Native title determination at Pila Nature Reserve in WA’s Gibson Desert sets new ‘precedent’

Daisy Tjuparntarri Ward leans forward in her camp chair as a young man in black robes starts to speak.

From a table on a lake bed, cracked and dry from the Gibson Desert sun, judge’s associate Jared Hee delivers the speech Ms Ward fought 20 years to hear.

“Orders have been made to determine native title in favor of the Pila Nature Reserve traditional owners,” he says, reading the words of Federal Court Justice Craig Colvin who could not attend Wednesday’s ceremony.

Ms. Ward’s face splits into a wide grin.

After decades of disappointment she, and other traditional owners of the 19,000 square kilometer reserve, have had their land rights formally published in law.

Judge’s associate Jared Hee speaks on behalf of Justice Craig Colvin.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

About 80 traditional owners, government and legal representatives gathered at a sacred site called Mina Mina on the reserve, which is nearly 2,000 kilometers north-east of Perth.

After finishing his speech, Mr Hee handed printed copies of the native title determination to traditional owners, who joyfully posed with them for photos.

“It’s really, really, really sad. And then now, it’s really happy.

“HAPPY happy!”

Two Aboriginal men in colorful clothes stand next to a man in black robes holding up a document and pointing to it
Traditional owners stand next to Mr Hee proudly holding copies of their native title determination.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

But the celebration will echo far beyond the rust-red roads of the Gibson Desert.

The native title determination is the first in the nation to be made using a new law, which may renew hope in those who lost it long ago.

A long battle for recognition

Recognizing land rights on the Pila Nature Reserve seemed almost impossible in the early 2000s.

An earlier High Court ruling had set a devastating precedent — that native title could not be recognized on vested (held by government) reserves.

Three woman stand dancing in front of a portable gazebo filled with people in suits set up in a dry area
The remote ceremony begins with dancing, singing, and by welcoming people to the Mina Mina site.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

That meant when the Ngaanyatjarraku Lands claim was determined in 2005, the connecting Pila Nature Reserve was excluded.

So began a long and arduous journey to see those rights restored by another legal means, resulting in blow after blow for traditional owners.

But hope was reignited last year in the form of an amendment to the Native Title Act.

The change — known as 47C — paved a way for traditional owners to overcome the previous set all those years ago and have their land rights recognized on nature reserves and national parks.

Setting a new ‘previous’

Malcolm O’Dell, the principal legal officer at Central Desert Native Title Services, said people around Australia would be heartened to know the law worked.

A man in a checkered shirt stars happily at the camera
Lawyer Malcolm O’Dell says the Pila Nature Reserve determination will set a precedent.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

“It’s significant [because] anywhere it can apply, and that’s probably right across Australia, it allows for native title to be recognized in circumstances where previously it couldn’t be,” he said.

But the new law has some unique caveats.

It requires that traditional owners still occupy the land they are claiming rights to, and that the state government is on board when the application for native title is made.

In this case the government has opted to have the land jointly vested between it and traditional owners.

The latter will be represented by the Warnpurru Aboriginal Corporation as the two work together on a joint management plan.

People alight from a small plane in the desert
A legal team arrives at nearby Patjarr Airport ahead of the ceremony.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

“[The joint vesting] is really important because it does mean the government can provide funds and assist all that land management activity,” Mr O’Dell said.

A settlement package has set aside $7.5 million over 10 years to support joint management activities, such as creating ranger programs and tourism offerings on the remote country.

‘No more land grabbing’

Traditional owners were invited to speak after the ceremony at the Mina Mina sacred site.

An Indigenous woman with a yellow band around her head look sad while holding a microphone
Ms Ward remembers those who fought for land rights but have passed away.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

Many described their joy at having their land rights finally written into law, but also the toll the journey had taken.

Ms Ward was emotional, saying so many people who were part of the fight had passed away.

But she was optimistic about the future.

“It’s our dad’s, my sister’s country, my grandmother’s country.

“I am really happy for what’s been given to us and, at the same time when we need to work with the government, we still need to work together, like black and white together.”

An Indigenous person in a blue beanie holds a document happily above their head
The determination was printed out and handed to traditional owners.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

Valerie Ward, who has long been part of the effort, held the printed copy of the native title determination and said she was happy.

“This is mine,” she said, hitting the document with her hand.

“I’m going to put it up in the house now.”

A close up image of Indigenous man with a white beard and wise facial expression
This traditional owner hopes governments and institutions learn from the mistakes of the past.(ABC Goldfields: Emily JB Smith)

But another traditional owner just hoped lessons had been learnt.

“I’m glad to see that finally the state and federal have come to terms, getting rid of their own guilt of stealing the land from the Aboriginal people of this land,” Bernard Newberry said.

“Today and forever until the end of time.”

“So let it be—no more land grabbing.”

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