Ngambri/Ngunnawal Traditional Custodians DR AUNTY MATILDA HOUSE and her son, PAUL GIRRAWAH HOUSE, will undertake the traditional practice of tree scarring –where the bark of a eucalypt is carved or removed to create cultural objects such as shields and coolamons –in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden for Ceremony. Here, Paul describes the custodial bond to the scar tree and their work Mulanggari yur-wang (alive and strong)
Nginha (this) article is dedicated to our Ngambri-Kamberri (Walgalu), Wallabalooa-Pajong (Ngunnawal) and Wiradjuri Ancestors (maradhal mayhyiny), particularly those matriarchal and patriarchal leaders who fought hard to hold on and maintain connection, cultural practices, kinship responsibilities, law and customary responsibilities to Country, pre- and post-contact invasion of the region.
Ngadhi yindyamali Biami, mudygali, buyaa, ngiyang, mayiny-gu ngurambang-gu (my respects to Biami, the great spirit, Mudygali, holy ghost, law, language, people and Country). Ngadhi yindyamali budyan yibay mullein, yuukembruuk, waagan (my respects to our key totems Eaglehawk and Crow).
Yuwin-dhu Paul House (girrawah), Ngadhu marradhal marray-birang-gu gundyigang Ngambri ngurambang-gu (my name is Paul House girrawah, I was born on Ngambri Country at the old Kamberri/Canberra hospital).
Ngadhi ngama Dr Matilda House-Williams marradhal Erambie-Galari-Guwura. My mother, Dr Matilda House-Williams, was born and raised on Erambie-Cowra Aboriginal mission, Hollywood Aboriginal Reserve at Yass and Ngambri-Kamberri Country and has multiple Wiradjuri, Walgalu and Wallabalooa ancestries. My great-great-grandfather was Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams, who was born in Namadgi (Ngama-dyi) circa 1837. Henry was the tribal son of Ngambri-Kamberri Leader and Warrior Onyong, aka Jindoomung, who was given a traditional burial at Tharwa, overlooking the Murrumbidgee River, in 1852.
Scarred trees have always been an important part of my life. I was shown by my mother and family members a number of significant ‘old people’ trees across Kamberri/Canberra, including canoes, coolamons, shields, possum holes, and pathway, medicinal, marker and resources trees. Our family relationship with local native trees is personal and ongoing, and has always been respectful. Yindyamarra bala walam-wunga-dhabu, Murru madhan-dha-bu, Bunma-yu marradhal gurrugambirra Ngambri-Walgalu, Wiradjuri, Pajong-Wallabalooa - Ngunnawal ngurambang-gu dhaura. Yindyamarra is in the grinding stones, and it is carved in the trees, made long ago, all over Ngambri-Walgalu, Wiradjuri, Pajong-Wallabalooa-Ngunnawal Country.
Growing up on Country, I developed a custodial relationship and bond with many scarred trees around the Kamberri/Canberra landscape including Wanniassa/Tuggeranong, Australian National University, Coolamon, Goorooyarroo and Corroboree Park. Trees are important to our people and our way of life. All trees are our relatives and must be respected and protected. The trees nurture and provide homes for our budyans (birds) and safeguard our totems.
The spirit of our Ancestors and old people is in the trees. Trees help anchor our identity and belonging to Country – they hold knowledge, nurture and maintain the wellbeing of our people, plants and animals. Trees help maintain lore and custom. The old growth trees in the Parliamentary Triangle help keep the peace. They are our physical and spiritual guardians. They tell us how to be on Country. It’s a story that is part of truth-telling.
The contemporary marking of trees on Country and in the Parliamentary Triangle, which includes the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, is about many things, including the ‘right of might’ approach – a right for our Ancestors and families to be acknowledged, respected and honoured.
The modern Parliamentary Triangle precinct – with Parliament House symbolically at the apex and encompassing the National Library of Australia, the High Court of Australia and the National Gallery at the base of the triangle – is based on a Eurocentric fixed boundary concept. The old trees in the precinct and surrounding Ngambri footprint are located and anchored in and by a First Nations layered territoriality: like the trees, we don’t change, rather we transform. The Ngambri never died out upon European invasion; our people survived, some have gone within. Like the old strong trees on Country, the Ngambri have survived and continue to speak for Country.
Many of our people are now within, and their spirit is all around us. The Parliamentary Triangle is surrounded by their spirit in the land and old trees. The trees want justice for our old people. The trees speak and understand the law of the land. The trees are the voice of Mother Earth. They speak the language of respect and justice for our people, they speak the language of Mudyigali and Biami, our protectors and creators. They are the voice and identity of the Ngambri.
In 1972, as a young boy, I was taken to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy by my mother. My mother spoke to me about fighting for Ancestral Country and justice for our old people. I remember the temporary relocation of the Tent Embassy to the top of Kurrajong (now Capital) Hill in the late 1970s. I explored and played on parts of the hill, where I once came across a family of ngurrumirrgang (blue-tongue lizards). The hill is a male site and provides sacred warrugang (red), warradagang-ngurrumirrgang-dhuray (yellow and purple) ochres.
Our people and values were never considered prior to or during the construction of the new Parliament House. Ngambri law was broken. Parliament House was built on broken law. White men and women (politicians and bureaucrats) become sick on Kurrajong. Because law has been broken, the Parliamentary precinct and process is filled with unnecessary sickness. The old growth trees and markings of trees will help heal and repair the sickness of government on our Country and place. The trees speak the language of the budyans and people. Trees look, listen and understand.
The contemporary marking of trees in the Parliamentary Triangle is about the reclaiming of Ngambri Country, identity and provenance. It’s about honouring the old people. The trees have been part of the Ngambri judicial, political and executive decision-making process long before Kamberri/Canberra was declared the capital in 1913 and Old Parliament House was completed in 1927. Our old Ngambri people were labourers and workers on Old Parliament House and the east wing building; they lived and camped on Kurrajong and Russell hills. The marking of trees standing strong on Country puts the Australian government on notice about speaking the truth, a reminder and prompt to respect everything living and growing. People, land, plants, animals, mountains, rivers and skies are all connected both physically and spiritually.
If law is broken, then Biami seeks justice and destroys. We have an unwritten contract with Biami, our creator and protector, to uphold the law. It’s an inclusive contract based on mutual respect, giving honour and respect to all people and parts of the country. Our Ngambri signature is in the land, not just our DNA. The historical truths about Ngambri are located within the Parliamentary Triangle. Places like the National Library hold these stories as reflected in the ethnohistorical records. The High Court must respect the law of the nation and help protect our people and Country. The trees in the Parliamentary Triangle help tell some of the Ngambri story. The law of the land is reflected in the trees.
The Parliamentary Triangle can be viewed as a revolving door of government process and procedures where people make decisions without looking, listening and learning from our people.
- Dr Aunty Matilda House and Paul Girrawah House’s tree scarring Mulanggari yur-wang (alive and strong), will be permanently featured in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden.
"The roots of the old trees anchor me to Country and Mother Earth. My mother anchors me to family and Country. My mother is scarred like the land and old people trees. She stands strong, she is silent, she listens, she speaks, she nurtures, she shares the good nutrients. She is now healed, she is here now, I am with her, she will transform and go within, back to the old people, I remember, I respect and I love forever.”