After spearing the giant fish, Ngurunderi made his camp by the lake, waiting for a sign of his wives....

Families, Clans & Land | Shelter & Clothing | Preparing Food | Initiation | Games & Play | Wood Carving | Basketry

Rules and customs linked Ngarrindjeri families to the land and to each other. The marriage rules were among the most important of these.

Clans and Marriage
Every Ngarrindjeri person belonged to his or her father's clan and had links to five other "clans" or groups of families.
Marriage provided widespread connections in Ngarrindjeri society. This was because people could only marry outside the six clans with which they had links. Marriages were regarded as exchanges of women between clans. Women were given by their brothers to men of other clans who were seeking wives. In return their brothers often received wives.


Summer camp

A Ngarrindjeri family's summer camp on the shore of Lake Albert.
Artist : GF Angas, 1844 (AA8)

Camps were usually based around a number of related men, other relatives and visitors. People sometimes lived in large camps made up of many families, for periods of six months or more. Ceremonies, hunting and gathering expeditions, funerals and trade meetings were some of the reasons for large camps.

Ngarrindjeri men were permitted to marry only after initiation. Their brides were usually younger - girls who had reached puberty. For the girls marriage meant home and living with the husband's family.
The marriage ceremony took place over several days. The relatives of both parties met in the husband's clan land. The two families camped a short distance apart and at nightfall the bride was escorted by some of her male relatives to the husband's camp. They carried firesticks with them. The couple sat up all night in the company of the male relatives and at daybreak the bride returned to her family's camp. That night she was taken to her husband's camp to stay.

By the 1880's Christian marriages had become the norm in the Ngarrindjeri community.

Ngarrindjeri clan territories

Ngarrindjeri clan territories linked with Albert Karloan (Born 1860, Died 1941). Each clan had rights to a specific piece of land. Albert Karloan's clan was the Manangki, and he had links through kinship with the five other clans shown here. (After RM Berndt 1987, NB Tindale, 1974).

bantam feather plume

A bantam feather plume worn on the forehead by young men when seeking a wife.
Collected in the 1840's, south of Adelaide (A68293).

The Ngarrindjeri built different shelters to suit the changes in the the seasons. They also wore a variety of clothing to protect them against the cold.


LEFT : A Ngarrindjeri hut under construction at Point McLeay in about 1906. The framework is of traditional design - a series of branches bent to form a beehive shape. In pre-European times the covering would have been of vegetation like reeds or bulrushes, perhaps coated with mud.
RIGHT : To cover this hut, blankets and hessian have been used. Photographer : W Ramsay-Smith, about 1906 (AA263).

A large Ngarrindjeri hut on the shores of Lake Alexandrina in about 1880. The hut is a solid construction, with a timber frame and a windbreak extension. Fishing nets and spears can be seen, together with European billies and pannikins.
Photographer: S Sweet (AA492).


Nahraminyeri–a Ngarrindjeri woman from Point McLeay, photographed in about 1880. She is wearing a possum-skin cloak, with a pouch for her child. Photographer : unknown (AA319).
The sedge mats of the Ngarrindjeri were also used as cloaks. Bark fibre used with the sedge made the cloak softer and more pliable. Artist : GF Angas, 1844 (AA8)
The Ramindjeri people at Encounter Bay wore clothing made from the seagrass found on local beaches. This was woven together to form a durable garment. No known examples of these cloaks have survived intact. Artist : GF Angas, 1844 (AA8)

The women prepared and cooked most of the food. They used earth ovens, cooked smaller animals in the hot coals and dried food for later use.

Hut diorama

This scene shows a large Ngarrindjeri hut on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, near Raukkan. Women have been cooking and preparing food here, using an earth oven and an open fire. Food is also being dried for later use. Museum diorama.

Limestone dish

Drying food
The Ngarrindjeri dried plant foods like the muntharri (wild apples), which fruit profusely along the Coorong during the summer months. This limestone dish, a modified natural formation, was used as a container for crushing the muntharri at Kilaira in the south east of South Australia in about 1860. The crushed mixture was then made into large dried cakes which could be stored for months. The Ngarrindjeri traded these cakes for other items from as far away as Victoria. Donor : Mrs WF Tapfield, 1933 (A20314).

This winnower, made from sedge by a Ngarrindjeri woman at Kingston, was used to separate the leaves and stems from the muntharri berries before they were crushed and made into cakes. Collector : NB Tindale, 1933 (A21141).
Cooking on the coals
These wooden implements, excavated at Kongerati Cave, south of Adelaide, were probably used as fire tongs to remove food from hot coals. All sorts of food was cooked on the coals—cockles and other shellfish, fish, small and large animals. Collectors : NB Tindale and CP Mountford (A26742).



Initiation ceremonies marked the transition from childhood to adult life among the Ngarrindjeri people.
Female initiations took place at the onset of a young girl’s puberty and involved a short time of segregation and teaching. Male initiations often involved boys from several neighbouring clans, lasted for several months, and had life-long social implications.
Unlike those of inland Australia, neither male nor female initiation ceremonies were secret.

From boys to men
As in the rest of Aboriginal Australia, initiation was a physical and mental ordeal for young men, often lasting several months. It involved a period of hardship and endurance in which the novice was set apart from other people and was taught laws and ritual knowledge by the elders. During this time he was sacred or narumbe—in a state of symbolic death. He avoided contact with women or children and could eat certain foods only.
When this period of isolation was over, the initiation ceremony took place. In it, the boy was "reborn" into the social and religious world of adult life. He now had access to higher ceremonial knowledge and took full responsibility for his actions.

A Ngarrindjeri novice near the Coorong in 1845. His body is covered with red ochre, a symbol of sacredness and new life.
Initiation ceremonies ceased during the 1860’s and 1870’s, the main period of missionary activity. The last initiated men, Clarence Long and Albert Karloan, died in the 1940’s, and the last initiated woman, Margaret Mack, died during the 1950’s. Artist : GF Angas, 1844, (AA8).


This girl has been tattooed on the chest, probably as part of her initiation as a woman. The pubic apron also indicates her new status. Artist : GF Angas, 1844, (AA8).
A bunch of feathers, Kalduke, worn as an ornament by young initiated men. It was coated with red ochre and fastened to the back of the head by a string of spun human hair. Artist : GF Angas, 1844, (AA8). Ornaments of bones and animal teeth worn in the hair by initiated youths to indicate their status. Artist : GF Angas, 1844, (AA8).

The Ngarrindjeri had many different games and amusements. After the day’s work of hunting and gathering food they generally had more time for social activity than most workers in other cultures.

The corroboree
Apart from their religious ceremonies, Ngarrindjeri people often held performances of dance and song for mixed audiences. These performances were known as "corroborees" to European colonists. The performers usually acted out part of a myth or a story based on recent events, against a rhythmic background of song and music.

The Ngarrindjeri used returning boomerangs in games as well as for hunting birds. The smaller of these two boomerangs was made for a Ngarrindjeri boy. Both were collected at Point McLeay, probably during the 1860’s. Large boomerang : Collector : G Taplin (A5281). Small boomerang : Collector : Probably G Taplin (A2863). Play-sticks from Lake Alexandrina and the south-east of South Australia. Players took turns to throw the sticks along a cleared ground, aiming for the longest distance or at a target. European colonists called this the "kangaroo-rat" game, after the bouncing motion of the stick and its "tail". Shorter stick : Collector :probably G Taplin (A9488). Longer stick : Collector : AA Styles (A2971). Peter Campbell and his grandson Tarapa, performing in a Ngarrindjeri corroboree at Goolwa, about 1907. Photographer : Unknown (AP3889).
Ngarrindjeri children were quick to learn European schoolyard games, like marbles and skipping.
Cricket and football both became popular sports after their introduction in the 1860’s. Some of the State’s finest footballers today are of Ngarrindjeri descent.
Playing cricket at Victor Harbor, about 1890. Photographer : Unknown (AA670).

This rare image of an Aboriginal wrestling match was recorded from the Murray River region during the 1850’s. Artist : G Murtz, Provenance unknown

The Palti dance, recorded by George French Angas in 1844. This was typical of Ngarrindjeri ceremonial dances which Europeans saw in the first years of settlement. The women on the left are beating time on drums made of possum skins. Artist : GF Angas, 1844 (AA8).
A string game or "cat’s cradle" made of hair string. It represents a fishing net. These games were often used in story-telling by adults as well as by children. Collector : NB Tindale, (A66733).


Using bone, shell and stone tools the Ngarrindjeri decorated the surfaces of carved shields, clubs and spearthrowers with a range of designs.

Materials and Techniques
Carvers preferred the hardwood of sheoaks or eucalypts. The rough shape of the artefact was cut with a stone chopper or axe. Shell or stone scrapers smoothed the surfaces before the designs were carved with bone points or sharpened animal teeth.

The designs
The main designs used were zig-zags, diamond shapes and cross-hatching. Other shapes, like arcs, human figures or plant forms also appear on carved artefacts.
We know very little about the meaning of these designs. They may have served to beautify the object and to make it more powerful in the eyes of its owner. They probably also symbolised the links between the makers, their totems and clan territories.

Details of Ngarrindjeri club handles, carved in concentric rings.
The criss-cross incisions on the shafts provided a better grip.

Carved clubs and spearthrowers of the Ngarrindjeri.
Left to right : (A5724, A 4015, A39418, A15355, A5768).
Collectors : T Hepp, A Marval, Scrymgour, LN Birks, G Taplin.

Details of Ngarrindjeri carved spearthrowers and shields.


The Ngarrindjeri made a range of basketry objects from the sedges growing along Murray River, Coorong and Lakes. This tradition survives today in the Ngarrindjeri community.

Two Ngarrindjeri women laden with baskets and mats for sale in about 1915.
The woman on the right is Louisa Karpany.
Basketry was encouraged by mission and government authorities as a useful activity, from late last century. This, and the market for baskets and mats, has helped the craft survive until today. Photographer : Unknown, M Angas Collection.
Ngarrindjeri women collecting sedges near Point Mcleay , 1982. Sedges are collected during the warmer months, the roots and heads are removed and they are dried in the sun.
Photographer : S Hemming (AA650).

The dried sedges are moistened with water to make them pliable. The coiled bundles of sedges are bound together by a simple loop knot, repeated at regular intervals.

A "sister" basket, made of two identical halves, by Ethel Watson in 1939. The redder sedges grow in the Kingston area. Collector : NB Tindale (A15951).

A detail of a large Ngarrindjeri mat, showing a variation in style. Collector : Probably G Taplin (A6336).

Dorothy Kartinyeri made this shopping basket at Point McLeay in 1982. She taught the younger generation the basketry skills, helping to ensure the survival of the tradition. (A67865).