Source: Richie Southerton


Valuing Ngunnawal Country

Note: The ACT Government has acknowledged the Ngunnawal people as the Traditional Custodians of the Canberra region since 2002. In April 2023, the ACT Government recognised that the region is also an important meeting place and significant to other Aboriginal groups. It acknowledges the right of Aboriginal people to self-determination and that those identifying as Ngambri (Kamberri) have determined they are the Traditional Custodians of land within the ACT and surrounding region. However, ACT Government engagement with Traditional Custodians on environmental management has been focussed solely on Ngunnawal people during the reporting period for this State of the Environment Report. This chapter therefore considers Ngunnawal custodianship only.

For time immemorial Ngunnawal people have maintained a tangible and intangible cultural, social, environmental, spiritual, and economic connection to these lands and waters. This connection is underpinned by the lore and cultural authority of Country.

Ngunnawal Elders and leaders hold the cultural authority to speak for and be decision makers for the lands and waters that is Ngunnawal Country. Cultural authority is held by the Ngunnawal as Traditional Custodians of all the lands and waters of Ngura – their home. This is informed through deep listening to and understanding of Country and the ancestors knowledges passed on throughout time. The generational sharing of ancient lore and systems have been nurtured by knowledges over tens of thousands of years through deep listening to understand, lifelong learning, undertaking cultural practices and commitment to Country.

Canberra is not just a place where we co-exist, live, work, raise families, play and come together as a community – it was, is and always will be Ngura (home) to the Ngunnawal people. Dhawuramulan Ngunnawal is our way of being; our dreaming; the spirit, the soul, the heart, the foundation and the strength of our people. Dhawura gives Ngunnawal our identity, our apical lineage, our cultural authority, our songlines, our lore, ceremony and practices.  It nurtures our people and gives us our past, our tomorrow and our future.

Ngunnawal Country is the foundation and salient ingredient on which the ACT is built. Respecting and valuing the Ngunnawal ways of being on and doing for Country as is our right as the first peoples and land managers of the lands and waters of the ACT and region.

The journey of shaping the urban landscape to meet the needs of a growing population, managing the impacts of climate change, the conservation and protection of the environment, the cultural landscape and heritage must begin with the foundation and cultural authority of Ngunnawal in caring for Ngunnawal Country.  For in caring for Country and all it encompasses, Country will provide and care for us and our future generations.

The 2021 Australian State of the Environment Report explains that 

 … to Indigenous people, Country is so much more than the land, seas and waters. It encompasses all living things and all aspects of the environment, as well as the knowledge, cultural practices and responsibilities connected with this. A common view is that we belong to Country, rather than Country belonging to us.”

The Ngunnawal people are first inhabitants of the Canberra region and have cared for this Country for millennia. Ngunnawal Country encompasses not just the ACT but also surrounding areas of NSW, meaning that the Ngunnawal understanding of the landscape in this region is broader and more interconnected than is easily allowed for in our modern jurisdictional approach.

Ngunnawal knowledge of Country and management practices have influenced the natural environment of the Canberra region for many thousands of years. Research published over the past decade is raising awareness of what Aboriginal peoples have always known: Australia’s original inhabitants actively managed the land in a way that created ecosystems on which many native species have become dependent. The phenomenon of biodiverse anthropogenic ecosystems can be found throughout the world — for example, the pasture-based grasslands found in northern Europe, many of which are incredibly species-rich — and arise where human management of the land has endured for a long enough period that local wildlife has adapted to it.

Ngunnawal knowledge is critically important for understanding the ACT’s environment and the development of a sustainable city. Ngunnawal knowledge of animals, plants, land management and cultural practices must be valued and recognised in contemporary environmental management practices.

Formal integration of traditional Indigenous knowledge into land management policy is a relatively new practice, and the ACT Government has made progress in this area since the 2019 State of the Environment Report. In particular, there is increased evidence of recognition of the need to work with the Ngunnawal people specifically as the Traditional Custodians of this region. The Dhawura Ngunnawal Caring for Country Committee was established in 2019 to guide the Environment Branch in EPSDD in its engagement with the Ngunnawal community, and has resulted in an increase in the branch’s work in partnership with Ngunnawal people. This includes both Ngunnawal-focussed projects such as the development of a Cultural Resource Management Plan (section 2.5) and Aboriginal Water Assessments (section 2.6), as well as a broader effort to weave Ngunnawal knowledge and practice into government approaches, such as in the Caring for Dhawura Ngunnawal Natural Resource Management Plan 2022-2042.

However, this Report has found that there are significant gaps in the consideration of Ngunnawal values in some areas of ACT Government policy and decision making. For example, in Chapter 5, the expansion of Canberra’s urban boundary is discussed in detail. While multiple issues with greenfield developments are identified within this chapter, it is particularly notable that district- and city-level planning have limited consideration of First Nations perspectives. This is still largely the case in spite of the ACT Planning Review and Reform project undertaken during this reporting period.

The consultation requirements in the draft Territory Plan — the statutory document that guides planning and development in the ACT — did not appear to consider Ngunnawal cultural considerations around objects, places and landscapes at all.

Ngunnawal perspectives are relevant to all aspects of the environment and sustainability, and management decisions within these domains directly impact First Nations people. For example, climate change impacts on the ACT are noted in Chapter 1 and these climatic changes unavoidably affect Ngunnawal cultural practices. Climate change is already leading to discernible changes in phenological patterns. Ngunnawal people report critical changes in the environment, for example, the timings of plants flowering. These climate impacts have immense associated impacts on cultural practices.

While it is increasingly acknowledged that Australia and our environment can benefit from using Indigenous knowledge in environmental management, Indigenous voices remain marginalised in environmental management practices and policies.  Respectful and meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples regarding Indigenous Knowledge of Country and their management practices requires adherence with several core principles as outlined in AIATSIS’s Principles for engagement in projects concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’.

The Principles highlight that:

In addition, early and ongoing communication throughout the duration of projects will ensure that cultural values are respected and embedded into projects while building relationships and trust.

In the following case study, the Namarag nature space is outlined in detail. The development of this nature space was a significant collaboration between Ngunnawal people and various ACT Government agencies. In describing the consultation process for Namarag, Ngunnawal woman Mary Mudford has said:

“Meaningful consultation is not just consulting and walking away and developing something without the Ngunnawal people, it is actual engagement of Ngunnawal people throughout the whole process.”

Source: Darren Le Roux and Mary Mudford

From Namarag you can see down to the Molonglo River corridor and across the Molonglo Valley. The space provides walking tracks, river access, fishing, picnics and nature play. It is being restored to help conserve native plants and animals including the nationally threatened Pink-tailed Worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella), Superb Parrot (Polytelis swainsonii) and Yellow Box-Red Gum Grassy Woodland.

Namarag is situated on the stretch of the Molonglo River which runs through the middle of the Molonglo Valley development. Thousands of houses are being constructed around the river corridor and the adjacent population will continue to increase for many years to come. This means the visitation rates of Molonglo River corridor, including Namarag, will definitely increase in the near future and it is important that the community understands the meaning behind this special area in order to use and care for it appropriately.

Namarag has been a few years in development. Early planning for Namarag began in 2018, with detailed design during 2019–20 and construction occurring from September 2020 to September 2021. This was the largest construction project that the Parks and Conservation Service has ever managed, with a total budget of $10.4 million. It was also a collaboration with Major Projects, the Suburban Land Agency and Transport Canberra and City Services. A Ngunnawal artist, Lynnice Church, contributed to the project such as providing art for signage throughout the area.

Four project needs were identified early in the process:

  1. Recognition of the adjacent development: The suburb of Whitlam is directly uphill from Namarag and with the increase in hard surfaces through the construction of this suburb, there will be a significant increase in run-off. A naturalised swale has been built in Namarag to cope with this. Trees salvaged from the urban development were also used in the construction of Namarag.
  2. Contamination from the Coppins Crossing Sewerage Treatment Plant which was decommissioned more than 50 years ago: native grass seeds were collected and planted on this site to transform it into a native grassland.
  3. Area of national significance: this area of the Molonglo River corridor is home to the Pink-tailed Worm-lizard (listed nationally as Vulnerable). Using crushed rock salvaged from bedrock removed during the construction of Denman Prospect, the rocky grassland habitat for this reptile was able to be extended and enhanced.
  4. Cultural significance: the Ngunnawal community was engaged in this project very early on through activities such as workshops and site visits. Engagement from the beginning of the project is vital to understand the cultural significance of the location, and this had not occurred before on any project in the ACT. The Molonglo River is an area of great significance to the Ngunnawal people as it formed part of an extensive series of pathways into the mountains for trade and ceremonial purposes, including the collection of the Bogong Moth (Agrotis infusa) from the Brindabellas. The river corridor was also a key source of materials and resources for food, fibre and tools.

This area also contains Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodland which is a Critically Endangered Ecological Community nationally. More than 10,000 tubestock have been planted here to restore this habitat, as well as old large trees brought in from elsewhere in the ACT. Some of these are up to 400 years old. They will provide structure in the meantime while the newly planted tubestocks establish. While these are all great initiatives, there is still a long way to go to make our urban footprint more sustainable.

The aim was to keep the area as natural as possible, for example the Ngunnawal community did not want the soils to be stripped at the decommissioned sewage treatment plant as would usually happen to eliminate weeds and replant an area. Instead, soil salvaged from the construction of John Gorton Drive was brought in and laid down on the area before new plantings of natives occurred.

Indigenous art and themes were incorporated into the landscape such as:

  • the name of the reserve as Namarag, meaning wattle in Ngunnawal language
  • building a premier events terrace
  • bush tucker gardens with plants traditionally used for basket weaving, food and hunting. Once these plants have grown, they can be used for workshops and passing on Traditional Knowledge
  • timber and rock art
  • nature play precincts
  • aerial landscape art such as the Bogong Moth, Platypus and wattle leaves, and
  • planting of native vegetation.

The 2019 State of the Environment Report included Recommendation 7 for Indigenous Matters:

In 2022, the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment (OCSE) began to explore the idea of developing a Ngunnawal seasonal calendar in partnership with the Ngunnawal community. Seasonal calendars present Indigenous seasonal cycles using Traditional Knowledge by bringing together information about flora, fauna and ecosystems. There are numerous examples throughout Australia of where language groups have developed seasonal calendars that share Indigenous knowledge and environmental management practices. CSIRO, which has co-produced numerous seasonal calendars, notes that

The Western four-season calendar, which divides the year into roughly four equal sequential phases (Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring) is not a particular informative way of engaging with the weather and climate in Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Australia’s First Scientists, have always held a deep understanding of the seasons, and of how to tell when seasons are changing.

Seasonal understanding of Country underpins many activities on Country. Recording this knowledge provides a powerful tool for Indigenous knowledge holders to demonstrate and communicate their connection to, use and management of Country.

Prior to beginning this work, OCSE undertook True Tracks Principles cultural engagement and training with Dr Terri Janke and Company Pty Ltd, met with and presented to the Dhawura Ngunnawal Caring for Country Committee, undertook Ngunnawal language training and walks on Country, informed the United Ngunnawal Elders Council (UNEC) of the project and engaged Mr Richie Allan, from Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Ngunnawal Custodian, to facilitate workshops to speak with the Ngunnawal people about the development of the Seasonal Calendar.

Around 40 members of the Ngunnawal Community have been involved in conversations about the seasonal calendar to date, with several workshops held in 2022 and 2023. A major topic of discussion has been the concept of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, something which is not currently well recognised in the Western legal system. It is essential that Indigenous knowledge is properly valued and that communities are recompensed for sharing cultural information with people outside their group, and developing a mechanism for this to happen fairly is an important part of the Ngunnawal seasonal calendar project.

During the workshops, the six seasons of Ngunnawal Country were discussed. These are shown in further detail in the artwork and story provided by Ngunnawal artist Richard Allan. His stylised representation of Ngunnawal Country also emphasises a recurring point raised by Ngunnawal workshop participants — that while the ACT is Ngunnawal Country, Ngunnawal Country is not confined to the ACT alone and extends through this region. Other matters discussed at the workshops included details of cultural practice, and important floral and faunal changes.

OCSE will continue to support the development of the calendar by the Ngunnawal community in 2024.

Source: Richard Allan

The main part of this artwork is the outlining of Ngunnawal land, the circle in the middle of the artwork is the symbol which we use to represent communities, I used this symbol for the heart of Ngunnawal.

The different colours I used inside the six parts of Ngunnawal land are the six seasons, they are the seasons that we would use back in Traditional times. The brown to red is the colours of autumn, they make the leaves of the trees change and the grass darkens in this season. The red to yellow is summer, the sunsets of summer with the heat pop the land with these beautiful colours. The white to green is fake summer as the colours are very bland and getting ready to bloom. The pinks to purples are the colours of spring, which is when our medical season is at its strongest as our hardenbergia blooms along with our native flowers and chocolate lilies. The greens, blues to whites is the season of winter as there is still some colour but it’s very mild in the cold. Lastly, we have fake winter where the land is very cold, everything is ready to die and get ready for the new cycle to start small and bloom again.

The yellow dots throughout the map are the colours of the main grass you will find throughout Ngunnawal land which is known as kangaroo grass that we use to grind into our damper. The little blue dots on the mainland of Ngunnawal are the main waterways Ngunnawal people use.

The mountain range shown on the map close to Namadgi mountains is one of the main men’s sites that can only be used for men’s business, therefore I used the Ngunnawal symbol for a male on that mountain. There’s a mountain range closer to the middle of the map this shows the Ngunnawal symbol for women and children, this is the women’s site which is a very important, as it was used for birthing because it’s one of the biggest mountains on Ngunnawal land for the women to be closest to mullyan (wedge tail eagle) for safety and guidance.

There’s a hidden little leaf close to the middle of the map, the colours represent the hardenbergia plant which is one of the Ngunnawal peoples main healing medications. It was made into warm teas and was used to take away most headaches and pressure off the body as it is an anti-inflammatory as well.

The wings behind Ngunnawal land stand for the Ngunnawal totem which is the Wedge-tailed eagle. This is a large, beautiful eagle that is very strong and powerful and usually will provide guidance from the sky. Which leads us into the last part of the painting which is the sky that is the background with the pathways showing us the way of the sky as the mullyan does.

The need for a Cultural Resource Management Plan for the Ngunnawal people was identified during the review of the Fisheries Act 2000 in 2017. While many other jurisdictions have existing clauses within legislation for fishing access for First Nations people, the ACT does not have these provisions. Further consultation with the Ngunnawal people identified the need for access to cultural resource more broadly and in 2019 the Nature Conservation Act 2014 was amended to enable the Conservator of Flora and Fauna to prepare a draft Cultural Resource Management Plan.

What is the Cultural Resource Management Plan?

This is a Plan for the Ngunnawal people. It will enable Ngunnawal people to access cultural resources on land managed by the ACT Government. In this, it seeks to resolve issues of the Ngunnawal community being prevented from accessing Country, which inhibits cultural practices. For example, under the Nature Conservation Act 2014 it is illegal for Ngunnawal people to go onto parts of Country (unleased public land) and collect resources for cultural purposes, such as timber for clapsticks. The Cultural Resource Management Plan will enable the Ngunnawal community to collect resources from Country that support cultural practices and identity (namely plants, animals, water, stones etc) while reflecting the Ngunnawal care of Country, focussed on using only what is needed.

How is the Ngunnawal Cultural Resource Management Plan being developed?

The Nature Conservation Act 2014 requires that preparation of a CRMP must involve consultation with the Ngunnawal community, though it does not stipulate details of what the Plan should contain. As of May 2023, seven different consultation processes have occurred, including five with Ngunnawal community members broadly, and one specific consultation with women’s and men’s groups. Consultation has already revealed that the community do not want a Cultural Resource Management Plan that includes a specific list of resources that can be collected from parks and reserves of the ACT. Rather, the Cultural Resource Management Plan should encompass a wider range of topics such as cultural occupancy, protecting cultural assets and Ngunnawal involvement in the management of threatened species. The draft Plan has now been developed and feedback from Ngunnawal has been sought. Feedback is currently being incorporated into the draft.

How can the Ngunnawal community and ACT Government be involved in the Cultural Resource Management Plan?

Although the Cultural Resource Management Plan is a Plan for the Ngunnawal people, not the ACT Government, it requires partnership to deliver the Plan effectively. The Cultural Resource Management Plan pertains to cultural resources on EPSDD managed land, so it is critical for land managers within EPSDD, in particular the Parks and Conservation Service, to understand the Cultural Resource Management Plan and how it will work for Ngunnawal people. The Cultural Resource Management Plan can also allow opportunities for deeper cultural understanding and exchange. For example, government land managers can embed a cultural lens in management activities such as revegetation and fire management.

Where to next for Ngunnawal cultural resources?

The launch of the final Cultural Resource Management Plan is scheduled for December 2023. The development and implementation of the Cultural Resource Management Plan can be considered as the first stage of redressing lack of access to cultural resources for Ngunnawal people. Phase 2 is to extend the Cultural Resource Management Plan across all ACT land, regardless of tenure (e.g., federally managed areas) and Phase 3 is to include areas of Ngunnawal Country that are outside the ACT border.

Aboriginal Water Assessments are First Nations-led initiatives. Aboriginal Water Assessments assess the health of Country and the waterways using a cultural lens. These assessments recognise the importance of Traditional Owners’ and Custodians’ cultural knowledge in understanding water and natural resource management.

While Aboriginal Water Assessments have occurred in an ad-hoc manner in the ACT since 2015, Ngunnawal Water Policy Officer Bradley Bell has expanded and formalised these assessments. The Aboriginal Water Assessments are based on the methodology used in Aotearoa New Zealand, developed by Dr Gail Tipa, to assess the cultural health index of waterways. The Aboriginal Water Assessments have been developed further by the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations in collaboration with the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The Ngunnawal Country Aboriginal Water Assessment comprises a list of questions, including 11 water health questions (e.g., turbidity, flow) and 14 cultural questions. Some examples of these are included here.

Part 1: Waterway Health

Part 2: Cultural Values and Uses

Approximately 20 Ngunnawal community members have attended the past four assessments. During the assessments, participants are driven to different sites to answer the questions. Ngunnawal community members are often accompanied by an industry expert (e.g., fish ecologist or water manager) to provide information from a western scientific perspective. During the assessments, Ngunnawal community members have had their memories and histories reawakened, which provides further important cultural knowledge.

Once an assessment has taken place, information, photos, and responses are collated and summarised into an Aboriginal Water Assessment report, which then provides an overall score to indicate the health of that part of the waterway. Information obtained during the Aboriginal Water Assessments remains Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property and is protected knowledge.

To date, two assessment days have occurred with a total of four assessments. The following information has been provided for wider use:

The Scottsdale site is owned by Bush Heritage Australia which requested for the site to be regenerated with Ngunnawal participation. With not much colonial disturbance, the site scored highly on cultural values and water health with “Ngunnawal heritage everywhere”.

The Bredbo site scored relatively low from a cultural perspective as colonial disturbance — farming, deforestation, and regulation of rivers — has removed the key indicators that would signal time for ceremonies or certain activities.

Further assessments are scheduled.

The findings from the Aboriginal Water Assessment showcase how the Ngunnawal community value and use their waterways. Understanding mismanagement of waterways is critically important, as this has disturbed the key indicators of when/why/how/what for First Nations’ ceremony and other cultural activities. More broadly, Aboriginal Water Assessments provide all people of the ACT an opportunity to recognise Ngunnawal rights and interests in water management and recognise the importance of cultural knowledge being a part of everything that the Territory does. While Aboriginal Water Assessments have been taking place with different Traditional Custodians in NSW and Victoria, they are not as extensive as the ACT. Other jurisdictions are paying attention to the ACT Aboriginal Water Assessments and looking to apply this methodology elsewhere.