Australia / Current Events / Social Issues

Federal court recognizes native title for Warlpiri

Last week, PAW packed up our gear and headed to the 8-mile bore, about 35 kilometers away from Yuendumu, for a very special event: the federal court of Australia granted the Ngaliya Warlpiri people native title over Mt. Doreen station.

Native Title Session

Image © PAW Media. Reproduced with permission.

The federal court judge and other officials made the long trip from the city to convene on site at Mt. Doreen. Local Warlpiri were thrilled that the court travelled out bush to deliver the decision, instead of holding court in a formal setting far away from Warlpiri folk. Many Warlpiri camped out the night before the event at Mt. Doreen to celebrate their newly-granted entitlement to the land. To read the Federal court’s Reason for Decision, click here (pdf).

Mt. Doreen Title hearing

Image © PAW Media. Reproduced with permission.

The Mr. Doreen claim traces back to 2005, when it was filed in response to mining claims on the land. The Central Land Council then submitted new claims over the pastoral leases in 2011. Native title cases can take years to deliver a decision due to the extensive background research required to “prove” traditional indigenous connections to the land. Claimants may have to provide evidence regarding their heritage, language, connection and responsibilities to the land, their interests in the rights and water in question, and their responsibilities under traditional local customs. ANU Anthropologist Nic Peterson played a key role in preparing the Mt. Doreen claim. According to a news release,

Preparing [the Mt. Doreen] claim requires detailed mapping with GPS of all the named places on the station. Most of these are rock holes, soakages, stone arrangements and other features of the landscape that Warlpiri people believe were created by ancestral beings in the Jukurrpa or Dreamtime. It also involves compiling family trees and working out which people are the traditional owners of which countries. This is all brought together in the writing of a report that shows that the Aboriginal claimants meet the requirements of the Native Title Act. Because many of the oldest Warlpiri were born and worked on the station, the knowledge of the country and associated mythology is extremely rich. In addition the Act requires historical research to show that the ancestors of the present day claimants were living in the area at first contact.

Australian Native Title is an interesting and recent development in Australian law. Before 1992, the government did not recognize customary Aboriginal law as a legitimate claim to land ownership or management. However, the Mabo federal court case – which took ten years to decide – set the precedent to change that. Perhaps most importantly it overturned the doctrine of terra nullius established by the British empire to stake claim to an “empty” land. Then, in December 1993, Parliament passed the the Native Title Act to code into law what the Mabo decision had established: Aboriginal peoples can make claims to access and use lands based on traditional laws and customs. For a good primer on native title, click here.

With native title, Warlpiri people can now access Mt. Doreen lands for camping, hunting, or cultural purposes like ceremonies. A short briefing by CLC representatives at Mt. Doreen reminded audience members that native title does not “give back” the land to Aboriginal people. However, it does put traditional owners in a position to negotiate terms and agreements on their land. They must be informed of land management changes and proposed projects on the land. However, they can’t veto these proposed changes. Native title gives requires there must be consultation (informing traditional owners about land use change) but not consent (obtaining the full support and go-ahead from traditional owners.) Most Warlpiri at the event were thrilled to receive native title, but expressed it was not the final step in their struggle to reclaim traditional lands.

PAW Media recorded the handover, conducted interviews with claimants and their families, and photographed the happy Warlpiri mob. We hope to broadcast parts of the event on local television and radio. It was a beautiful day to be out bush and commemorate the struggles and rewards Aboriginal people continue to face in accessing their lands in Australia.

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