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Links to land weather ravages of time

Moree Champion 02 Jun, 2012

Even after more than a decade working on native title in NSW, anthropologist Ken Lum was amazed at what the computer spat out when he fed it details of the Gomeroi people's history and connections to country.

In support of their claim over more than 111,000 square kilometres lodged in December, Lum's six-member team at NTSCORP, the NSW native title claim peak body, had compiled family trees for 60,000 people, the largest known genealogy of Australian Aborigines ever, conducting more than 1000 interviews, combing through newspapers, school, police and farm records and mapping it all in software.

They purchased hundreds of birth, death and marriage certificates at $30 apiece and mapped Gomeroi kinship patterns from the beginning of formal record-keeping in 1830 to the present.

According to Lum, who worked for 10 years with the Northern Land Council in Darwin with people thought to have kept the most pristine links to land and culture, computer mapping demonstrated that the old way of life was still very much alive in the new, in Gomeroi country stretching from Singleton to Moree and out to Walgett.

''It shows the connection of people and country are strong and they are still following the same marriage patterns and customs. Most of them don't know explicitly the rules they are following but they are actually following them because their parents might say, 'You can't marry that person', knowing that person is a close relative,'' Lum says.

''So the old structure is still there. And most know about their sections and the proper kinship structures. They know what they are allowed to eat and where they are allowed to go,'' he says.

It was a revelation of national import, given that during the tense talks with the Keating government before the Native Title Act after the High Court's Mabo decision - made 20 years ago this weekend - the indigenous negotiators were divided into the ''A'' team from the north and the ''B'' team from southern Australia.

Lum says the research has confirmed that it is a myth that south-eastern Australian indigenous people are somehow lesser Aborigines because of their more intensive, earlier colonisation.

''I don't think there is much of a difference, to be honest,'' he says. This may give cheer to those who had hopes that Mabo would make a difference to Aborigines even in the south, but who find in the National Native Title Tribunal's publication to mark the 20th anniversary that 35 NSW determinations have found ''native title does not exist'' while only two have confirmed that it does.

Further, many applicants seeking to prove its extinguishment have been land councils clearing the way to make their own claims under the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which does not require the same onerous proof of continuous connection with traditional country. This has sparked conflict within indigenous communities.

Warren Mundine, the outgoing head of NTSCORP, reckons that the tribunal's agreement to register the Gomeroi claim is proof that Mabo will reap rewards for NSW Aborigines, largely because it forces developers to come to the table with traditional owners. And that includes the coalminers, from whom they will be seeking jobs.

''It's a registered title now and it covers some of the most pristine coalmining and gas operations in Australia,'' he says.

Lum says the Gomeroi claimants are already negotiating with proponents.

Fifty-two per cent of the state is involved, including the Barkandji claim over 130,000 square kilometres of far western NSW, the Ngemba/Ngiyampaa application covering 95,000 square kilometres in the north-west and numerous smaller applications, Mundine says.

The political will of the O'Farrell government to make agreements will be tested by the proposals to forge deals over six NSW claims now before cabinet.

So far, the only NSW native title wins for Aborigines have been through deal-making. In the first, the Dunghutti people held native title for a split second in 1997 before the Carr government gave them a $738,000 cheque, with $6.1 million to come later in compensation, for having it extinguished in a Crescent Head subdivision.

When the $6.1 million was paid in 2010, elder Ruth Campbell-Maruca called it a ''first treaty''. Sadly, internal fights over money wound up in court, but a new board of elders has brought fresh hope.

The Githabul people now have a say in nine northern NSW national parks and 13 state forests following a consent determination four years ago, while at Byron Bay that year the Bundjalung made a deal with the state government that gave them a role in the newly created Arakwal National Park.

Is this enough, after two decades?

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples heads Les Malezer and Jody Broun have said no, asking the Prime Minister, Julie Gillard, for talks over native title's failure to deliver property rights for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The indigenous Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, thinks Aborigines may now start to see the benefit. ''If we thought it was going to create nirvana on day one, we were kidding ourselves … What native title did was to give us a seat at the table when there were discussions around our land,'' he says.

While the social justice package that Keating promised languishes undelivered, there has been a notable change in the attitude of farmers, who have learnt to live with the concept of co-existence created by the Wik decision that found native title could exist in pastoral leases, Gooda says.

The National Farmers' Federation vice-president, Duncan Fraser, who farms sheep and cattle at Hay, agrees. ''A lot of tension has dissipated out of it. There is still a lot of emotion there but in some ways, as landholders, we understand what the indigenous applicant is going through,'' he says.

That is because many farmers now argue that explorers and miners should take account of their own connection to the land.

Mundine, who is leaving NTSCORP to head miner Andrew Forrest's indigenous employment project, Generation One, is upbeat about what native title agreements will deliver.

''I would not be surprised in the next 30 years if some of the richest people in Australia, when they look at the BRW list if it's still around, will have black faces, due to mining and spin-offs of that,'' he says.

But he says some mining companies act as if it is the bad old days when miners such as Hugh Morgan fought native title as if it were the devil. ''These companies have to treat Aboriginal people equally and stop being bully boys and using the tactics of the 1990s, which they've given up using in Western Australia. Stop using them in NSW,'' he says.