Aboriginal History

Portrait of an AboriginalThe local Aboriginal tribe, the Ngunawal peoples,1 consists of a number of different clans bounded by the broad language groups of Wiradjuri, Ngrio (Ngarigo), Gundungurra and Yuin. The Tuggeranong2 plain of Canberra is at the southern extremity of Ngunawal country. The Canberra region is generally understood to have been a meeting place, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply and that pathways were significant as people moved from place to place through transitional cultural boundaries following river and creek corridors and the ridges and spurs of hills and mountains. Pathways may be the means of access across the region and, in the case of the main ranges visible from the highpoints of the Tuggeranong area, a physical and visual link to major spiritual centres and gathering places in the Snowy Mountains.3

For Aboriginal culture there are inextricable links between sacred and secular landscape values. Aboriginal people always did things with a witness, whether it is the spirits of a mountain, the water, the flowers. Therefore, open sites such as the stone artefact scatters found around the Tuggeranong homestead will be related to other landscape features by story and association.4 Similarly, grinding grooves, such as those located east of the Tuggeranong homestead, may be found in association with a significant rock outcrop yet equally suitable rock is not used in other places.5 Put into the local context, Ngunawal Dreaming refers to people emerging from their origins beneath the rocks.6

A corroboree was witnessed and recorded at Tuggeranong by William Edward Riley sometime during the 1820s prior to January 1828.7 However, by 1834 the record of distribution of government blankets from “Jane Vale” (Tuggeranong) indicates that Aboriginal society in the region had already been severely affected by colonisation. G A Robinson, Protector of Aborigines, in 1844, provided a chilling indication of what may have happened to some of the early “Onerwal” (Ngunawal) of the Yass area when he wrote, “Yass and Bathurst blacks in the early settling of the colony were said to have been troublesome, and that in consequence commandoes had been sent out against them.”8 However, most journal references of the early settlers in and around the Tuggeranong plains suggest that the relationship between the new settlers and the remaining Aboriginal people who moved through the Canberra region was relatively amicable. The occasional corroboree and other ceremonial activities were mentioned into the 1860s, with Aboriginal groups and individuals congregating on the edge of pastoralists’ properties, villages and towns. Government polices eventually marshalled Aboriginal people of the region to missions near Yass and Tumut till the mid 1950s.

Today, our understanding of traditional Aboriginal cultural lifestyle and community values of the region depends on the continued guidance of the descendants of these early Aboriginal communities

Karen Williams
6 February 2007

  1. The spelling of ‘Ngunawal’ can only ever be an approximation, the result of an early European attempt to write an Aboriginal spoken word from an oral tradition and, as such, there are many variations to be found.
  2. Tuggeranong is an anglicised Aboriginal word that means cold plain.
  3. Mason, R. 2003, pers. comm. 7 December.
  4. Mason, R. 2003, pers. comm. 7 December.
  5. Boot, P. 2003, Archaeological approaches to understanding the Yuin sacred landscape, paper presented at to the Australian Archaeological Association Conference 2003, Jindabyne, December.
  6. Bell, D., pers. comm.
  7. Riley, W.E. ML MSS A 109 (mfm CY 738) Documents, 1817-1856, p. 114 (courtesy of Rebecca Lamb).
  8. Mackaness, G., 1941, George Augustus Robinson’s Journey Into Southeastern Australia, 1844, Royal Australian Historical Society – Journal and Proceedings, Vol 27, Pt 5, p. 25-26.


The following account of an Aboriginal corobberie has historical significance to the communities of the Canberra region. It was witnessed by the author of the article William Edward Riley at Tuggeranong, Isabella Plains, not far from the huts at Waniassa and the extant stone axe-grinding grooves on a nearby hillside, now located in the suburb of Theodore. Riley submitted the article for publication in the New Monthly Magazine but it was rejected in January 1828 which suggests that Riley would have witnessed the corobberie in 1827 or earlier. The account is valuable for its detailed insight into Aboriginal cultural heritage at the time of European contact in the Canberra region.

Portrait of an Aboriginal family‘Corobberie at Tugeranon Isabella Plains’ (article dated 5 November 1831)

‘A corobberrie or a Dance of a Tribe of Natives in the Southern Interior of New South Wales, from the journal of an Anglo-Australian on his return to the Territory of his birth in 1830.

The Namitch tribe of natives was assembled here, forming rude huts of boughs of trees and bark open on the north-east side and arranged in the form of a crescent; they had made these “gunyahs”, as they term them, more substantially than any I had yet seen – only erecting them when in expectation of a continuance of cold and rainy weather, and generally close to some cattle or sheep station where they remain nearly all the winter assisting the stockman in grinding and eating his wheat or maize, and living principally on the skim milk and bran which they beg; men, women, children and dogs/ of which latter they generally have a number/ drinking indiscriminately out of the same trough;- The men of this tribe were mostly tall and well made, the women graceful and good looking/ by comparison/ and either much cleaner or of a lighter colour than usual, being somewhat darker than a bright copper colour; they were clothed in large Opossum Skin cloaks loosely fastened with careless elegance around the neck exposing the left arm and shoulder and descending to the knee which with the foot, ankle, arm, wrist and hand are of exquisite workmanship and might rival those of their fairer sisters in Europe,-

Their eyes have not less of brilliancy or vivacity, neither are they less tender to their offspring or less faithful and obedient to their husbands, and to their aged parents their affection and care is not to be surpassed.- Their language is far from inharmonious the number of liquids and vowels giving it an air of peculiar softness.

They at my request good humorously prepared to exhibit the native dance or “Corobberie”:- adorning themselves with narrow streaks of white clay across the chest, down the front of their legs and arms, and in circles around their eyes:- Unbinding their long black hair and spreading it out, they first smeared it with fat and then plentifully besprinkled it with the snow white down of some water fowl, which the “gins” /or women/ generally carry about with them in small nets together with other ball materials.- Rouge they have not, but nature has supplied them with a valuable substitute in red ochre, and with this they impart a warmth of expression to the manly foreheads and war-like faces of the men and heighten the colour of their own soft cheeks,- thus arrayed they kindle a large fire on a grassy rise at a short distance from their huts.- The females as is usual in all their domestic operations and arrangements, taking the most active part;- in a few moments the fire was blazing and several large heaps of dry wood well collected and sufficient to enlighten the scene for the remainder of the ceremony for it was dark. The effect of the white stripes on their bodies was now singular in the extreme and as their elegant figures moved around the fire the warm and war-like tint of their ochred cheeks became still more expressive and without the civilized aid of wine or spirits they seemed wound up to a pitch of excitement and merriment that I could scarcely have credited, and I could not but compare these happy “savages” with their less happy brethren cursed with the necessity of mixing more frequently with Christians “white fellow” in the vicinity of the towns- poor emaciated half-civilized creatures! Those no longer found pleasure in the pleasures of their fathers! These were only now to be excited or to be made merry by the worst of liquid fires – The Work of Rum! But I turn with disgust from the contemplation of the miseries the civilized white fellow had entailed on the savage “black fellow”, to the enjoyment of the romantic scene before me. The women were, now, dear creatures squatting together, with the pickaninnies to the left and in front of the fire, each happily curling a cloud of smoke from a pipe scarcely two inches in length and of a greasy darkened hue, harmonising admirably with the complexion of their own skins,- To the right, and somewhat in advance of the fire, were sitting cross-legged were four vulnerable old men with long grey beards, and two of the fair sex on either side of the men, equally antique, one of these women I most notice was simply clad in a shirt that some white fellow had given her, the effect to say the least was peculiar and I could not help but feel that there was indeed some truth in the words, “beauty unadorned adorns the most”. The aged eight were each adorned with a “waddie” (a kind of club) in the left hand, and a short hard pin of polished wood about the size and shape of a common round ruler in the right, these were the musicians or “fiddlers” as they termed themselves (not however being able to pronounce the letter “f” they substituted the letter “p”), and as they sang the various airs of there tribe possessing much genuine melody they were joined by the group of fair ones on the left;- occasionally raising and lowering the voice an octave and altering the time and air as the dance changed, they accompanied themselves by striking with the small stick on the “waddie” or “fiddle” unlike our fiddle it has two notes and is without a string,- these notes are produced by blows on the upper and thicker end of the waddie and on the lower part, administered with more or less energy as the nature of the air or ardour of the dance may require.

To return to the men or dancers who had supplied themselves with small green boughs which they bore in each hand, some were leaping in the air with ecstatic shouts for the purpose of I imagine of suppling their limbs preparatory to the dance some extending their hands or raising theirs in the air and placing themselves in extravagant attitudes were sounding the soft reiterations, “wah wah! – allah! Wha allah, allah – wah! – gha – ghoo! – ghoo! – gha – ghoo! Ah – allah, allah! Wha wha!”

While others extending their long muscular legs and bending forwards, surveyed themselves with much apparent satisfaction, appealing to me with a happy mixture of vanity and good humour whether they were not “Budgerry fellows” (handsome fellows). All now arranged themselves to the number of 23 in a small circle, crossing their arms and leaning forward they gave three deep and loud intonations of the voice, remaining silent a few moments between each, the effect was striking and the tone so deep and hollow that I almost fancied the earth they were bending over received and returned the sound, and as it died away on the ear the senses were sleeping with astonishment and only awakened to be again surprised by this supernatural tone! The ball was then opened by an interesting girl, of perhaps eighteen, and modestly attired as she came into the world, she advanced a few yards in front of the fire, led this song and dance by throwing herself in elegant and fantastic positions; this she repeated at the commencement of each set of “quadrilles” or “corobberies” and occasionally during their intermissions while the men ranged in two lines with the Chief, a fine tall young fellow about a yard in advance, having a spear in one hand and tomahawk in the other, all moving slowly from side to side with legs and arms extended keeping time with the song then following each other round a circle imitating the odd gait of the emu or the still more singular hop of the kangaroo; the Chief most extravagant in his attitudes and gestures would at times appear to be encouraging the to battle throwing his arms out aloft and flourishing his slender spear leaping at the same time sideways, with one leg extended, from one side the dance to the other, as if in defiance of the supposed enemy,- exhibiting an extraordinary combination of personal grace, strength and agility scarcely to be equalled; as the dance continued the music became louder and quicker and the “lights fantastic too” became more light and more fantastic; till at length they seemed worked into a kind of phrenzy all joining with much musical taste in the song and then in an instant they had stopped, and the music ceased. Lasting about five minutes and taking such refreshment as a neighbouring run of water afforded with a few whiffs of the soothing weed from the pipes of their “gins”, they accompanied the next “corobberie” I imitation of a fight, each was armed with fire brand with which they appeared to cudgel each other in admirable style while dancing to the war song.

Altho’ the many excellent hints might be taken from these dancing savages, yet I cannot but have my doubts whether this kind of dance will ever be introduced within more civilized assemblies of the “white fellow” however these “black fellows” being perfectly naked, I found there was not the slightest chance of their sitting fire to each other during these heating evolutions. The interest of the scene is really far beyond the powers of my description, the dance was continued with many variations for three or four hours; one of the corobberies was in imitation of the “white fellow” milking his cows, churning and making up pats of butter, really the most ludicrous comic exhibition. I was witness of so much of genuine humour and caricature with all whole; indeed they are excellent mimics portraying the idea itself I thought was not bad in savages who have been described as “the lowest and most degraded in the scale of humanity”!

The amusements of the evening concluded with what appeared to me to be the most singular part of this “Corobberie” the chief taking a large handful of the prepared bark of the Curryjong tree (having the appearance of course yarn), and retiring with an air of mystery, to a distance spread it out, once after placing a small live coal on it rolled it up in the shape and size of a melon, this he held in both hands leaping forward a little he placed it to his mouth and returning in haste he was immediately surrounded by the dancers, linking their arms together in as confined a circle as possible, they danced around him while singing, the Chief remaining in the centre at times bending down and turning around to the time to the song appeared to be blowing on the ball of “curryjong” then suddenly shouting he would raise it rapidly in the air over his head until a quantity of smoke escaped from it and the song became more boisterous and the dance more vehement- dancing and turning with increased rapidity- in the circle he whirled the smoke in the faces of the dancers, occasionally taking care that he had his own due share of their peculiar enjoyment by whisking it to and fro’ near his face- presently the whole party of dancers appeared in a state of intoxication continuing the quickened time of the song and the dance, and their ecstasy was at the highest pitch when the curryjong blazed forth and was thrown in the air by the Chief followed with a deafening shout from the whole tribe- The whole of this latter part of the dance if I may so term it, appeared to impress the party with an intensity of interest bordering on superstitious awe; what may be the meaning of it I could not learn; but this I know that the fumes of the bark appeared to have the effect of intoxicating them; this effect however had evanesced in a few moments and the Chief with an air of confidant superiority then advanced to us and enquired in his way, half English and half in his own mother tongue, “whether we were not highly delighted with the budgerry corobberie?”

It was late so we retired from this very amusing party, leaving the happy creatures still more happy by presenting each with a small piece of tobacco!’

‘London, 16 Dec. 1831’ ‘WM. E.R’

The article was reproduced with permission of the author, from the book “MacQuoid of Waniassa: Portrait of a Colonial Sheriff” by Rebecca Lamb, Waniassa Publications, 2006.