Aboriginal land and land rights
The 1972 Larrakia petition
Signed by 1,000 Aboriginal people, the 1972 Larrakia petition is one of the most important documents in the history of their struggle for land rights.
Aboriginal land rights
The Aboriginal land rights movement started in 1966 with a demand for better wages.
10 years later the first Aboriginal land rights act secured Aboriginal people’s rights to land.
Aboriginal land care
Aboriginal land care methods today vary greatly from traditional Aboriginal land care but address moderns issues such as greenhouse gas emission.
Bush rangers are critical to many land care tasks.
Land management improves health
Research confirms that Aboriginal people caring for the land improve the health of both themselves and the land.
Four land management principles help them improve their health.
Overcrowded houses are a major problem in Aboriginal communities, with up to 17 people sharing a 3-bedroom house.
Overcrowding leads to a wide range of problems affecting all areas of peoples’ lives.
Tourism on Aboriginal land
Bush rangers can use their intimate knowledge of the land in the tourism industry to offer the ‘authentic’ experience overseas visitors are looking for.
Aboriginal land claims
Claiming land is a difficult and expensive process for Aboriginal people. Many applications wait decades for consideration.
Aboriginal scarred trees
Carved trees have been scarred by Aboriginal people for various purposes, from cutting out bark for a canoe to spiritual purposes.
Very few carved trees remain today. They are said to be a history book and represent Aboriginal people’s soul.
Blue Mud Bay High Court decision
A landmark decision of the High Court of Australia that Aboriginal people have the right to issue fishing licences opened up a multi-million industry to them.
Meaning of land to Aboriginal people
Land means different things to non-Indigenous and Aboriginal people. The latter have a spiritual, physical, social and cultural connection.
Land management and care are vital for Aboriginal health and provide jobs.
Many Aboriginal artworks tell about the connection between people and their land.
Northern Territory (NT) Land Rights Act
The NT Land Rights Act gave Aboriginal people a say over land development through informed consent but governments try to water down this right.
Indigenous Protected Areas
Indigenous Protected Areas allow traditional owners manage the land and pass on knowledge.
Threats to Aboriginal land
Many threats endanger Aboriginal land and Aboriginal peoples’ heritage, history and sacred sites—are you one of them?
Aboriginal homelands & outstations
Homelands are proven to make Aboriginal people healthier and stronger, but they are expensive to live in and don’t get much love from the government.
Guide to Aboriginal sites and places
Discover the multitude of Aboriginal sites and places and how Aboriginal people used them, sometimes for generations.
Houses are one of the base requirements for us to feel safe and sound. Without adequate housing we cannot learn or form rich lives.
Australia’s first white visitors assumed that Aboriginal people did not build permanent dwellings or shelters which became one of the reasons for the continent’s invasion. But was this true?
Native title issues & problems
Native title parties need to prove an ongoing connection. Often numerous parties are involved.
Processing applications can take many years which lets some politicians find strange “solutions”.
The tide of history can never take away our connection to land, because it is a spiritual connection and at a higher level. [...] Our law and spirituality is intertwined with the land, the people and creation and this forms our culture and our sovereignty.—Wadjularbinna, Gungalidda Elder (Gulf of Carpentaria) 
Think about it
Why do you think there are so many ‘Boundary Roads’ throughout larger cities, such as Brisbane?
Boundary roads get their name from the landmarks Indigenous people could not cross at night .
New opportunities change Aboriginal communities
The plans of the Australian government to introduce a carbon tax can open up new opportunities for Aboriginal people manage emissions and profit from the on-selling of any emission reductions.
The government plans to assist Aboriginal people to participate in the Indigenous Carbon Farming Fund . Carbon farming projects could for example conduct cool, prescribed burns on country which reduce the emissions generated into the atmosphere compared to an out-of-control wildfire. The emissions saved could then be on-sold to industry.
This will deliver economic benefits to Aboriginal communities, help provide land management jobs and strengthen Aboriginal people’s cultural ties to country while improving the biodiversity of the environment .
The Carbon Farming Initiative is a voluntary scheme where resources that store carbon, such as trees, can be audited and then assessed for credits, which can then be sold to polluters looking to offset carbon emissions .
Such a scheme could lead to new relationships between Aboriginal companies and land councils and the corporate world. Aboriginal people could not only plant trees, but also bush foods and medicinal plants, leading to even more commercial ventures.
Aboriginal people manage around 20% of Australia’s land mass .
The carbon market is the next big opportunity for Aboriginal people and puts us on the path to economic independence.—Nolan Hunter, acting chief executive, Kimberley Land Council 
A biobank is a piece of land that has been audited to measure endangered species, native species and biodiversity and rate them using a credits system. Then, when a developer wants to take another piece of land and destroy habitat, they can buy a corresponding number of biobank credits and the money goes to the entity managing the biobank.
Once a biobank has been set up the land cannot be developed.
Australia’s first Aboriginal-owned biobank opened in the Hunter Valley in April 2012 .
Although mining is one of the threats to Aboriginal land it can also deliver benefits. Some Aboriginal people support mining on their land, despite the drawbacks.
Following are initiatives which show that Aboriginal traditional groups start to emerge as experienced, highly educated business partners.
The Njamal people from Australia’s Pilbara region signed a deal with the Fortescue Metals Group in December 2011 which is believed to be the first joint venture between a miner and an Aboriginal group .
The deal makes them managers of a mine eventually producing 100 million tonnes of iron ore. The Njamal mine the ore within their native title claim area while Fortescue buys it at an agreed price.
The deal is significant as the miner gives away part of their resource to a native title group for the long-term sustainability of the group.
The Njamal are aware of the two-sided sword mining is for them. “I feel sad to see mining happening in our country, digging up the environment,” says Doris Eaton, a traditional law-woman and also the co-chairwoman of Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation which facilitated the deal . “I am unhappy that some things will be destroyed and happy that this is a new turnover for our younger generation.”
Fortescue has agreed to respect exclusion zones around important cultural sites which include engraved artwork comprising concentric circles and wavy lines, a style that has been dated between 30,000 and 38,000 years old. It might be the oldest art in the world .
Royalties from the joint venture will finance mango farms and education for Aboriginal children.
On a sour note, Eaton believes that had the Njamal not negotiated this deal, Fortescue would have gone ahead to mine on the land anyway.
In December 2012, in a controversial move, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council applied to explore for coal seam gas under 40% of the state . The council said that its move “was born out of frustration and an understanding that if Aboriginal people wait for government to invest properly in Aboriginal communities, they’d wait a long, long time.”
The Gumatj people in north-east Arnhemland, Northern Territory, in May 2011 signed a deal with Rio Tinto. They formed a new corporation to deal with the monies in a new way, participating in modern Australian life on their own terms :
- Investment. More than half of the incomings was invested in a managed “future fund”.
- Community employment teams.
- Health clinic.
- Cattle station: 100 square kilometres of fenced paddocks with Gumatj stockmen running 500 head of cattle, including an abattoir.
- Timer mill: Operated by a local work team from related clans who cut wood for the mines.
- Wood-working factory: Three local craftsmen shape raw timber into furniture.
- Plant nursery: Nine Aboriginal women grow and tend plants for local, municipal and mine-site use.
- Child care and primary school: housed in prefabricated buildings, the first school in the community.
43 Aboriginal people are working in Gumatj corporation-owned businesses, earning standard private sector wages. “People are working now, they’re sweating, and that’s OK,” says local resident Erika Schebeck .
Former driller and corporate adviser Klaus Helms sums up the changes in the community: “What I see of our progress fills me with hope. But it’s what I don’t see that’s more important. I don’t see a line of women with broken limbs and black eyes waiting at the clinic. I don’t see drunks shouting and fighting every night. I don’t see bodies hanging from the trees by the side of the road.” 
Dependency was what they had been given for years but autonomy was what they wanted.—The Weekend Australian 
Meaning of water
Aboriginal people know stand-alone or “cultural” water. Cultural water is water associated with ceremony, protecting cultural heritage sites that require wetting, initiation sites in wetlands or near rivers, men’s business and women’s business and birthing sites .
This water needs to stand alone, meaning aside from other interests in water such as looking after healthy rivers, healthy native fish stocks and keeping sheep and cattle out of rivers.
Phil Duncan, chair of the First Peoples’ Water Engagement Council, explains Aboriginal connections with water .
“We have this relationship, this invisible connection to water, with spirit, culture, songlines, our dreaming,” he said. “Rivers form tribal boundaries, are travel highways and provide food. Fish have different totemic value for different peoples, for example the eastern cod has great significance for the Ballina, Tabulam and Baryulgil mobs, and so does the turtle.”
Researching this invisible connection is hard, Duncan says, as there is little understanding in the wider community and Aboriginal people are telling their story, songline and connection to others.
Some Aboriginal people believe that the first rain after a long drought “washes the sickness away” and it is unsafe to swim in that water. Only after the “second rain” is safe to go to the water hole .
How can this community be so successful?
The remote Aboriginal community of Utopia, 110kms north of Alice Springs, left researchers and bureaucrats ask: Why is this community doing so well?
- The death rate is “strikingly low” compared with other Aboriginal populations in the NT.
- The average mortality rate is nearly half that of the general NT population (which has an Aboriginal proportion of more than 30%).
- There is no increase in diabetes or obesity over the past 20 years.
- Death rates from cardiovascular diseases are about half those of the Territory’s Aboriginal population.
Such results are unique because they are outside national trends, even though residents in Utopia had the same levels of housing, income and employment as other remote Aboriginal communities .
Researchers attributed the community’s success to a pro-active health service, and the decentralised layout of the community, which provided access to traditional lands for hunting and gathering.
“Mastery and control over life circumstances is a fundamental determinant of good health,” concludes Prof Ian Anderson, from the Co-operative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health . “People in Utopia have designed their own community, have freehold title to their land and control over the way health services are delivered.”
There is also a great sense of pride in the community’s achievements and in the strong cultural practices that continue in Utopia.
This study gives hard evidence that community outstations and a community lifestyle do actually work if the primary healthcare is delivered properly.—Ricky Tilmouth, Urapuntja Health Service, Utopia 
Meaning of fire
Fire is an important symbol in Aboriginal culture.
It is used as a practical tool in hunting, cooking, warmth and managing the landscape. It also holds great spiritual meaning, with many stories, memories and dance being passed down around the fire.
Sustainable hunting and gathering
Aboriginal people were acutely aware of the delicate relationship they had with the land. When they hunted and gathered food they had to do so sustainably in order to preserve the resource for the next cycle.
Ngarrindgeri man Tom Trevorrow explains a few gathering and hunting methods and how his people made sure the sources were not depleted :
- Fruits and berries. Aboriginal people gathered evenly from the land and never picked everything from one area, otherwise it would take a long time to return again.
- Birds eggs. They only took about half the eggs from a nest, and only the fresh ones. To avoid birds abandoning their nest because of human smell, Aboriginal people splashed the nest with water or rubbed their hands in the surrounding grasses, trees and sand.
- Fish. Only the fish required to feed the family were caught. If they caught more fish, the extra fish were kept alive and fresh for another day in fish traps.
- Animals. When hunting kangaroos or emus the ones with joeys or chicks were not taken.
Now I realise that this was, and is, the Ngarrindjeri way of farming the land and this is how my ancestors survived in this country for so long.—Tom Trevorrow, Ngarrindjeri man 
Bush tucker: Collecting bush onions
The following video shows a group of Aboriginal students from Wangkatjungka School, led by teachers of the Department of Education, driving out into the bush to search for bush onions, or jurnta (pronounced ‘yurnda’). Bush onions are an important source of protein.
The students themselves shot and comment this video. The Wangkatjungka community is located about 120 kms south-east of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Torres Strait Islander people have different names for wind to describe a cold breeze or a tropical storm. Elma Kris, from the Bangarra Dance Theatre, explains the winds of her home country, the Torres Strait .
“They use [different names] to describe the winds: Naigai, Zei, Sager and Kuki, and how they merge in a climate way, in a weather way.”
“In white man world, you gotta use the compass and the direction, where it comes from and have the name for it: ‘ok, the wind comes from the south’ or ‘the wind comes from the west’.
“In our culture, we have a language for it and it is also our totem. So we have wind totem. We have Zei, the cold breeze wind and then we have Kuki like a cyclone wind and Naigai is the calmness, where the water goes still but you have the glittering and shimmering on the water. Sager is the south-east trade winds. Many boats used this wind; it helps their sailing mast to sail that journey.”
Last updated: 26 March 2013 | Out of respect for Aboriginal culture I use Indigenous sources as much as possible.
 'Groups heap praise on carbon package', Koori Mail 506 p.6
 'Interview with Elma Kris, Choreographer and Dancer', Bangarra newsletter, 5/2011
 'Franklin battle remembered', Koori Mail 430, p.4
 'No justice for Palm Island', NIT 30/10/2008 p.19
 'Carbon farming scheme targeted', Koori Mail 525 p.34
 'Hunter biobank in business', Koori Mail 524 p.7
 'Discussion flows at water summit', Koori Mail 524 p.28
 'Utopia by name... Utopia by nature', Koori Mail 421 p.6
 'Share in Fortescue riches a step closer for people of Pilbara', SMH 25/8/2012
 'New horizons', Weekend Australian 15/12/2012
 'Hunting and Gathering... a Sustainable Method', Environment South Australia newsletter Nov/Dec 1994 p.7
 'Plan to explore for gas under 40% of state', SMH 8/12/2012
 'Kerrianne Cox', ABC "Defining Moments" series, Message Sticks Film Festival 2013