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"Monumental" Native Title decision in Victoria after long campaign for recognition

Jarred Cross -

A decades-long fight for acknowledgement of land ownership by South-West Victoria's First Peoples of the Eastern Maar Nation has finally been recognised.

On Tuesday, March 28, the Federal Court of Australia travelled on Country to Logan's Beach, on the south-west extent of the recognised land, and made the Victoria's first "ordered, declared and determined" Native Title claim in over a decade.

The decision fulfilled impassioned efforts from 12 family groups, Elders and clans for an area spanning 8,578 square kilometres from Penthurst in the west, Cape Paton in the east and north to the outskirts of Ararat.

It was less of an announcement and more of a celebration attended by many members of the local Aboriginal community.

The Native Title claim was first filed to the Federal Court in 2012. Justice Bernard Murphy said the process had been "much too slow".

"I'm sorry this has taken so long," he said.

Eastern Maar elder Uncle Tommy Clarke on Tuesday March 28, 2023. Image supplied by Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, credit: Tiffany Garvie.

Gunditjmara Elder Aunty Vicki Couzens said it was a "huge milestone", while reflecting on points made by so many others throughout the morning.

"This is a step in the process of the fulfillment of the regaining of our sovereign rights in terms of our relationship with the state, and the Commonwealth, and therefore the mainstream or people of Australia. It's really significant," she told the National Indigenous Times.

Aunty Vicki's father was one of the original applicants for Eastern Maar Native Title, a role she has since assumed.

In the time since the Eastern Maar Nation entered formal discussions with the high court, a handful of brave and determined claimants have passed on, with family members taking their place.

Although it's bittersweet that lost loved ones and ancestors won't see the their right to Native Title acknowledged by the Commonwealth, Aunty Vicki is happy to see young mob growing up in a time where culture can be celebrated in ways not allowed for recent generations.

She said "the kids now are growing up in a different environment from the rest of us"; something only strengthened with Tuesday's crucial step forward.

Aunty Vicki speaking on Tuesday March 28, 2023. Image supplied by Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, credit: Tiffany Garvie

Kirrae, Peek and Tjab Whurrong man and Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation chair Jason Mifsud outlined the "very clear mandate now to pursue our economic benefits" with Native Title and opportunity to be "brave enough to be overt in regards to that ambition".

"We win economically, the region wins economically. I think it's about us being central to regional prosperity," Mr Mifsud said.

"The data says that the tourists who come into this region want an Aboriginal experience. So we now have the legal mandate to be able to assert ourselves in that experience.

"That'll be done in accordance with our own values and our own principles…we get to achieve the celebration of our culture and language, history and heritage but also derive their economic benefit from that."

Victoria's Minister for Treaty and First People Gabrielle Williams said the acknowledgment of Native Title shows "the tide is very much changing" in a broader context.

"This is enormously momentous and it sits within a broader context here in Victoria not only our path to treaty in truth, a once in a generation opportunity for us to not only simply symbolically reckon with our past, but to commit to tangibly improving outcomes for our First Nations people," the Minister said.

"The tide is very much moving in the direction of us finding our place by being better at acknowledging the harms that have been done, and committing to a better future.

"Decisions like today's represent not only the enshrining in law of recognition and respect in this case for Eastern Mars and during connection to Country but also represents the opportunities that lay before us."

The recognised land covers more than 100 kilometres of coastline, including the Twelve Apostles and part of the Great Ocean road, among the communities and towns of Framlingham, Mortlake, Camperdown, Port Campbell and Apollo Bay and motions in place to extend its borders.

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