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Historic native title decision celebrated in Cape York and Torres Strait

Joseph Guenzler -

After decades of struggle a historic native title consent determination has been formally handed down, recognising thousands of generations of shared history across Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait.

On Waiben (Thursday Island) earlier this week, the determination, covering about 65,000 square kilometres of land and sea, recognised the native title rights of the Kemer Kemer Meriam and Kulkalgal Nations and Kaurareg, Ankamuthi and Gudang Yadhaykenu peoples.

It is the first time that First Nations peoples of the Torres Strait region have joined with First Nations peoples of mainland Australia to work together to seek to achieve recognition of their native title rights.

The outcome follows an agreement between the First Nations groups in 2020 to jointly seek native title recognition.

The determination resolves seven partially overlapping native claims over land and sea and, covering an area almost the size of Tasmania, is the largest sea claim in Australia’s history.

Ankamuthi Traditional Owner Charles Woosup said the historic moment is being celebrated across the regions.

“It’s good to see that two Indigenous cultures are coming together and fighting for the same thing. Our ancestors have been hunting and gathering on these waters together for a long, long time,” he said.

Justice Debra Mortimer of the Federal Court of Australia travelled to Waiben (Thursday Island) to hand down the determination on 30 November.

The area covered by the claims stretches from Captain Billy Landing on the northeast coast of Cape York, east to the Great Barrier Reef, north to the sea surrounding Warral (Hawkesbury) Island and Ului (West) Island, and west to Skardon River, just north of Mapoon.

Justice Mortimer and representatives of the Kemer Kemer Meriam and Kulkalgal Nations and Kaurareg, Ankamuthi and Gudang Yadhaykenu peoples.

Photo by Joseph Guenzler​.

Ankamuthi Traditional Owners broke out into a traditional song after receiving their claim and there were many traditional dances done by all the clans.

Several hundred people attended to ceremony, despite the persistent rain.

Mr Woosup said it was “a blessing to give us our sea back, so we can protect and look after our sea”.

"Our elders talked about it and wanted our area back for so long, now we've got it,” he said.

Justice Mortimer thanked the Traditional Owners for their years of work and dedication to their cause.

"Thank you for telling your stories … and documenting them. Today shows the strength of your elders and communities,” she said.

Gur A Baradharaw Kod Sea and Land Council chairperson Ned David said the determination was the culmination of a long struggle.

“I think it’s been longer than 21 years," he said.

"If anything, it started in 1981 when Uncle Koiki [Mabo] actually first took the action to go and challenge the Queensland government around owners to his lands, this is just the next part of that journey."

Cape York Land Council chairperson Richie Ah Mat said the historic occasion is a testament to the strength that comes from speaking with a united voice.

“This is a momentous occasion on so many levels… The decision to unite to give one voice to this land and sea claim has ensured that First Nations people of the Torres Strait and Cape York have finally been heard,” he said.

“This consent determination recognises so many things. Our right to use marine resources, our right to speak up to protect our land and sea Country and our unbroken connection with this precious place.

“I want to acknowledge the dedication of all the Traditional Owners and the native title representative bodies and the long, long journey it has taken to get here.”

Although not all of the claimed areas have been determined, the determination area will cover 50 islands, islets, sand cays and rocks.

Gudang Yadhaykenu Traditional Owner and Elder, Shorty Lifu, said it was an occasion worth celebrating.

Born in 1943 at Cowal Creek, now known as Injinoo, Mr Lifu said it has also been a long time coming.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time…Generations have been waiting for this. My Dad said, ‘don’t give this place away, it’s our place,” he said.

Photo by Joseph Guenzler.

Ugar (Stephens Island) Traditional Owner Brian Williams, who is part of the Kemer Kemer Meriam Nation, says the Great Barrier Reef is very special to him.

“I am going towards my 70s and have this wonderful knowledge of working on these reefs. When they put them on the (claims) map…, to me they are more than just areas. They are my life. My father’s life, my brothers’ life, my ancestors’ (ari) life. We have all worked that area,” he said.

“To me the determination shows the court that this is our waters. We are willing to share with others, but we want everyone to know that our ancestors and us have worked that reef and the sea.”

First Nations leaders of the Torres Strait Regional Seas Claim group, as well as Kaurareg, Ankamuthi and Gudang Yadhaykenu peoples, came together in 2020 to establish the Northern Cape and Torres Strait United Working Group.

The group agreed to work together to resolve nearly all remaining claims in the offshore areas north, east and west of Cape York Peninsula through the making of consent determinations of native title.

The agreement between four claimant groups, has been managed by two native title representative bodies, Cape York Land Council (CYLC) and Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK).

CYLC and GBK have been collaborating to ensure the historic claims achieve determination by consent.

GBK took over the native title representative body function from the Torres Strait Regional Authority in July 2022, and this will be their first native title determination.

Justice Mortimer with Traditional Owners. Photo by Joseph Guenzler.

Mr David said the claim “wrote legal history when it was determined in part in 2010, as it resulted in the High Court of Australia, in 2013, recognising for the first time commercial native title rights in the sea [the Akiba decision]”.

"More than 100 islands, islets and cays are now subject to a native title determination, covering almost the entire Torres Strait region, with native title being managed by 22 Registered Native Title Bodies Corporate.

“Ours is a unique region for many reasons – not least of which being that it is an area where both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, culture and heritage overlap and co-exist. The very reason why we are celebrating today.

“On behalf of all Torres Strait Traditional Owners, I acknowledge those Elders, including Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal Elders from the Kaurareg people, who have championed the cause and I pay respect to those Elders who are no longer with us,” he said.


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