It may have taken more than 15 years, but the Bunuba people have finally been granted native title over the land they have called home for thousands of years.
In what was described by Bunuba leaders and elders as “a day of great celebration”, Justice Michael Barker in the Federal Court in Perth last month granted Bunuba native title relating to three claims across significant parts of the Fitzroy Valley.
It has been a long journey for the Bunuba to secure tenure over their country. There are only two remaining survivors of the eight Bunuba applicants who lodged the original Native Title claim in 1999.
It was the 54th native title determination in Western Australia. Native Title now covers 1.2 million square kilometres across WA, more than any other Australian state.
Kimberley Land Council lawyer Julia Taylor said the determination acknowledged the preservation of traditions, culture and language and would provide an economic platform on which Bunuba could look to the future with hope and optimism.
In granting consent, Justice Barker found that the state was satisfied that the determinations were justified in all circumstances, and that “the Bunuba People have maintained a physical presence in the claimed areas since the acquisition of British sovereignty”.
He said the Bunuba were a “language-owning group” whose cultural and traditional heartland was bound the Fitzroy River to the south-east, the Leopold Range to the north-east, the Oscar Range to the south-west and the Napier Range to the north-west.
He determined that an “integral aspect of identifying as Bunuba is an affiliation to a muway, or a particular tract of country. The concept of muway has multiple levels. In the broadest term, muway is a generic term for place in the Bunuba language”.
“More specifically, muway can refer to named sites, a camp, and a more inclusive area or country, such as the 18 named local countries acknowledged by the Bunuba People as comprising Bunuba country. In the latter sense of the word, muway encapsulates a sense of belonging.
“All Bunuba People profess to belong to a named muway, and are able to identify each other in terms of muway affiliation. In fact, affiliation to a muway, located within the area recognised as Bunuba country, is a necessary precursor to being acknowledged as a Bunuba person.”
Justice Barker also referred to Bunuba’s laws and rules that originate from Ngarranggani, saying it played a pivotal role that in central to the law in the way they go about their daily lives.
“Ngarranggani Law differentiates the Bunuba People from surrounding groups, and continues to influence behaviours and social norms.”
“It is agreed that the material provided to the State regarding Bunuba People’s connection to country supports the claim that Bunuba People continue to observe their system of law and custom as it pertains to Ngarranggani,” he said.
Bunuba leader Patrick Green told the gathering that it was an “unbelievable day”.
“This is a great day for the Bunuba people,” he said.
“It has been a long journey to this point, and we have shed many tears. But we now open our arms and look to the future with great hope,” he said.
The Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation holds the rights and interests in trust for the group and is the registered native title body corporate.