Yorta Yorta Native Title Claim - Australia

Rod Hagen (rodhagen@netspace.net.au)
Thu, 10 Oct 1996 23:44:35 +1000

Yorta Yorta Native Title Hearings - Day 1

The Yorta Yorta Native Claim hearings began in the Federal Court in
Melbourne on Tuesday 8th October. 40 to 50 Yorta Yorta people attended the
hearings before Justice Olney. This is the first claim to reach the
Federal Court under the Native Title Act, 1993 for a full hearing. As such
it is likely that many issues of importance to others involved with Native
Title claims will arise in the course of the hearings. Others involved
with similar indigenous rights issues in other parts of the world may also
find the proceedings interesting.

As the anthropologist engaged by the claimants to prepare anthropological
and historical materials I expect to attend throughout the hearings. I
will endeavour the keep the readers of relevant mailing lists (such as
recoznet-l@peg.apc.org and aborig-native-title-l@postbox.anu.edu.au)
informed of their progress on a regular (hopefully daily) basis. I will
also occasionally post to relevant Usenet newsgroups.

Traditional Yorta Yorta / Bangerang lands lie on both sides of the Murray
River roughly from Echuca to Albury / Wodonga. They include towns such as
Shepparton, Benalla and Wangaratta and extend northwards to just south of
Denilquin. The claim seeks confirmation of the continuation of native
title over forests and other public lands along the Murray and Goulburn
Rivers. The claim is lodged by 270 selected applicants, representing the
4,000- 4,500 living Yorta Yorta / Bangerang people.

A related claim seeks compensation for all lands lost as a result for the
extinguishment of title through land grants etc from the time of first
white occupation of the area (an earlier judgement by Justice French,
overturning the compensation claim has been set aside a as result of the
Wik judgement concerning the role of the NT tribunal). This claim is
currently still with the Native Title Tribunal.

Brian Keon Cohen, representing the claimants (together with Ross Howie
when he returns from the Northern Territory), introduced the case with a
broad introduction to the Yorta Yorta and their interests in the area. He
pointed out that the first words recorded in writing of any of the
indigenous people people of the area were "Yanicka, Yanicka" (go away!)
when an early settler/explorer (Hawdon) drove cattle through the area in

Since that time, he indicated, the Yorta Yorta have made numerous claims
for recognition of their interests. Edward Curr, in 1840, received a
similar response on first visiting areas in the vicinity of the Barmah

In the 1860's ancestors of the claimants sought damages from the Governor
of NSW for damages sustained as a result of the impact of white settlement
on their traditional fisheries on the Murray River. In the 1880's they
petitioned for the return of parts of their lands on two occasions.
Similar demands for recognition have been made repeatedly up to the time
of the present claim.

The claimants have strongly put forward the view that the onus for proving
any extinguishment of native title rests firmly with the opponents of the
claim. The Yorta Yorta have never abandoned their traditional lands, nor
have they ceased to exist as a people (as evidenced by the thousands of
tribal members living upon them today together with clear evidence of an
unbroken chain of occupation of the area).

Another significant issus about which debate commenced on the first day
involved questions of confidentiality of genealogical and other material.
An interim order controlling the disemination of exhibits and other
evidence dealing with genealogical details and other matters was kept in
place until these matters are decided.

Some 500 objectors indicated their intention to be heard when the claim
was first lodged. Many now appear to have abandoned their objections and
have failed to lodge any formal response to the claim. Major objectors
remaining include the Victorian Government, the NSW Government and the
Murray Darling Water Authority. Other parties include a group of
"recreational users" of the area, timber, fishing, and farming interests,
and local government bodies. On the opening day some fourteen barristers
and QC's crowded the bar table. Only one of them represented the

Australian Land Claim followers may be interested to know of the presence
of barristers Graham Hiley (who has appeared in various capacities in
Northern Territory Land Claims) and Mark Hird (formally a Central Land
Council lawyer) representing some of the objectors.

The court hearings will continue this week in Melbourne, hearing the
opening address of the claimants and seeking to resolve procedural issues.
They will resume on October 28th in various locations in Yorta Yorta
traditional territory. It is at present anticipated that the claim
hearings will continue until the middle of 1997, though there are concerns
that the adoption of a piecemeal approach, in which title is argued on a
block by block, person by person basis by oponents of the claim could
extend this by many years.

On the evening prior to the first day of hearing the Yorta Yorta held a
gathering for claimants and support staff. It was addressed by Noel
Pearson formerley of the Cape York Land Council and a prominent figure in
Native Title debates. He paid eloquent tribute to the many significant
Yorta Yorta figures in indigenous political scene during the last century
including people such as William Cooper, a prominent figure in the
establishment of the Aborigines Progress Association and in the National
Day of Mourning in the 1930's. (Other leaders of this period, Jack Patten
and William Ferguson, also had connections with the Yorta Yorta by descent
or marriage).

He also spoke of the inspiration he received as a child from men such as
Sir Doug Nicholls, who became the first indigenous Governor of an
Australian state and women such as Elizabeth Hoffman, Geraldine Briggs and
Margaret Tucker who have played major roles in the indigenous rights
movement for decades and who are amongst the current claimants.

Rod Hagen

Hurstbridge, Victoria, Australia

Rod Hagen
Hurstbridge, Victoria, Australia