In the midst of a ramping up of native title deliberations around the country reaching determination, particularly in Queensland, Victoria and on the NSW north coast, another one has been reached in South Australia but which has bitterly divided and marginalised people. South Australia’s Far West Coast native title agreement has been a messy one. But for the Mirning peoples the journey is not over, and they warn that the determination may create more disputes and further divide people.
“In 1970, Paul McCartney of the Beatles wrote ‘A long and winding road’,” said Justice John Ronald Mansfield. “Well it has been a long and winding road to where we are all today.”
Six claimant groups came together for the combined determination, including representatives of the Mirning peoples of the Great Australian Bight, alongside the Wirangu, Kokatha and Anangu peoples. The determination area is bigger than the size of Tasmania, and reaches from the Great Australian Bight to the Western Desert – 75,249 square kilometres. It includes Streaky Bay on the Eyre Peninsula, a number of towns including Ceduna and reaches the Western Australian border. More than 85 per cent of the land has been dedicated as national parks, reserves and wilderness and includes the Yalata Lands held by the Aboriginal Lands Trust.
Justice Mansfield delivered the determination from a special sitting on Country at Pidinga Lake. In 1998 separate claims by six groups were begun but over the years the claims were coalesced by mediation, particularly in 2006, by the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement and the South Australian Native Title Services.
“It has taken another seven years to get to where we are and 15 years from the first claim to get (to) this resolution,” said Justice Mansfield.
“It is a recognition of something that you (as Traditional Owners) have always known, that you are the Traditional Owners of this Country.”
“It reflects the wide community recognition of your rich and diverse culture. It is a recognition of your deep and abiding relationship with your Country.”
But many Mirning Elders have spoken out, saying that their community has been deceived by the Native Title process and hence divided. The majority of the Mirning believe that the Mirning peoples will lose their voice over rights that should be specific to their lands. Elder Bunna Lawrie has been one of a number of Mirning Elders who tried to stall the determination.
According to Mr Lawrie the native title decision in forming the Far West Coast Native Title Corporation “will have difficulty in balancing the Mirning rights and interests against the rights of other nations.”
He said the court determination “has not resolved the Far West claim.”
A lawyer, Tim Campbell, representing the interests of the Mirning people asked, “Will other people now speak for (Mirning) land? Yes, they will.” He said they will be speaking for “Mirning ancestral lands which is not theirs, they will be able to make decisions about Mirning sacred sites.”
Mr Lawrie pointed out that Mirning voices could be drowned out by the collective voices of other nations on matters of administration, financial and mining rights of Mirning lands but which can also affect Mirning cultural authority and sanctity over their historical sites.
“Mirning Elders feels gutted,” said Mr Lawrie.
This was backed up by Mirning Elders Michael Laing and Robbie Miller. “The Mirning rights to the sea have been ignored. We are a coast people,” said Mr Laing.
Producers of ABC programs First Footprints and Catalyst have recently been escorted to Mirning sites by non-Mirning peoples and an archaeologist. This has disturbed the Mirning people.
Mr Lawrie said that this is an insult to his people. He said the assumption of commonality among diverse peoples is insulting. He said that Mirning national parks should not be co-managed and should be handed to the Mirning people alone. “The cultures and languages are different. The Aboriginal laws are different.”
“This consent determination will not resolve anything, it may create more disputes and problems than at present.”
The Mirning Elders have alleged that their people were “railroaded by anthropologists and lawyers” into the combined claim. Only a couple of months ago, 35 Mirning Elders presented South Australian Attorney-General John Rau a petition calling on the State Government to intervene.
Mirning Elder, Robbie Miller said the combined claim “disregards our traditional rights.”
“The claim was put together by anthropologists and lawyers in a manner with which the Mirning do not agree with.”
“Furthermore not all the authorised claimant groups were included in the decision-making.” He said that anthropologists had combined the claimant groups by connecting them to Country, but he queried the connections saying it made no sense that people as afar as the Western Desert could have connection to for instance coastal Mirning Country. However, intermarriage has been such that it has been used in connecting people to Country.
“The anthropologists have never shown us their evidence for connecting us, evidence they say they gathered from our Elders. Why would they not release this evidence to us? We have asked for this evidence again and again,” said Mr Miller.
“They have withheld it from us and only the State Government and the SA Native Title Services have it. We should be entitled to see it also, it is in the end about us, who we are, who we are supposed to be.”
He said intermarriage is a tenuous argument to be used for multiple connections to various Country. “It is not rightful for anthropologists to tell us who we are – we know who we are!”
Mr Lawrie said that the determination will unsettle the Nullabor. “The Mirning people will lose forever the ownership of our lands and waters to the other five groups.”
“What happened to us, is something that happens to Aboriginal peoples all across the nation and it has to be seen for what it is, a human rights issue and an indictment of flawed processes.”
The Mirning Elders said they had been effectively ignored by Native Title officials. “We believe that the true history of our lands and its peoples must be considered. But the (Native Title community) draws lines in the sand instead of listening to us, or they dump peoples into one heap.”
The Mirning people still maintain their language – Ngandatha, and they are known as the “people of the whale” and as the “whaledreamers.”