hands. We’d make a fire amongst the rocks and cook the fish’.

Her father taught her about the stars and the moon and the trees. He said the trees ‘talk to each other, they connect with each other’. A lot of that knowledge is coming back to her, just like the language. ‘People always said, as you get older you’ll start remembering the language. And it’s true, I’ll be walking around, and a word comes into my head. It’s wonderful.’