'A long time coming': Federal Court recognises native title
"I NOW recognise that traditional ownership. In doing so, I bind all people for all time."
With these words Justice John Dowsett today vindicated a 20-year native title struggle on the part of our region's indigenous people.
Members of the Byellee, Gurang, Gooreng Gooreng and Taribelang Bunda people had been granted official recognition of their connection with and ownership of more than 420,000ha of land and water across the Gladstone, Bundaberg and North Burnett regions.
A gradual rush of applause, accompanied by the sound of clapsticks, broke out in the hundreds-strong crowd at the Gladstone Entertainment Convention Centre as the special hearing of the Federal Court came to a close.
Tears and hugs followed the decision, with elders and young people alike embracing each other and saying "it's finally done" and "we got there in the end".
During the hour-long hearing, the court heard how European settlement had devastated the local indigenous population - and how those families displaced by settlers and pastoralists had nevertheless managed to maintain a physical and spiritual connection with the land in question.
As one of the original applicants on the Byellee people's original native title claim, Byellee elder Thelma Coleman made sure she was present at the hearing.
Mrs Coleman said the decision had been "a long time coming", but she was "quite elated" the day had finally arrived.
"It's been a long, tedious journey," she said.
"It's been very emotional. It's great to be recognised for where you come from.
"My aunty came out today, and she's old so it was good to see here there, to see the fruits of her telling our stories.
"It's been long, hard, and we've all seen a few fisticuffs along the way."
The Federal Court's decision recognises the right of the Gooreng Gooreng, Byellee, Gurang and Taribelang Bunda peoples to access, hunt, fish and gather, conduct ceremonies on, teach on, and be buried within the native title claim area.
The area itself extends from south of Bundaberg up to Raglan Creek in the north, and from Monto in the west to the eastern coastline and out to sea.
With the claim area right on the doorstep of the cities of Gladstone and Bundaberg, the successful native title outcome is a rare occurrence within the native title sector nationally, according to Queensland South Native Title Services chief executive Kevin Smith.
"This process has caused widespread extinguishment of native title in urban development areas like the Gladstone and Bundaberg regions, but this court determination today recognises the traditional owners' unbroken continuity of connection to their traditional lands and waters in an ever changing landscape," Mr Smith said.
"The very existence of towns and cities is proof of the 200-year colonisation process that has impacted the lives of traditional owners who have lived on and cared for their country since time immemorial."
The decision means new legal rights will be afforded to a prescribed body corporate which was set up this year on behalf of the region's indigenous people.
However, Justice Dowsett was careful to make clear he was not "giving anything" to the members of the four indigenous groups.
"Rather, I have come to recognise on behalf of all Australians that they are the traditional owners of this land, pursuant to traditional laws and customs, which have their roots in ancient times," Justice Dowsett said.
Speaking to The Observer at the Gladstone Marina Parklands during the celebrations which followed the decision, prescribed body corporate chairman Matthew Cooke agreed with Justice Dowsett's statement.
"We've always known who we are and where we come from, and we don't need a court or the Australian government to tell us that," he said.
"But certainly in the society we live in, we've had the courts give that to us.
"It certainly has been a very emotional day in the sense that it represents a more than 20-year struggle and journey of our people to be able to have that determination handed to them.
"Along that journey we've lost many elders and many people that were there in the beginning, but importantly today we have some of them here with us."
The court's decision was welcomed by political leaders including Mines and Natural Resources Minister Anthony Lynham, Gladstone MP Glenn Butcher and Gladstone Region Mayor Matt Burnett.
Cr Burnett was seated in the front row during the hearing along with many of the successful applicants.
"I could feel that it was a historic moment," Cr Burnett said.
"These are a lot of my friends, and some aunties and uncles as well - that's what we call them because we grew up here and our families have been friends for a long time.
"To see them finally now recognised is amazing.
"It was about acknowledging what we already knew."
WHAT THE DECISION MEANS |
The Federal Courts decision means members of the Byellee, Gurang, Gooreng Gooreng and Taribelang Bunda people will have non-exclusive rights to:
- Access and travel across the land
- Camp and build temporary shelters on the land
- Hunt, fish and gather on the land and water
- Take and share natural resources from the land and water
- Participate in cultural activities in the area
- Maintain places of importance to traditional laws and customs, and to protect those places from harm
- Teach on the physical and spiritual attributes of the area
- Light fires in the area for cooking, but not hunting or land clearing
- Be buried and bury native title holders within the area