The voices of Guringay Traditional Owners are finally beginning to be heard as local councils, government departments and even the City of Sydney acknowledge the incorrect labelling of ‘Ku-ring-gai/Guringai’ Country as land from Sydney to the Northern Beaches.
Guringay Country, in northern New South Wales, encompasses an area from Newcastle up to Barrington Tops and from Singleton out to Port Stephens.
A saltwater people, Guringay land is north of the Hunter River and follows down along the Manning River to the ocean.
This is at direct odds with what’s commonly referred to as ‘Ku-ring-gai/Guringai’ Country in northern Sydney.
With the popular Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park occupying the area, this land has been widely accepted for decades as ‘Ku-ring-gai/Guringai’ Country
Although the existence of Guringay Country in northern NSW was documented as early as the 1820s and has been well-documented since then, the work of anthropologist John Fraser in the late 1800s is what mainstream NSW has latched onto and accepted as fact.
Known at the time for plagiarising his work, in 1892 Mr Fraser coined the phrase ‘Ku-ring-gai’ to refer to Traditional Owners living from Port Macquarie to Hawkesbury River.
Despite learning of Guringay Traditional Owners in the Dugong area ten years prior, Mr Fraser chose to assign ‘Ku-ring-gai’ to Country with no recorded name, seemingly out of convenience, after ‘ten years’ thought and inquiry’ as noted in research by local historians, George Champion OAM and Shelagh Champion OAM.
Traditional Owners across NSW have been trying to rectify the widely accepted mistake since by contacting local councils and raising the issue wherever possible.
Registered Aboriginal Owner of Worimi Lands, Port Stephens Guringay language group, Bob Syron, said early white historians accepted the name ‘Ku-ring-gai’ at face value because the word was widely liked.
“They decided that the word ‘Ku-ring-gai’ was a very nice sounding word that [they] should use for Ku-ring-gai Chase [around 1896].”
“The Guringay had been recorded way back in the 1820s when the first white settlers went to Port Stephens.”
“[But] John Fraser took bits and pieces from all those [previous records] … and said that the ‘Ku-ring-gai’ … from Port Macquarie down to the Hawkesbury River … all spoke the same language, which is absolutely incorrect.”
As ‘Ku-ring-gai’ increased in popularity and the national park was named Ku-ring-gai Chase, the phrase quickly became interchangeable with Guringai.
With family history traced back for over a century first recorded by white settlers in 1826, Mr Syron said evidence of Guringay being of the Port Stephens area is overwhelming.
A direct descendant of the Kabook and Watoo people (the Cook Family), Mr Syron’s grandmother was the granddaughter of Guringay Traditional Owners Jessie Cook and Jack Mulingat (‘Lightning’) Cook (pictured back row left and back row far right above).
Mr Syron said the Guringay, Biripi and Worimi are descendants from the Kattang/Gathang language-speaking people.
“Most Elders in the Aboriginal community on the mid-north coast from Newcastle up to Taree and Forster will tell you that the Guringay are only known to be from those areas. We are the only Guringay people.
“Both words, Guringai and Ku-ring-gai … are words that were made up.”
Mr Syron said many Aboriginal Land Councils, particularly Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council have been urging local councils to recognise and rectify the mistake for over a decade.
“[Some] local politicians are refusing to accept the reports and information that’s being sent through,” Mr Syron said.
The proud Guringay man also said Director of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Deon Van Rensburg, has been instrumental in beginning the removal of signage and references to the ‘Ku-ring-gai/Guringai’ group in the northern Sydney area.
“[Mr Van Rensburg] said that they are now removing all references to the Guringai – signage, journals, website content, anything that refers to that area as being Guringai. It will take time, but it’s slowly being done now.”
“Sydney city council’s Barani [Aboriginal history] website have [also] now removed all references to the Guringai from their website.”
“The majority of councils are listening, but there’s only a few who still aren’t playing the game.
“I’ve sent every councillor, every mayor on the mid-north coast emails regarding who we [the Guringay people] are.”
Mr Syron also said a group of principals from 20 northern schools have also attended workshops and been re-educated that those areas are not Guringay
Although some are starting to take notice and remove references to ‘Ku-ring-gai’ Country, the misuse and labelling of Guringay and ‘Ku-ring-gai’ have had serious implications for Indigenous identity and Native Title.
Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council was forced to extinguish some of their Native Title determination area as they were worried their land would be contested.
“It caused a lot of damage throughout the whole Indigenous community,” Mr Syron said.
Mr Syron is hopeful more councils and government departments will start to take notice of and rectify the historical mistake.
By Hannah Cross