Aboriginal Families Get Their Land

But Australian federal officials say states have lagged in resolving title claims

AT the Kurraya outstation, outside the small town of Tennant Creek, 100 or so Warumungu women are waiting for the government to hand over their land.

Sitting under a plastic canopy on a 100-degree day, they sing as the men take visitors off to show them a rare glimpse of sacred sites. The handing-over ceremony is late in getting started, but they are patient.

"We've been waiting a long time to get this claim back," says Jimmy Frank, a Warumungu from Tennant Creek. "We knew we had it 200 years ago. And now we're getting it back today."

This hand-over of a land claim totaling 3,000 square kilometers (1,875 square miles) ends one of the most bitterly contested land battles in Australian history.

Robert Tickner, the minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, is handing out titles to former stock routes and reserves all over Australia. These are the last of such areas that the government committed itself to handing over. `Keeping promises'

Some groups of Aborigines have been waiting for as long as 15 years for their claims to move through the legal system. Under the 1976 Land Rights Law, Aborigines can seek title to vacant crown land that they can prove a historical relationship to.

"This day is about keeping promises," Mr. Tickner says, distributing plaques and shaking hands. "A lot of people still don't have their land back. Our job is to make sure they do."

The minister has handed back approximately 30,000 square kilometers (18,750 square miles) of land since he took office 2 1/2 years ago. In this four-day trip, he will have stopped in six communities, crisscrossing the country in a plush Royal Australian Air Force jet, an eight-seater plane, and a four-wheel drive truck, bouncing along dusty red roads.

The thank-you's are brief.

"My mom and dad lived in just a tent with a windbreak and now we have title to our land. Thank you." says Helen Davis, accepting title for her family in nearby Hamilton Downs.

Tickner says the return of the Warumungu land to its traditional Aboriginal owners was one of the most significant in the history of the Land Rights Law. The struggle lasted 15 years.

"In that time the traditional owners have faced opposition and obstacles to their claim at virtually every step" Tickner says.

The Tennant Creek area has long been desired by both whites and Aborigines. The Warumungu people call it Jurnkurakurr and say it is a place of great spiritual significance - a center of sacred sites and place to conduct business and ceremonies. Before the whites came, the Aborigines recall, there was water, vegetation, and plenty of game.

Whites considered the area valuable for raising cattle and mining gold, and it was deemed a perfect site for a telegraph station to link the lower Australian states with Asia and Europe.

According to the Central Land Council, an Aboriginal advocacy group, whites quickly took over, shunting the traditional owners from one reservation to another to accommodate various mining and pastoral interests. Finally, in 1962, the Warumungus' last reservation was taken away and they were left landless. All the watercourses were European owned. And by that time, cattle had destroyed water holes and degraded the soil.

But getting even this marginal land was not easy. Despite the federal government's Land Rights Law, the Northern Territory government, run by the conservative Country-Liberal coalition, has been opposed to returning traditional land. In fact, that government in 1979 expanded the boundaries of Tennant Creek far beyond the town's actual size. One of the issues at stake was the effect of a possible land grant on Tennant Creek township's water supply and on the future expansion of the township.

The case was twice forced before Australia's highest court, which found against the Northern Territory government. Sacred sites

For Aborigines in Tennant Creek, just getting title is not a completely happy ending. The town's boundaries have not been resolved, despite the Warumungu's compromise offer to give up 90 percent of the disputed land, in exchange for the 10 percent enclosing some sacred sites.

And while the federal government has handed over title to all its agreed-upon lands, Tickner says the Northern Territory has yet to keep its promises, made in a 1989 agreement with the Commonwealth, on other parcels.

A Northern Territory spokesman has denied Tickner's claims that his government had tried to frustrate the claim.

A title enables the traditional land owners to apply for federal money to build houses and roads and start businesses. And there are plans to help Tennant Creek get more involved in tourism. Some are interested in starting joint ventures with mining companies, small-scale farms, and participating to a greater degree in the pastoral industry.

But the real importance of the hand-overs is more intangible.

"Getting back country does enormous things to people - it restores pride," says Mick Dodson, director of the Northern Land Council, which along with the Central Land Council was created by the government to protect the land interests of Aborigines. "It also gives people an opportunity to be directly on the land, to look after those places of enormous significance in Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal religious life, and that in itself is psychologically uplifting."

A small patch of grass has been planted in anticipation of a similar hand-over ceremony on another outstation outside Alice Springs. Children sit on the grass, wiggling and giggling as their parents and grandparents accept titles for land that their ancestors lived on for 50,000 years.

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