Traditional Owner Comments

photo of pete murrayAn interview with Peter Murray
Member of the Ngurrara, The Great Sandy Desert

My name is Peter Murray and I come from Ngurrara, the Great Sandy Desert. Our PBC is Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation in Fitzroy Crossing. Mainly managing the Great Sandy Desert area. Our country is all native title claimed land within the Great Sandy Desert. Sand dunes, water holes, rock holes and a few creeks are the main source out there. It’s all desert lands.

Native Title

I was involved in native title at a very young age with my fathers and mothers out on country making negotiations to get our land back and to claim it. It really taught me a lot of things. At the same time I was learning my culture and the mainstream of negotiation. We all live in two worlds. A cultural world and a mainstream world of Australia and we’re trying to balance those two methods while trying to get along with life. It’s been a hard road learning about land management and native title. It’s been a long road and hard road for a lot of people fighting out there to get their land back.

The determination

That was marked down as one of the most special days on the calendar to really celebrate land and for any native title group who gets their land back through native title. It’s one of the biggest celebrations any group would even have on country; getting their country back and being able to celebrate with traditional owners, your elders and your younger generations there. It’s real good.

Now that we’ve started our PBC

Before you start a business you need to lay your foundation and by laying your foundation is the governance that we practice with making those good governance decisions at ground level. Then start putting in your all your structures, putting in your form work, like building a house. We’re now at that stage where we’re building that house. We want to branch out and start looking at business opportunities where we take on a lot of those contracts within the land management of the Ranger Project, negotiations with mining companies and still branch out to other businesses within Ngurrara native title lands and all the other stakeholders involved. So we’re channelling it through the PBCs to create more employment opportunities for our members.

National Native Title Conference 2014

Networking is one of the biggest things these days. Opportunities in having that network and looking at other groups around Australia that are having a similar struggle as we did and those who have done well economically . We can measure ourselves to try and reach those same aspirational goals where everyone else is trying to reach.

Its AIATSIS’s 50 birthday this year, do you want to say anything?

Happy birthday AIATSIS. It’s been a privilege coming to these events and let’s celebrate it together.

tony perkinsAnthony ‘Tony’ Perkins
Member of the Garby Elders of Corindi Beach NSW

The National Native Title Conference 2014 was held in Coffs Harbour on the traditional lands of the Gumbaynggir people. On 24 December 2013, the New South Wales Land and Environment Court handed down the long awaited decision, regarding the area known as Red Rock Beach, ruling in favour of the Coffs Harbour and District Local Aboriginal Council. The original claim was filed in 1993 and covers areas significant to the Gumbaynggir peoples, including beach and surrounding areas between the townships of Red Rock and Corindi (approximately 3.7km of beach and foredune). This decision could prove significant for future land claims on land deemed essential for public purpose.

My name is Anthony Perkins. Anthony Clarence Perkins, but they call me Tony. Clarence, that’s sort of given me what I call a homeland name for the Clarence River, and that’s my grandfather’s first name, Clarence, so that’s why I got that name Anthony Clarence Perkins. I was born in Grafton, but back when I was born, we weren’t allowed to be born in a hospital. We could go onto the front veranda of the hospital, but you had to be born outside, you couldn’t be born inside the hospital, and that caused some problem later, where back in the time you didn’t have birth certificates and things to show people.

And when I go through my time as a kid we started off in a bark hut, same as everybody else, dirt floor, bark hut, and no fridge, nothing. We used to have a fire going all the time out the front of the camp, and when you got wallaby or fish, anything like that, you’d tie it above the smoke, and you would smoke it for a couple of days, and when you wanted something to eat you’d just cut some off and leave it hanging over the fire, and it kept it good all the time. That’s how we used to live, like that. But then we moved on and we made a tin hut, we used to go to the tips and get the tin to make a tin hut. Then we moved on and we had the wooden huts, built them out of wood. We were connected to a lot of people, people up further by Yugal, those places, and then asbestos mining was going on up there. So we used to get the sheets of fibro and bring it back, and we made a fibro hut then. Then we moved on from that and we built a brick house. So all the way through, we started from way back here, travelling with the new ways coming up. And it was 1970 before I first saw power, never knew what power was in my time. And that’s sort of how we started off.

I have come through life as a Gumbaynggirr, the Gumbaynggirr tribe, language speaking group. I was 14 when I got out of school. And I went to Sydney. I came back home onto my own land here. I was 27 when I came back. So I had been gone for a fair while. In my mind I kept on thinking “I’ve got to go home, because my people are still suffering.” I knew that. Back in the time every Aboriginal organisation that was set up was what was called a Housing Cooperative. And I used to wonder “Why are we just Housing Cooperatives?” When I came back, one of the first things I did was to sit and write down all these rules and things to register a corporation that would cover employment, education, training, housing, everything, and registered that, because I couldn’t understand why we were just worried about housing. I actually established then what’s called the Yarrawarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre. In 1982 myself and a couple of others that are deceased now, established the first Aboriginal Land Council in Coffs Harbour (Coffs Harbour and District Local Aboriginal Land Council) under the Aboriginal Lands Right Act 1983 (NSW) that came out. Then in the year 2000, I knew my old people had to be given better, and I established the Jagan Aged Care company. And that company is going to put respite centres in for our old people, to look after our old people. Because we took a lot away from them. We took all the knowledge from them, we took all the cultural information from them, but we forgot to give something back, and they need respite, they need somewhere to lie down, be looked after. And that’s my journey now.

Native Title

Native title to me is not getting back, but giving back, giving back land that we can’t survive without. Because we can’t teach our children, we can’t teach our kids anything. It’s giving back land that can give us back our culture, give us back our customs and traditions, so that we can teach that to our kids. And at the same time, we can break free from government dependency, if we do it right, if we do it right. Sometimes we’ve got to think outside that square that we’re put in. We have to think of our culture, passing on, do it on the land. At the same time, that same land, somehow it has either got to feed us or earn us money. We’ve got no other way to look at it. And until we all think that way, that that is how we retain our own independence and break away from welfare handout. I know a lot mightn’t agree with me, but that’s what we have to do. I never thought it would have an ending, I’ll be honest. It’s been going a long while. To me we may say it’s taking too long to be awarded native title to our property or country or whatever areas. But again we’ve got to look at the fact that there’s a lot to be done in the process. We’ve been sort of disconnected for lots of years, and we’ve got to pull all the information back before we can go forward, and that sometimes frustrates a lot of people. But to us it’s a step in the right direction.

Hosting the National Native Title Conference 2014

Look, to us, it called recognition. That’s the greatest thing for us. Sometimes it might be thought that Aboriginal people living on the coast, we don’t have any culture and tradition no more. But that’s not right. And by holding the conference on our land here, in the Gumbaynggirr land, it gives recognition all over this country, and even to government, that we still have Aboriginal people who can speak their language and retain their tradition and culture living on the coast in amongst big tourist areas. We’re still here. I think to me we know that again we all dream of what we want. But unless we attend these types of conferences, and we hear, we hear from those that we don’t really see all the time who’s working for us, they could be the solicitors, they could be all sorts of people, on what you really have to have together to go anywhere in what you’re doing, that is what we gain from here. And there is a lot of information that came from this conference that we didn’t really know about, on how does it work, are there changes, because a lot of the time we have to read the changes in the newspaper or wherever it is. By presenting those changes and how things are done, and going to be done, by presenting them face to face, that’s a black fella’s way of doing it, that’s what we understand. And that’s the beauty of these conferences, is face to face you ask a question. New technology, great for some things, but when we go into important, very important things to Aboriginal people, like we’re talking about return of land, we need to get it spot on. And these are the conferences that we need to bring us up to date, speak to us face to face, so we ask the questions, so we are very clear on what we have to do, and I appreciate these types of conferences being held to give us that information.

doug passiEyes and Ears of the North:
An interview with Douglass Passi, Chair of Mer Gedkem Le

My people

The population of Murray Island is around 450 and there are more families living in Townsville, Cairns, Mackay and other parts of the Australian mainland. Our people are pretty straightforward. There are people I would describe more as kober and te kober means ‘eyes and ears of the north’. They will approach you immediately and say ‘what are you doing in my country?’ Then there are those in the eastern and southern part of the island that are sor kober, people that don’t talk much. They will not approach you straight away. They normally sit back and observe you, to try to understand who you are. The people in the northern part of Murray Island always introduce themselves first to visitors and send a message to the sor kober people to say, ‘this is what that group are doing in our country.’

Malo’s Lore

When you first arrive on the island, I believe, and it’s been handed down from generation to generation, you should approach the Traditional Owners. As is written in Mabo, Malo’s lore says malo tag mauki mauki, teter mauki mauki, which means to say: you can’t touch what is not yours. You can’t enter into private land. You have to get permission to enter any property. The lore, as decided by the elders and high priests, is about 25 to 26 clauses. I believe clauses 1 to 8 lay the foundations of the lore itself, and from 9 to 12 is directed at the person, and that person is muiar. Muiar ad le ged mimika. This means that he can’t enter another man’s property. He must walk on his path, to the front door, and get permission to enter.

We have a system in place. All Indigenous people have a system in place. This is something for western society to learn to understand and believe: we were in this country a long time. When you look at the system of government in Australia, it has three levels, federal, state and local government... We have a similar thing, but like I said, on a smaller scale. We have clan groups, which is family. Like the Passi Clan. We have 8 tribes on Mer. One tribal leader from each tribe sits on the ait ira per. The ait ira per is like the parliament, where people sit and listen before arriving at a decision. Imagine that our system is like the octopus. The 8 tentacles are the 8 tribes, the suckers on the tips of the tentacles are the clan groups, and the head is the ait ira per. Mer Gedkem Le [the RNTBC] has this same structure.

I’ve seen university students and anthropologists come to Mer to learn our culture, custom and tradition. Then they go and write their report, essay, or whatever. But when they give it back to us, and we read that report, it’s really complicated to us. It’s no longer ours.

Our native title experience

Native title for me is from generation to generation. We always think and believe that we own the land, the water and the resources around us, under and above. This is native title for us. And when I mention resources, this includes sea rights. Native title is recognition of this to make the western society understand that we have a system in place and we have lores in place.

For me, native title doesn’t mean the Native Title Act. You can amend the Native Title Act. Our law, Malo’s lore, stays the same forever. I don’t know when they actually amend that lore, I couldn’t say that. It’s the same from generation to generation, from time immemorial, that’s what Eddie and the others would say.

The sea and trade

The water is common, but we believe that we own the resources in the water: the trochus shell, the cray, the prawn. Our forefathers sank Spanish ships and attacked any boat that came into our water. We travelled to PNG, right up the Lockhart River, and to Raine Island, not far from Lockhart, to do trade. We have a name for Raine Island which is Bub Warwar Kaur. Bub mean chest, Warwar means stripes and Kaur means the island itself. And when you are at Raine Island you see crocodiles, you see fish and you see birds. That’s what I interpret as the ‘land of many species’.

We have trades to PNG. We have trades to our Southern brother in the mainland. Like I said, we trade. If we want red ochre we go to Lockhart and we trade in skulls or fish. It’s a commercial thing, but on a smaller scale. Before the Coming of the Light, back in the 1800s, they traded the tomahawk for land. Trade is our way of life.

The birth of Mer Gedkem Le

It was in 1997 that I first heard of a PBC. I was the Deputy-Chair of the Mer Community Council. The council called on TSRA [the Torres Strait Regional Authority], engineers, builders, an accountant, and we drew up a plan for the development of infrastructure on Mer. I remember sitting in a room in Cairns waiting for legal advice. The lawyer walked in and said, ‘Sorry, I have bad news for you, before you can commence any construction or develop any infrastructure on the island, you have to form a body called a native title corporation’. We said, ‘Why? We won native title in 1992.’ He told us, that it is what the Native Title Act says. We put in our time and effort to fly down there from Murray Island just to get this answer and go back. What a waste!

At our next council meeting we decided to call a meeting for all people from the Meriam nations living in the mainland. This meeting, in Townsville, was paid for out of the council budget. For the second meeting, held on Murray Island, the council paid for 10 to 15 elders to fly from the mainland to Mer, just to set up this corporation and to write the rule book. It took us 18 months to set up the corporation. In August 1998, Mer Gedkem Le was born.

Mer Gedkem Le today

Fourteen years later we are still under-resourced. We receive no funds from FaHCSIA [the Department Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs] and only recently, in 2011, we received a peanut from TSRA. Most of us are doing volunteer work, and I am personally frustrated. I have been frustrated for years now. The cost of living is high for us. I suffer. We need paid work to support our families.

In 2009, at our AGM, I was appointed Chair of Mer Gedkem Le and at this same meeting we endorsed fees for service. It’s really sad to say this, but only if they can give us resources, pay for 2 to 3 people full-time, can our PBC survive. I’ve got two others working, like myself, and we are just doing our best to get our PBC up and running. We have ORIC sitting there, like big brother, saying ‘you have to do this, you have to do that’… but they don’t recognise who we are and what we are. A PBC for me is something set up by the government, not under our lore or structure.

The 20th anniversary: whose day is this? Is it supposed to be for the Meriam People? For us it’s a day to recognise, not 20 years, but a much longer struggle. I remember sitting as a kid listening to my parents, aunties, uncles and grandfather talking about the DNA [Department of Native Affairs] police, saying ‘look at this bureaucrat telling us what to do’. Today, the bureaucrats sitting on Thursday Island are meant to be there to help us. But they do nothing for us. We have to do everything ourselves. This is the system. Fight the system back.

For more information you can contact Mer Gedkem Le and elders within the Mer community on:
mer_gedkem_le ( at )

See their profile here.

david hullThis is Arabana country:
An Interview with David Hull, Director of Arabana Aboriginal Corp RNTBC

My country, my people

In May 2012, the Federal Court granted the Arabana People native title to almost 70,000 square kilometres in South Australia’s north, including Lake Eyre. The majority of the area is covered by pastoral lease, including Anna Creek Station, the largest working cattle station in the world. It also includes three reserves, Elliot Price Conservation Park, Lake Eyre National Park and Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs Conservation Park as well as the towns of Marree and William Creek.

Our native title experience

Our claim has been going for a long while; I really can’t remember when it first started. The claim was lodged in 1998 but there was a lot of work preceding that. At the time a few of our elders were involved in providing evidence of connection to country. It has been a long process and a frustrating one at times, with all the bureaucracy and red tape we have had to go through. We also had lengthy consultations with other native title holders.

The state assisted in pushing our claim along, in pointing us in the right direction, and letting us know what we needed to do to achieve the final outcome. They were more of a help to us than a hindrance.

There have been a number of challenges along the way, including sorting out our claim boundaries with other groups. Although the government was helpful, at times we had to strategise to overcome certain obstacles in our negotiations with the state. We also encountered some upsets with recreational visitors to Lake Eyre. Through our Chair Aaron Stuart we have indicated to those people, the State, and DEWNR [Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources] that boating on Lake Eyre—when it is full—is disrespectful to Arabana People as it disrupts our Dreaming stories. We have had researchers ask to go on country to look at bird populations and we have negotiated permission for such research purposes. But we won’t compromise our integrity or the sacredness of our sites where there is disrespect.

The Arabana determination

Countrymen, Arabana People, travelled from near and far. People came from as far as Darwin and Sydney to cele-brate with us. Many people who grew up and lived at Finnis Springs, where the determination was heard, went up early and camped at the creek. SANTS assisted 80 cars in getting there. Station owners and mining companies were also present. Some news teams came in, one with their helicopter.

The elders did a formal welcome in Arabana. We went through the formal sitting and the Federal Court finally endorsed the determination of native title. We were then given the legal documentation and we did the formal signing of the ILUAs. This was followed by entertainment: music and dancing. People had the opportunity to visit the burial sites of their elders. Many people stayed on until the next day.

The determination, declared under a tent on the Finniss Springs station, brings to an end a 14-year claim by our traditional owners. Under the terms of the consent order the Arabana people will have access to the land for hunting, camping, fishing and traditional ceremonies.

Into the future

I am hopeful that goods things will come from native title into the future. It’s already getting people back on country. We have already talked about having a celebration every year at Finnis Springs. We plan to make that an annual event for people so a lot more people can come home, as many people missed out this year.

Our Chair has alluded to changing the name of the lake to its traditional name: Kati Thanda. We are still in the discussion stage but the feelers are out there. This is something that the whole Arabana group would have to endorse before it went through the legal hoops.

Through our native title negotiations with the state we have been able to secure some compensation through ILUAs. This includes some blocks of lands, some money to run the PBC, and the funding of work projects at Finnis. We will also receive funding to build ablution blocks and provide for running water at Finnis, to build camping areas to allow people to come back on country, and to restore the old mission houses. With this money we also hope to provide employment for some of our younger folk living in Marree. We also have money for some environmental work and later on we hope to develop a tourism project. So there will be a little bit of money for the community there.

The significance of this determination is that it gives our people certainty: Arabana people can go back on country now without fear of station owners and other parties. We have rights to fish and hunt and camp on any part of our lands. We also have the right to negotiate with companies regarding any mining activities on our country. It gives us the acknowledgement of what we have always known: this is Arabana country.

See their profile here.

Managed by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)
AIATSIS acknowledges the funding support of the Native Title Branch of
the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C).