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Is Native Title recognition enough?

By Brad Saunders - posted Monday, 15 July 2013

In any debate about "what does native title bring to Aboriginal groups?", the discussion inevitably gravitates towards economic outcomes and how native title will bring economic independence for Aborigines. However for the Gunggari peoples, especially in the short term of 3-5 years it is not likely that native title will bring noticeable economic gains.

For Gunggari peoples the focal point for their native title battle has almost singularly been on the journey to be recognised as the indisputable traditional owners for the claim area and to ultimately be granted native title. The journey was long and at times arduous and along the way they lost a number of Elders, their knowledge and guidance and the saddest loss of all was the claimant who first lodged the claim over 16 years ago. Energy and critical decision making by the claimants focussed on positioning the claim to ensure Gunggari could be granted a consent determination. This sole focus led to decisions to redraw boundaries so as to reduce the impacts of overlapping claim areas. Boundaries continued to re-negotiated up to the final stages with the last and most significant negotiation being with tribal neighbours. This ultimately provided the final impetus for granted native title to be granted. Gunggari claimants did negotiate a number of ILUA. It is important to note that the language in each agreement is not about creating wealth but about highlighting further avenues for recognition that the group are the custodians of the land along the Maranoa River near Dunkeld.

So here we are 12 months along almost to the day. The voices of our youth or young adults give an insight into what native means for Gunggari people:


To our young claimant - "Native Title is just a piece of paper, but with that comes a lot of responsibility which I am proud to help with. It also means that we have been recognized as the true owners of this land in the law".

An additional quote from another young Gunggari young woman reinforces the importance of recognising the connection to land -"The legal recognition to me means very little. To me it is all about the symbolic meaning. It cements my cultural connection to the land. It allows me to feel safe knowing that into the future my connection to culture will be there to share with my kids or nieces and nephews. That it will not be lost or forgotten. To me it means I can stand a little taller, be stronger in my identity as an Aboriginal woman, be more confident when I tell people I am Gunggari". 

The decision by the Federal Court was greeted with a great deal of euphoria. Many tears were shed and there was a great sense of achievement. The Gunggari people had been recognised as Native Title holders and were now the undisputable custodians of the land along the Maranoa River near Dunkeld. On the day and since for Gunggari people recognition as native title holders has strengthened their capacity to demonstrate within and outside the group that they know who they are and where they are from. This is an important component for Aboriginal people to carry out introduction protocols. For Gunggari the most sought outcome from native title is and continues to be cultural strength and ensuring future generations know where they are from, their familial connections to the land. A noticeable outcome from native title recognition has been a freer exchange between Gunggari people about culture ways.

It appears that native title has created a safe place for Gunggari people to tell the stories. This safe place provides for individuals both young and old to share the snippits of knowledge each has held in trust for so long. Families are having regular conversations about their ancestry, telling stories about people and places that were told to them grandparents, uncles and aunties. This safe place has encouraged more use of language and words are now being injected into everyday conversations between cousins and childhood friends.

Since the determination some are now asking will recognition be enough and how will it or can it provide sustainable outcomes for the future Gunggari generations?

For the directors of the newly formed PBC who will ultimately lead this discussion and develop strategies, it is early days. Currently they are forming and developing a governance structure to manage and administer access to the land for Gunggari generations and others. The opportunity to fully consider the future outcomes whether they are sustainable or short term is yet to present itself. The risk for the Gunggari PBC is that the need to develop policies and guidelines to ensure equitable access to all Gunggari generations will take all their energies and they never get to develop strategy for implementation. The other issue for the PBC is which pathway will deliver sustainable outcomes. The native title area does not contain any of the rapidly growing industries such as energy or mining so it is unlikely in the short to medium term 3-10 years that pursuit of an industry partner will deliver results. The Chairperson of the PBC's thoughts about the future are:


"I believe the future for the Gunggari people will not be dependent upon CSG reserves. The key to our future belongs in education and training for opportunities in eco-tourism and in building partnerships not only with business but also with our Aboriginal neighbours."

Historically the Gunggari people have invested considerable energy and their own money into developing a strong cultural heritage knowledge bank and local infrastructure. Elders have attracted considerable funding and expertise to assist with the maintenance and teaching of the Gunggari language. Gunggari Elders are founding members of Federation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages (FATSIL) and this has led to the establishment of a language laboratory in the local Mitchell town library. Language is an important component of recognition and subsequently the Gunggari Elders were one of the first Aboriginal groups to teach an Aboriginal language in a Queensland school. Language maintenance and teaching offers opportunity to further develop sustainable outcomes for the future.

Another component of Gunggari cultural infrastructure are the historical exhibitions utilising both still photographs and video. These exhibitions have captured Gunggari history and provide excellent teaching materials to transmit culture, heritage and stories between the generations. In more recent times the exhibition materials have been reused to create cultural heritage trails and to rebuild the Yumba which is was the original fringe dwelling camp for Aboriginal people around Mitchell.

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About the Author

Brad Saunders is a contributing editor to On Line Opinion.

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All articles by Brad Saunders

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