The land is the Coorong. The people are the Ngarrindjeri, an Australian Aboriginal nation of 18 tribes and 77 family groups, the original custodians of the lower Murray River, the western Fleurieu Peninsula and the Coorong.
Some well known Ngarrindjeri people include writer and inventor David Unaipon (1872-1967), who features on the Australian 50 dollar note; singer and songwriter Ruby Hunter (1955-2010); and cultural leader and Aboriginal rights activist Tom Trevorrow (1954-2013).
For many Indigenous people, land relates to all aspects of existence – culture, spirituality, language, law, family and identity. Rather than owning land, each person belongs to a piece of land which they’re related to through the kinship system. That person is entrusted with the knowledge and responsibility to care for their land, providing a deep sense of identity, purpose and belonging. This intimate knowledge of the land and ways of relating to it are also reflected in language, including many words and concepts that have no English equivalent. This deep relationship between people and the land is often described as ‘connection to Country’.
Sadly the arrival of European settlers had a marked impact on the local indigenous inhabitants. A small pox epidemic in the 1830’s was devastating. Funeral rites and cultural practices were disrupted, family groups merged and land use became altered. Songs from the time tell of the smallpox that came out of the Southern Cross in the east with a loud noise like a bright flash.
The Ngarrindjeri were the first South Australian Aborigines to work with the new settlers as farmers, whalers, and labourers. The cost to the nations was heavy in terms of values, kinship, traditions and identity. Over time inhabitants of traditional campsites were forced to leave, being resettled by the powers that be of the time.
Today the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority, the nation’s peak organisation cites –
Our Vision for Country
Our Lands, Our Waters, Our People, All Living Things are connected. We implore people to respect our Ruwe (Country) as it was created in the Kaldowinyeri (the Creation). We long for sparkling, clean waters, healthy land and people and all living things. We long for the Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) of our anscestors. Our vision is all people Caring, Sharing, Knowing and Respecting the lands, the waters and all living things.
Dreamtime stories and songlines tell the indigenous myths of creation. Many sites of Dreaming significance are located along the Murray River.
Ngurunderi is one of the great ancestral Dreaming ‘heroes’ of the Ngarrindjeri people. Stories about him abound, the first published version appearing in an Adelaide newspaper as early as 1842.
The following shortened version of a Ngurunderi Dreaming is one from the last initiated Ngarrindjeri men.
‘In the Dreaming, Ngurunderi travelled down the Murray River in a bark canoe, in search of his two wives who had run away from him. At that time the river was only a small stream, below the junction with the Darling River.
A giant cod fish (Ponde) swam ahead of the Ngurunderi, widening the river with sweeps of its tail. Ngurunderi chased the fish, trying to spear it from his canoe. Near Murray Bridge he threw a spear, but missed and was changed into Long Island (Lenteilin). At Tailem Bend (Tagalang) he threw another; the giant fish surged ahead and created a long straight stretch in the river.
At last, with the help of Nepele (the brother of Ngurunderi’s wives), Ponde was speared after it had left the Murray River and had swum into Lake Alexandrina. Ngurunderi divided the fish with his stone knife and created a new species of fish from each piece.
Meanwhile, Ngurunderi’s two wives (the sisters of Nepele) had made camp. On their campfire they were cooking bony bream, a fish forbidden to the Ngarrindjeri women. Ngurunderi smelt the fish cooking and knew his wives were close. He abandoned his camp, and came after them. His huts became two hills and his bark canoe became the Milky Way.
Hearing Ngurunderi coming, his wives just had time to build a raft of reeds and grass-trees and to escape across Lake Albert. On the other side their raft turned back into the reeds and grass-trees. The women hurried south.
Ngurunderi followed his wives as far south as Kingston. Here he met a great sourcerer, Parampari. The two men fought, using weapons and magic powers, until eventually Ngurunderi won. He burnt Parampari’s body in a huge fire, symbolised by granite boulders today, and turned north along the Coorong beach. Here he camped several times, digging soaks in the sand for fresh water, and fishing in the Coorong lagoon.
Ngurunderi made his way across the Murray Mouth and along the Encounter Bay coast towards Victor Harbor. He made a fishing ground at Middleton by throwing a huge tree into the sea to make a seaweed bed. Here he hunted and killed a seal; its dying gasps can still be heard among the rocks. At Port Elliot he camped and fished again, without seeing a sign of his wives. He became angry and threw his spear into the sea at Victor Habour, creating the islands there.
Finally, after resting in a giant granite shade-shelter on Granite Island (Kaike), Ngurunderi heard his wives laughing and playing in the water near King’s Beach. He hurled his club to the ground, creating the Bluff (Longkuwar), and strode after them.
His wives fled along the beach in terror until they reached Cape Jervis. At this time, Kangaroo Island was still connected to the mainland, and the two women began to hurry across to it. Ngurunderi had arrived at Cape Jervis though, and seeing his wives still fleeing from him, he called out in a voice of thunder for the waters to rise. The women were swept from their path by huge waves and were soon drowned. They became the rocky Pages Islands.
Ngurunderi knew that it was time for him to enter the spirit world. He crossed to Kangaroo Island and travelled to its western end. After first throwing his spears into the sea, he dived in, before rising to become a star in the Milky Way.’
© Raili Tanska