Historic rulers return large tracts of Cape York to traditional owners

In a historic case, 2,188 square kilometers of land have been returned to the people of Kuku Yau and Utanlanu.

The decision was announced in the Cairns Supreme Court seven years after the lawsuit was filed.

The land covers an area east of Cape York, on the banks of the Lockhart River, and will be managed by Cape Cuen Aboriginal Corporation and Utalanganu Aboriginal Corporation.

These are the first two successful settlements in the Cape York United # 1 claim, filed on behalf of the traditional owners of Cape York and one of the largest territories registered for the claim in Australia.

The full claim covers more than half of Cape York’s total 79,000 square kilometers.

In the ruling, Justice Debra Mortimer said, “It can only happen because of the hard work and determination of so many people today.”

The land covers the coastal areas near the Lockhart River.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“How long have you been waiting for this,” she said.

There are not many old people here today who want to pass on the knowledge of country, law and customs to the next generation.

A Group Of Smiling Children And Teenagers Sit On The Floor Of A Crowded Courthouse.
Cairns’ courtroom in Cape York was packed with travelers.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

‘Stay here’

Justice Mortimer acknowledged that not everyone was happy with the decision, but hoped that each community would be able to put its differences behind them and look to the future.

“European law and the European government have brought great suffering and oppression to the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and we are still a long way from establishing that right,” she said.

“But it is a necessary step for each of your groups to get this determination of the native title, so that you can use the European law for a good cause, and for the results that can improve the life of your community.”

Cairns Hugs A Man And A Woman Outside The Court.
It’s been seven years since the application was launched.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

That statement was followed by tears and “halelujah” utterances from several delegates in court.

Beatrice Hobson, 80, the traditional owner of Utalanganu Native Title Group, said she was happy but had a long battle to get back her father’s traditional land.

“I am worried about our people because we have been fighting for so long, waiting for the land to return,” she said.

A Group Of Indigenous Girls Perform A Traditional Dance.
Many need to remember the responsibilities of the elders and the next generation.(ABC Far North: Carly Willis)

“Why does it take seven years?”

Richie Ah Matt, chairman of the Cape York Land Council, said the timing of the recognition was “extremely disappointing”.

“Why does it take seven years to determine the title of a country that has to prove that it is connected to its own country?” He said.

“Why did it take so long for the government to accept that this is black land?”

“We don’t have to prove it to anyone – but we have to prove it every step of the way since the British came.

“It’s scary.”

A Tribal Man In A Hat And A Shiny Shirt.
Mr Ah Matt says there is now an opportunity for traditional owners to develop new businesses and inventions in the country.(ABC Far North: Carly Willis)

Mr Ah Matt said waiting for the claims to be investigated had a devastating effect on traditional owners.

“It causes depression in people,” he said.

“Blackflies can’t grow their land, grow their economy, do small business for the community – anything.”

He said that land identification would create great opportunities.

“It’s a key point of determination – uniqueness,” said Mr Ah Matt.

“These people can do whatever they want on their land now.


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