A 13-year Federal Court battle ended today in the Kimberley as Justice Gilmour formally recognised the native title rights and interests of the Bunuba people over 6528sqkm of land and waters in the Fitzroy Valley in a special “on country” court session.
For the hundreds of Bunuba people and supporters gathered in the steamy heat at picturesque Geike Gorge to commemorate the occasion, it was a day of celebration tinged with sadness.
Since the original claim was lodged with the Federal Court on August 17, 1999, six of the eight claimants have passed away without ever seeing it come to fruition.
The Bunuba Part A claim also includes the Leopold Downs and Fairfield stations and part of the Kimberley Downs, Jubilee Downs, Quanbun Downs and Blina pastoral leases as well as three conservation parks to be jointly managed with the State Government.
The claim also includes small areas of reserve land and unallocated crown land as well as Plum Plain on the outskirts of Fitzroy Crossing.
The Windjana Gorge National Park, where native title has been extinguished, was excised from the Part A claim area and is subject to a separate Part 2 claim, filed in April and yet to be resolved.
The second claim also includes most of the Fitzroy Crossing township and Tunnel Creek: the home of Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra, who fought a three-year campaign against European settlers in the 1890s in a valiant but vain bid to protect his land.
With changes to the Act recently introduced to Federal Parliament that would allow the State Government and native title holders to override extinguishment, the Bunuba hope to also eventually secure native title rights and interests over that area.
In the meantime, the securing of the first part of their land was cause for celebration.
The Bunuba people have been granted exclusive possession native title rights across the majority of the determined area as well as non-exclusive native title rights including the right to access and move through, live, camp, hunt, fish and gather on the land.
After Justice Gilmour hands down the determination, there will be hours of cultural celebrations of language, dance and song and traditional foods. Living elders paid an emotional tribute to those who have passed away.
Bunuba leader June Oscar felt both happiness and sorrow, saying the “extremely symbolic” determination simply confirmed in Australian law what her people had always known: “Bunuba country has been and always will be our country,” she said.
“We have been waiting 13 years for our rights and it is with sadness that some of our early leaders cannot be here with us today to see the fruition of their hard work … we now have our country back.”
Ms Oscar spoke of her hopes that the determination over the land and its rich resources would create opportunities for future generations through the pastoral industry, conservation, “cultural entrepreneurship” and education.
“This is about creating real opportunities and a future based on the strength that comes with ownership of country,” she said. “When you are an owner, you have rights and when you have rights – you are seen in a different light.”
Kimberley Land Council CEO Nolan Hunter congratulated the Bunuba people, saying their determination and perseverance had paid off during a “long and arduous process”.