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Historical overview

The claim for land has always been more than just a desire to reclaim soil. There was always the desire to be able to exercise traditional obligations to lands that Aboriginal people have a cultural and spiritual attachment with. But there has also been an understanding that land is the source of life and of sustainability.('Creating conflict: case studies in the tension between native title claims and land rights claims', Larissa Behrendt and Nicole Watson, Journal of Indigenous Policy, Issue 8, 2007, pp94-102) When Indigenous people seek to reclaim land, either through native title or land rights regimes, it is for the furtherance of the goals of self-sustainability and self-determination, as well as to reclaim land for cultural significance.

Aboriginal people had affiliations with tracts of country and had the right to hunt and feed in certain areas and to perform religious ceremonies in certain places. These custodians were also responsible for ensuring that the resources of a certain area were maintained. Boundaries of tribal areas are fixed by the stories that ancestors told. People inherited stories and songs and then become the keepers of those stories and that is how the law passed down. This is the way ancestral land was passed on to younger generations for them to care for. This knowledge created an obligation to care for the land, protect the land, respect the past, to not exploit the land’s resources, to take the responsibility of passing the country on to future generations and to maintain the religious ceremonies that needed to be performed there.

These ceremonies symbolise the attachment to the land and the commitment to protect it. Special religious significance is attached to the resting places of great ancestors and the landscape was richly symbolic. It is important to note that disputes were never over land. In this way, ancestral land became personal so one was obliged to look after it. Other people’s land had no meaning to someone who was a stranger to it. (Aboriginal Dispute Resolution, Larissa Behrendt, Federation Press, 1995)

Early advocates in the 1930s who sought citizenship rights for Aboriginal people understood that land was the key to providing Aboriginal people with the capacity to be self-sustaining and to make decisions about their lives for themselves. William Cooper was one of the most vocal advocates for Aboriginal rights, including the return of Aboriginal land, during that time. Cooper, like many of his peers, had laboured on the pastoral properties that were once the traditional lands of his family and he saw the wealth that was generated by the production on those lands. Cooper wondered why it was that white people were able to engage in activities that could provide opportunities for their families but he could not do the same. His constant petitions and letters were aimed at making the argument that if he and his peers could be given the same opportunity to work the land, they would break away from the position of being reliant on the state and welfare dependent. (See Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League, Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, 2004)

In 1963, provoked by a unilateral government decision to excise a part of their land for a bauxite mine, the Yolngu people at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land sent a petition written on bark to the House of Representatives demanding that their land rights be respected.

In August 1966, Gurindji people went on strike demanding wages and a return of some of their traditional lands. Two hundred Aboriginal workers and their families walked off Wave Hill Station as a protest of their poor pay and conditions. For over nine years, the strike brought the issue of dispossession and land rights into the public consciousness. While this was not the first or the only demand by Aborigines for the return of their lands, it attracted widespread recognition and enjoyed wide public support. In 1975, the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed leasehold title to 3238 square kilometres of Wave Hill Station back to the Gurindji people.

Throughout the period of the Gurindji strike, there were movements around the country that heightened the awareness of Australians to the socio-economic position of Aboriginal people and of their political aspirations. For example, in 1965 Aboriginal people, including Charles Perkins, led a group of supporters on a ‘freedom ride’ through western New South Wales protesting discrimination against Aboriginal people.

When the 1967 referendum failed to significantly change the lives of Aboriginal people, especially on missions and reserves, the fight for land rights intensified.

On 26 January 1971, Aboriginal activists and their supporters set up the Tent Embassy on the lawns of Federal Parliament House. They called for national land rights and an end to discrimination. In the same year, the Yolngu peoples’ fight for land rights led to a Federal Court case, the Gove Land Rights case, where Justice Blackburn found that Yolngu could not prevent mining on their lands because Australia had adopted the legal fiction of terra nullius.