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Background to “Murrudha : Sovereign walks”

“Murrudha : Sovereign walks, tracking cultural actions through art, country, language and music” is an ANU Grand Challenge: Indigenous Health and Well-being Collaborative Scheme that will run from 2020 – 2026.

ANU Leadership Team:

  • Professor Brenda L Croft (College of Arts and Social Sciences/School of Art and Design/Centre for Art History and Art Theory)
  • Professor James Pittock (Fenner School of Environment and Society)

Our team involves First Nations and non-Indigenous academics, who wish to be respectfully inclusive, conducting ongoing two-way culturally truthful consultation with associated First Nations communities during the life of the project, and hopefully beyond.

A key Murrudha milestone is the centenary of the Nangar/Yangar/Jimmy Clements and George/John Noble journey from Brungle Aboriginal community across the Brindabella Range to the Limestone Plains to attend the opening of Parliament House in the recently established national capital, Canberra on 9 – 10 May, 1927.

Since the earliest days of colonial contact there are documented examples of First Nations’ peoples undertaking sovereign actions of walking their country. “Murrudha: Sovereign walks – tracking cultural actions through art, country, language and music draws inspiration from three historical events:

1834-6: Explorer John Lhotsky (1795? – 1866?) was a naturalist, born Lemberg (Lwów), Galicia (now Ukraine/Poland who travelled from Sydney through the Limestone Plains (the site selected for Canberra) up into the Snowy Alps/High County, likely following tracks established on existing ancient First Nations pathways.

In his travels in the High Country he documented ‘Song of the Women of the Menero Tribe’ in 1834, which was published in 1836 as ‘the first specimen of Australian Music’. It is now recognised as the second published Australian song including First Nations language.

The song is poignant, revealing the impact of colonisation on Meneroo/Monaro/Ngarigo/Ngarigu People over half a century of colonisation:

Kon-gi, kawel-go, yue-re, con-gi, kawel-go, yue-re Kuma gi ko-ko, kawel-go, Kuma-gi, ka-ba ko-ma, gi ko-ko, koma-gi, ko-ko, kabel-go, Komag i ka-ba, ko-ma-gi yue-re, translates as:

Unprotected race of People, Unprotected all are we, And our children shrink so fastly, Unprotected all are we

1873: Molonglo/Ngarigo/Ngarigu/Ngunnawal woman (Queen) Nellie Hamilton (c. 1842 – 1897), along with a number of her female compatriots and their children, was forced to walk from Queanbeyan to Cooma during a wintry May, after they were refused passage on the mail coach.

At least one of the group became ill and died as a result of the bitterly cold trek. Nellie was travelling to Cooma to participate in Ngarigo/Ngarigu cultural activities. During her life Nellie was quoted as saying:

Yah, yah! Your law! I no tink much of your law. You come here and take my land, kill my ‘possum, my kangaroo; leave me starve. Only gib me rotten blanket. Me take calf or sheep, you been shoot me, or put me in jail. You bring your bad sickness ‘mong us. And what is that over there (pointing to the Queanbeyan jail)? Yah, blackfellow have no jail, bail he want ‘em.’ (Gale 1927, reprint 1991: 123 – 4), elsewhere as:

“You come and take our land and kill our game and let us starve, and if we take a sheep or kill a calf you shoot us or put us in gaol. You bring your disease and give it to us — we had nothing like that until you came and stole our land — you give us rotten blanket and bad rum.” (Schumack 1967: 150)

1927: The aforementioned route undertaken by Wiradjuri Elders and acknowledged Clevermen, Jimmy Clements (Nangar/Yangar, “King Billy”) (c. 1847 – 28 August 1927) and John Noble (also known as George Noble/Marvellous) (c. 1829/1849 – March 1928).

Over a week they travelled between 130 – 150 kilometres from Brungle Aboriginal Mission across the Brindabella Range to make be present at the opening of Parliament House on 9 – 10 May.

Jimmy Clements (also known as Yangar or Nangar or ‘King Billy’) on the front steps of Parliament House, c. 10 May 1927’, A3560, 3108, National Archives of Australia,

The individual and collective journeys of Clements, Noble and Hamilton, these walking acts – and thousands of pathways that traverse this continent from every direction – are sovereign actions of self-determination.

For First Nations peoples, these acts of walking on one’s traditional Country, and/or travelling across other sovereign lands, never ceded, are deserving of national recognition. To reinvigorate these pathways supports First Nations communities’ sovereign rights, while consecutively being future journeys to be shared by First Nations and non-Indigenous people together.

In close consultation with relevant First Nations community members the Murrudha team is proposing these three tracks be placed on the National Heritage List as sites of national cultural significance.

The initial focus is on Clements and Noble’s trek from Brungle Aboriginal community to Parliament House where they collectively stood their sovereign ground, staking a claim to the site as an enduring place of protest, which continues to the present day.

Murrudha: Sovereign Walks aims to provide manifold platforms through which these significant, culturally embedded stories honouring sovereign warriors such as the Meneroo women, Hamilton, Clements and Noble can be brought to contemporary audiences – First Nations and non-Indigenous. Truthtelling takes many forms and voices – stories told are stories shared.

In the words of another sovereign warrior with deep associations to Ngambri/Ngunnawal homelands:

We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives in us.
Charles Nelson Perkins (Arrernte/Kalkatungu) (1936 – 2000)

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.