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Celebrations and sadness
Flip Prior Bunuba elder George Brooking with Justice John Gilmour.

Bunuba elder Isaac Hale has closed the door on an arduous, 14-year battle in the Federal Court.

“Thank God it’s over — we’ve got our land back and now our younger generations can carry on,” he said.

“We can get them back out on country, back to stations.

“It’s been a long road.”

Last week, Justice John Gilmour formally recognised the native title rights and interests of Mr Hale’s people, over 6258sqkm of the Fitzroy Valley.

For the hundreds of Bunuba people gathered in the steamy heat at picturesque Geike Gorge near Fitzroy Crossing last Wednesday, it was a happy day tinged with sadness.

Mr Hale and fellow claimant Danny Maher, also present, were the last of eight who lodged the original claim with the Federal Court on August 17, 1999 – one by one, the others have passed away without seeing their claim recognised by the courts.

After formalities, Justice Gilmour handed out rocks as a memento of the battle the elders – and their ancestors – had fought. Over the afternoon, several emotion-laden minutes of silence were held for those who had died.

The Bunuba Part A claim includes Leopold Downs and Fairfield stations and parts of Kimberley Downs, Jubilee Downs, Quanbun Downs and Blina as well as three conservation parks to be jointly managed with the State Government, unallocated crown land and Plum Plain on the outskirts of Fitzroy Crossing.

The Windjana Gorge National Park is subject to a separate claim, filed in April and yet to be resolved.

It includes most of Fitzroy Crossing and Tunnel Creek, the home of Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra who fought valiantly against European settlers in the 1890s to protect his land and paid with his life.

June Oscar paid homage to her seniors, and said the first determination marked an important milestone in the journey to reconstruct Bunuba society.

“Their commitment to maintaining our Bunuba culture, language and responsibilities for managing our country is the reason we are here today,” she said.

“Many of you will know, through the Jandamarra story, that the Bunuba defended our country heroically against Western incursion … we endured decades of domination by the pastoral industry which was largely built through our families’ labour and expertise.

“We have drawn on the resilience of our senior people to map out an economic future based on the cattle industry, tourism and management of our country – it is this future that gives us hopes and purpose.”

Ms Oscar acknowledged the State Government and pastoralists who shared their country for their positive engagement that allowed the claim to be settled by mediation.

“From this day, under Australian law, we can say proudly to the whole world that our country always was and always will be Bunuba,” she said.

Bunuba man Joe Ross said his people did not intend to mine their beautiful country for its resources, but to use it for people to “depressurise” from their economically driven lives.