They marched a day after the Federal Court of Australia came to Mitchell Shire Hall to make a consent determination. Justice John Reeves announced the decision shaking hands with Gunggari elder Wayne Saunders as many people cheered and wept. The determination recognises native title rights and interests over 13,600 sq km of land and waters in central southern Queensland. The area is broken up into parcels, the two biggest of which are in the middle of a triangle between Mitchell (east) Charleville (west) and Bollon (south).
In these areas, the Gunggari People negotiated Indigenous Land Use Arrangements (ILUA) with three local councils (Maranoa, Balonne and Murweh), electricity supplier Ergon, telecommunications provider Telstra and five pastoral properties. Once the ILUAs are formalised, the Gunggari Native Title Aboriginal Corporation will be the prescribed body corporate to manage the native title rights. Their rights are non-exclusive but allow Gunggari people access to travel, camp, hunt, teach, light fires and use water in the areas affected. They can also hold religious ceremonies and spiritual activities on the land.
The rights are a long time coming. Queensland South Native Title Services principal legal officer Tim Wishart handed the list of documents to Justice Reeves on which the claim was based. Wishart made a powerful speech documenting the history of the Gunggari “from time beyond memory”. Wishart said the Gunggari land ran west from the Maranoa River and included the headwaters of the Nebine Creek, Mungallala Creek, Wallam Creek and Neabul Creek which together feed into the greater Murray-Darling basin. They fought to protect those lands “probably before English developed as a language,” Wishart said.
They were disinclined to let European invaders have free run of the place after Sir Thomas Mitchell first explored the area in 1846. In 1855 an exasperated Crown Land Commissioner Wiseman wrote “No tribe will allow of the peaceable occupation of their country,” The whites fought back and with superior weaponry killed at least 75 Aboriginals along the Maranoa River up to 1862. In 1880, George Thorn (who served as Queensland premier two years earlier) boasted the inland Queensland Aboriginals were “pretty well shot down and got rid of”.
Thorn was wrong. The Gunggari and other tribes hung on tenaciously even after losing the war to the colonials. Monitored by the border police and native police, they were tolerated as joint owners of the land until the twentieth century when the patriarchal attitudes of the new Commonwealth brought about the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of Sale of Opium Acts 1901. Under this act the camps that existed across the Maranoa were dismantled and hundreds of people were moved east and north into alien lands at government reserves and missions at Taroom, Purga, Barambah/Cherbourg, Palm Island and Woorabinda.
Most Gunggari ended up at Taroom settlement established in 1911. They stayed there until 1927 when the site was abandoned for a dam on the Dawson River. Though the dam never went ahead, they were marched north to a site west of Rockhampton called Woorabinda. Here they were among 17 different language groups under the control of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, who was supposed to “protect them from acts of cruelty, oppression and injustice.” Instead he turned a blind eye at best, or ran schemes at worst, to rob Aboriginals of what little they had.
The few Gunggari that remained on country didn’t have it easy either. They gravitated to Mitchell and were housed on the Yumba (“camp”) on the eastern edge of town near the Maranoa River. At the Yumba, Gunggari elders spoke their language but repressive white attitudes discouraged them from passing on their knowledge to the next generation. They did pass on the cultural laws and customs and hunting traditions. Yumbas were often shantytowns and Mitchell and Surat demolished theirs in the 1960s. The people moved into town and started meeting the whites in school when previously they would only ever meet on the rugby league or netball field.
The 1967 referendum, the Keating Redfern speech and Mabo and Wik decisions slowly changed attitudes. Robert Munns for the Gunggari People first filed a native title application in March 1996 and followed it through despite no legal representation for 11 years. The application was modified in 1998 to reduce the covered areas and the application was split into two parts in 2001. In 2007 Queensland South Native Title Services became the legal representative and they registered an ILUA with the Queensland Government in 2008 for the first part which saw parcels of land change hands in the Dunkeld area south of Mitchell. Friday’s decision was for the second half. Munns did not live to see it. He died in July 2009 and five others continued the application.
In December 2010, the State of Queensland began substantive mediation. The applicant and respondents submitted their material to the Federal Court who announced their decision on Friday. As well as the many Gunggari who celebrated in Mitchell, others celebrated from afar such as Queensland State of Origin star Johnathan Thurston and Opera Australia baritone Don Bemrose. “I am very proud to say I am a member of the Gunggari community,” Thurston said. “It is important that our history with this land, and our customs, have been observed in this way and I congratulate everyone who has fought for this recognition over the past 17 years – almost as long as I’ve been playing rugby league.”
Bemrose, the first Aboriginal member of Opera Australia, said he was always proud and honoured to represent the Gunggari. “This moment is acknowledgement of our people’s continued bond with the Maranoa and the persistence, dedication and strength of a few to do all possible to again connect our land to all Gunggari past, present and future is amazing,” he said. As Wishart concluded in Court on Friday, the determination has confirmed what the Gunggari already knew: the land was theirs.