Deed of grant handed to the Yanyuwa people, covering four islands and Batten Point, at Jawuma near Borroloola, correcting omission in first land grant
After a near 40-year fight, the final 200 hectares of a contentious Aboriginal land claim has been handed back to traditional owners in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
On Tuesday the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, delivered a deed of grant to the Yanyuwa people, covering four small islands and Batten Point, at Jawuma near Borroloola.
The land rights claim – Australia’s first – was initially lodged in 1977, rejected and then reclaimed in 1992. However, when the title was finally handed over in 2006 a portion was “inadvertently omitted”.
“The land around Jawuma is of great cultural and historical significance for the Yanyuwa people of the area and I am pleased the title is now back with its rightful owners,” Scullion said.
“The handover of the land title will mean that local Yanyuwa families will once again be in a position to choose how the land is used. I applaud the Yanyuwa people for the journey they have undertaken to have their land and their culture recognised.”
A Yanyuwa woman and SBS journalist, Malarndirri McCarthy, told Guardian Australia that Wednesday’s ceremony was “incredibly significant for the conclusion of a very, very long journey for the Yanyuwa people and the surrounding clan groups”.
The 38-year battle had “really paralysed the progress of the region in terms of empowering the traditional owners”.
McCarthy, also a former Northern Territory minister, was among those who gave evidence to the land commissioner in 1992 at the second attempt to reclaim the land. The 1977 hearing had been held in the old Borroloola police station, which caused anxiety for those giving evidence.
“The difference this time was the families took ... close to 200 people out to Centre Island. We stayed there for a week and sat under tents and gave evidence, and I gave evidence to the land commissioner, Peter Gray, about the islands and how we grew up around the islands.”
In 1996 the commissioner determined to return the land to the Yanyuwa people, and in 2006 the minister, Mal Brough, held a handing-back ceremony.
“By then we had lost so many elders. So many people had died,” said McCarthy.
Missing from the 2006 deed were the areas of land returned on Tuesday, and the community continued to give evidence.
McCarthy said Tuesday’s event was “huge”.
“I really had to reflect on my own journey. I was a small child at the time of the first hearing and remember my grandparents preparing to give evidence. It just seems to have been a part of our whole lives, really.”
She said the community was not bitter at the time it had taken. “We’re just saddened that there has to always be a continuous process of explaining who we are.”
Scullion conceded opposition from successive governments and legal challenges over the years had contributed to the delay.
“People were different then. They didn’t understand that this is Aboriginal land,” he told ABC’s AM. “They didn’t want to give Aboriginal land back. They didn’t want to give pastoral rights back. They didn’t want to give sea rights back.
“They weren’t at that stage and the government was a reflection, tragically, about the people of the day.”
He said Australia was a different place today. “You know, I’m handing back land that was theirs anyway, that we took off them anyway. And I think that recognition for me is also a reflection in the wider community.
“I mean, Australia believes that what we are doing, and this is right, this is a reparation where we can.”
The government was working with the community and land council to support tourism opportunities and the Sea Ranger program, as well as accommodation and camping facilities.
“These projects will form the basis of secure positive cultural, environmental, educational and economic outcomes for future Yanyuwa generations,” he said.