10 May 2023

Native Title victory gives land back to custodians

| Matt Nicholls
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Dion Creek, Wayne Butcher and Amos Hobson after the decision was handed down.

DANCING broke out at the Cairns Courthouse last week after the Federal Court recognised the Kuuku Ya’u and Uutaalnganu people’s Native Title rights to more than 210,000 hectares of land in Cape York.

It was a major milestone for the Cape York Land Council’s United #1Claim, which covers more than half of all land on the Peninsula.

The Kuuku Ya’u land covers an area in the Lockhart River region and takes in Iron Range National Park (Kutini-Payamu), while the Uutaalnganu land stretches south from that to the Macrossan Range north of Coen.

Kuuku Ya’u Elder, Father Brian Claudie, said he would be proudly playing the clapsticks and singing to celebrate the first determination of Queensland’s largest ever Native Title claim.

“I will get the clapsticks and I will sing,” the 71-year-old Elder of the Kanthanampu subgroup said.

“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking about the old people and the culture they have passed on. This claim is special for this generation.

“It’s very important for the future children, generation to generation to generation.”

Uutaalnganu Elder Beatrice Hobson said her mob has been fighting for the land since the 1990s.

“My people, they was worrying for a long time to get their land back,” she said.

“This is our mothers’ land and we want to keep it safe.”

Jasmine Accoom, a Traditional Owner from the Kanthanampu subgroup of the Kuuku Ya’u Native Title group, started agitating for land rights from the age of 15, sitting in on Cape York Land Council board meetings where she learned about the procedures, protocols and politics of agitation for land rights.

She said it had been a long time walking the “rocky road” and was feeling relieved, with celebrations expected to last a week.

“The men will hunt, and the women will do cooking the traditional way,” she said.

Cape York Land Council chairman Richie Ah Mat, said the latest legal battle began seven years ago, but for many Traditional Owners it was the final step in a struggle that started many years ago.

“Their battle began in 1997 and 1998, when Kuuku Ya’u and Uutaalnganu Traditional Owners fought for recognition of their traditional rights in earlier Native Title and land claims,” he said.

“I am awed by the efforts and resilience of today’s successful claimants, and pay tribute to the struggles of their Elders. The rewards are finally theirs.”

Mr Ah Mat said the overall process had been frustrating.

“Why does it take seven years to get to a Native Title determination where people still have to … prove that they’re connected to country?” he said.

“Why has it taken so long for government to accept this was blackfella land?

“We didn’t have to prove it to anybody – but since the British came we’ve got to prove every step of the way.

“It is appalling.”

In the determination, Justice Debra Mortimer said: “Today can only happen because of the hard work and determination of a lot of people.

“What a long time you have waited for this. I am sorry it has taken so long.

“How many Elders are not here to see this day, although they were the ones with knowledge of country, of lore and custom, who passed it on to the next generations.”

Justice Mortimer also acknowledged that not everyone was happy with the judgement but she hoped each community would be able to put their disagreements behind them.

“European law and European government has brought great suffering and oppression to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and we are still a long way off setting that right,” she said.

“But getting this determination of Native Title for each of your groups is a necessary step, so that you can use European law for good purposes, and for outcomes that can improve the lives of your communities.

“Each of these determinations is valuable, because it says to the world that despite the terrible history of colonisation, your law and your culture is here to stay.”

Resources Minister Scott Stewart congratulated the Kuuku Ya’u People and Uutaalnganu people on reaching the historic milestone.

“The Kuuku Ya’u and the Uutaalnganu determinations reflect their connection and care for the land across many generations and for what I hope will be many more to come,” he said.

“I congratulate the Kuuku Ya’u and Uutaalnganu People, Cape York Land Council, other respondents and the Federal Court for the diligence and spirit of cooperation required to achieve a great outcome.”

Lockhart River mayor Wayne Butcher is also an Uutaalnganu Traditional Owner and said the determination was justice for his people.

“It’s one of those processes that takes a lot of time, but I think it’s done justice to a lot of old people who are no longer with us,” he said.

“We will get to live healthily and more happily once we get back on country again.

“To get back there with Native Title recognition, it’s so important spiritually and mentally.

“We will feel more at home now.”

As part of the determinations, the Kuuku Ya’u people are recognised as the Native Title holders of 120,268ha of country around Lockhart River.

The Uutaalnganu people had their Native Title rights and interests recognised over 98,324ha of land south of Lockhart River.

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