Forty years have passed since an Aboriginal tribe had the gumption to lay claim to one of Australia’s most prized tourist assets.
Hindsight shows the Jawoyn people have been exactly the hospitable owners they promised to be when they signed a 99 year lease to hand the land back as soon as they took possession on September 10, 1989.
Jawoyn Traditional Owners signed an agreement to lease the land back to the Government to be managed as a National Park in partnership with the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory.
This was the government which had fought them so bitterly in the 11 year tug-of-war for Nitmiluk.
At the heart of the contest was the ancient 13-kilometre long series of 100 metre high gorges cut through the sandstone.
It was seen then, as it is today, as the jewel in the crown of Katherine’s important tourist industry.
Land title claims were coming thick and fast, mostly for undeveloped northern country which few people other than the traditional owners cared for.
But for Nitmiluk, one of the world’s natural wonders, visited by 250,000 people a year, it was and still is, a treasure.
The land was officially handed back to traditional owners on September 10, 1989.
It was one of Australia’s first major land claims.
The Jawoyn people will mark that first bold step on March 31 1978, when 20 Jawoyn people first claimed its traditional lands in the Katherine region, with anniversary celebrations at Nitmiluk’s youth park this weekend.
“Forty years on, we recognise our elders and all those who worked with us during that time, and now,” the Jawoyn Association said.
Anniversary celebrations will be held at Youth Park on Saturday, March 31 from 11am-4pm with a bunggul, bands and a barbecue.
History records the claim was met with “fierce opposition” from the NT Government, and Katherine Town Council.
A poll at the time shows most Katherine people opposed the land title bid.
Signs were erected by angry homeowners on nature strips saying “sacred ground”.
Today the Jawoyn people say the land claim was the beginning of a long-fought battle that lasted 11 years to win back our country “so we could keep our connection to our special places and keep it healthy”.
“Eventually we won - and ever since we have been sharing our country.
“Despite concerns we would close our land and Nitmiluk to visitors, we did the opposite.”
Jawoyn Association CEO John Berto said the sky had not fallen in, as some people had thought it might.
“I think most people can see how much the attraction has improved for all,” he said.
The Jawoyn people convinced the court they had lived on the land that is now Nitmiluk National Park for thousands of years.
It took years of hearings, visits, and legal argument.
Jawoyn successfully contested they had traditional tenure over the land for many, many generations.
They camped along the bank of the Katherine River in the Dry and moved in the Wet to the high broken tableland between Katherine and Edith Falls, where there was an abundance of game.
At the end, the transcript of evidence came to 4584 pages; there were over 200 exhibits and more than 800 pages of written legal submissions.
“We looked after the land according to Puwurr, our Dreaming and lived off its resources.”
“The first Chairman of the Nitmiluk Board, Bangardi Nagarimayn, expressed our feelings when he said at the Nitmiluk Title Handover Ceremony in 1989:
“We are here today, we have our land back, and we have this piece of paper that tells the world that this is Jawoyn country. But we can’t live on a piece of paper. Paper is a whitefella thing, and means nothing unless there is respect for people and for country. It means nothing unless there is a future.”