1963: YIRRKALA BARK PETITIONS
The Australian government appropriates more than 300sqkm of land from the Yolngu people in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land and sells it to a mining company. In protest, the Yolngu create petitions on bark using painted designs to proclaim ownership. These petitions are sent to the Australian parliament where a committee recommends that compensation be paid, that sacred sites be protected, and that mining works be monitored. This is not enough and the Yolngu people appeal to the Northern Territory Supreme Court. Handing down a decision in 1971, the judge — while accepting that the Yolngu have lived at Yirrkala for tens of thousands of years — upholds terra nullius and determines that Australian law does not recognise native title.
1966: WAVE HILL WALK OFF
Led by Vincent Lingiari, more than 200 Gurindji stockmen initiate a strike at the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. Initially, the station owners believe the workers will return when offered improved wages and conditions. But Lingiari has other ideas: the rightful return of native land. During nine years of struggle and protest, Lingiari tours Australia to lobby politicians and galvanise support. Victory is achieved in 1975, when prime minister Gough Whitlam ceremonially pours earth into Lingiari’s hand to indicate the return of the land to the Gurindji people.
Eddie Koiki Mabo and four other Indigenous Meriam people begin a legal claim for ownership of their traditional lands on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait. They claim that the Meriam people have continuously and exclusively possessed their lands; lived in permanent settled communities; and had formed structured political and social organisations on the island. The case runs for ten years, progressing from the Queensland Supreme Court to the High Court of Australia. On the 3rd of June 1992, the High Court rules that the Meriam people are “entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands”. The High Court’s judgement removes the notion of terra nullius once and for all and introduces native title into Australian law.
1993: WIK DECISION
The Wik and Wik Way people claim an area on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, in far-north Queensland. It raises the question of whether Australian law recognises that native title can co-exist on some types of pastoral leases — the Mabo case ruled that pastoral leases nullified native title. In a ruling described as “a tectonic shift in justice”, the High Court’s decision in December 1996 establishes that native title can co-exist on Crown Land leased to other interests.
While significant progress has been made by Aboriginal people to gain native title, there is still a way to go. As of 2020, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ land rights are recognised across only 40 percent of the Australian continent.