Katherine Mayor Fay Miller yesterday apologised on behalf of the citizens of Katherine for fighting long and hard against the Jawoyn people for control of Nitmiluk.
Speaking at the 30th anniversary celebrations of the successful land claim, Mayor Miller said she was embarrassed by "the nastiness" which happened in Katherine at the time the claim was lodged 40 years ago.
The NT Government and Katherine Town Council joined forces to oppose the land claim through long court proceedings which caused high emotion and animosity.
The gorge was called the jewel in Katherine's tourism crown and authorities at the time feared it would be closed off, or mismanaged.
Jawoyn representatives yesterday said it was a painful time.
Mayor Miller said: "I really am very sorry that that happened."
Over the past week the Jawoyn people have been celebrating 30 years since they took back possession of Nitmiluk.
But it has actually been 40 years have passed since they had the gumption to lay claim to one of Australia's most prized tourist assets.
Today we remember a previous story we compiled to mark that long fight.
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 more than 270,000 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 have marked that first bold step on March 31 1978, when 20 Jawoyn people first claimed their traditional lands.
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," the Jawoyn Association stated.
"Despite concerns we would close our land and Nitmiluk to visitors, we did the opposite."
Association CEO John Berto last year 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," documents from the time state.
"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."
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