Filling a Void: history of word ‘Guringai’
A review of the historical context for the use of the word ‘Guringai’
The Aboriginal Heritage Office receives many queries on Aboriginal words, place names, languages, and clan groups both from Councils and the general public. The number of queries is increasing perhaps at least in part because some intending to give Acknowledgement of Country want to know which clan or group they should use. It is believed that it also reflects an increase in interest in the Aboriginal heritage and culture of the district. Such queries are always problematic because the inquirer usually expects a concrete definitive answer.
To date the AHO has relied mainly on the extensive review of Aboriginal Sydney by Dr Val Attenbrow (see our Reading List) who compiled from archival sources what was recorded of the Aboriginal clans including the various names, spellings and geographical locations. The AHO realised there were issues with some of the names being used, also raised by Dr Attenbrow, and attempted to inform the inquirers of this uncertainty. The AHO decided it was time to review the current understanding to provide a more informed response for the future.
This report focuses on the origin, validity and use of ‘Guringai’ but refers to the broader issue of names of languages and clans in the Sydney area. Much of the published discussion to date has centred on the nature of the ‘Sydney language’ and its relationships with the neighbouring languages – ‘Dharug’, ‘Dharawal’, ‘Awabakal’. This previous published discussion centred on the land between Botany Bay and Port Jackson.
Unraveling the actual historical trail is not easy and has been confused with different researchers providing new terms and differing interpretations. For example, one authority was scathing of the work in which the term ‘Kuring-gai’ first appears:
Depending in part, as he [Fraser] says, on “ten years thought” rather than data from aboriginal sources, his work is most unsatisfactory and unquestionably the most inaccurate and garbled account ever published about the aborigines. This regional term appears not to have been listed by any other writer on tribes. The balance of Daingatti to the south, plus twelve other tribal territories extending as far as the northern half of Gandangara country were lumped as the “Kuring-gai.” (Tindale 1974: 127-128)
In this report we are focused on the area to the north of Port Jackson where the AHO has responsibilities to most of its partnering councils.
Some of the report’s findings are below:
In terms of northern Sydney, it seems clear from the available evidence that the early Europeans did not record a discrete and widely understood name for the language or tribe of the area nor for other parts of the region. The first use of the word ‘Guringai’ is over a hundred years after the arrival of the First Fleet. Kuringgai was a term created by Fraser in 1892 to define a super-tribe that he claimed stretched from the Macleay River to south of Sydney. This ‘Kuringgai’ actually encompassed a number of subordinate groups – smaller, more appropriate divisions of the Aboriginal clan structure and language, including the Gringai (Guringay) tribe in the Hunter River area. Fraser’s initial definition [of the super-tribe] was rejected by later researchers such as Tindale (1974) …
It is unfortunate that the term Guringai has become widely known in northern Sydney and it is understandable that people wish to use it as it is convenient to have a single word to cover the language, tribe/nation, identity and culture of a region. However, it is based on a nineteenth century fiction and the AHO would argue that the use of the term Guringai or any of its various spellings such as Kuringgai is not warranted given its origin and previous use. It is not authentic to the area, it was coined by a non-Aboriginal person and it gives a misleading impression of the connectivity of some original clan boundaries. It is part of the story of this place that there is no certainty over tribal names, language groups or dreaming stories … part of the history of Australia is that Aboriginal people died in the first conflicts between the new and the old, survivors were discouraged or forced to stop speaking their language, practising ceremony and passing on culture to their children, and traditional knowledge was hugely affected. In the absence of a convenient single term for the whole of northern Sydney, the AHO would recommend the use of clan names for local areas, with the understanding that these too have their limitations and problems, and the acceptance of the truth of the lack of certainty as a feature of how Aboriginal history and heritage is portrayed here” (p.40-41).
More about the Gringay people’s work to reclaim their name.
Read about the Gringay by two traditional owners in Yarnupings Nov 2019.