The Land

Indigenous people have occupied Australia for at least 60 000 years and have evolved with the land.

NSW Bark canoe E045964

NSW Bark canoe E045964
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

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Changing it and changing with it. The land was not just soil or rocks or minerals, but a whole environment that sustains, and is sustained, by people and culture.

"I feel with my body. Feeling all these trees, all this country. When this blow you can feel it. Same for country... you feel it, you can look, but feeling... that make you."

Big Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Elder, Kakadu.

For Indigenous Australians the land is the core of all spirituality and this relationship has been deeply misunderstood over the past 200 years or so. This relationship is central to all issues that are important to Indigenous people today.

When European colonisers first arrived in Australia they encountered an unfamiliar land occupied by people they didn't understand. As they didn't understand the peoples' society and their land 'ownership' system, Australia was deemed to be 'terra nullius' and the land was claimed by the British. However Indigenous people fought, and are still fighting, for their land and their lives. The history of these battles is not often told but they involved hundreds of incidents and thousands of people. These stories form a part of the untold history of Australia.

Land Rights

"It is my father's land, my grandfather's land, my grandmother's land. I am related to it, it give me my identity. If I don't fight for it, then I will be moved out of it and [it] will be the loss of my identity."

Father Dave Passi, Plaintiff, 'Mabo' Case in 'Land bilong Islander' 1990

The history of the struggle for land rights goes back to the earliest days of the European occupation of Australia. These struggles too were often resolved through violence as Indigenous people were progressively dispossessed of their land.

The struggle for land rights continues today through the legal and political systems. Some important legal milestones have been reached which show that arrangements based on cultural sensitivity and respect can be successful for all Australians.

Native Title

What is Native Title?

"It is imperative in today's world that the common law should neither be nor be seen to be frozen in an age of racial discrimination."

From the High Court's judgement on the Native Title or 'Mabo' Case, 1992.

On 3 June 1992 the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in Mabo vs The State of Queensland, ruling that the treatment of Indigenous property rights based on the principle of terra nullius was wrong and racist.

The Court ruled that Indigenous ownership of land has survived where it has not been extinguished by a valid act of government and where Aboriginal people have maintained traditional law and links with the land. This legal recognition of Indigenous ownership is called Native Title. The Court ruled that in each case native title must be determined by reference to the traditions and customary law of the Indigenous owners of the land.

Eddie Mabo

"Island people have their own portions of land which are handed down through generations and with my dad's claim, he was denied access to his land through the government and he said "Why? We all have our right to our own lands. I can show you where my boundaries are."

Gail Mabo, Torres Strait Islander, Kempsey, 1996.

In 1982, Eddie Mabo and four other Torres Strait Islander people went to the High Court of Australia claiming that their island, Mer (Murray Island), had been continuously inhabited and exclusively possessed by them, therefore, they were the true owners. They acknowledged that the British Crown had exercised sovereignty when it annexed the islands, but claimed that their land rights had not been validly extinguished.

On June 3 1992, the High Court decided in favour of Eddie Mabo and the other plaintiffs. But Eddie Mabo never heard the ruling, as he died of cancer in January of that year.

The fight for Land Rights

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The first 'Aboriginal Tent Embassy', also known as the 'tent embassy', was established on the lawns of what is now Old Parliament House, on Australia Day, 26 January, 1972. It was called the 'embassy' in order to symbolise the feeling of many Indigenous people that they were essentially foreigners in their own country. The Aboriginal Flag was flown over the 'tent embassy'.

The embassy provided a focus for Indigenous peoples' campaigns for land rights and social justice, as well as a meeting place for all people interested in the issues. It was forcibly removed by police on several occasions, but rebuilt each time. It remained in place until 1975 when its removal was negotiated.

In January 1992, another 'embassy' was established on the same lawns to draw attention to claims for land rights. This is a replica of the 1992 embassy and is still there today.

Wreck Bay

The Wreck Bay community on the south coast of New South Wales, was the first community outside the Northern Territory or Queensland to have traditional land returned.

Wreck Bay is located along a track which Aboriginal people had used for centuries when travelling along the coast, for special occasions and ceremonies, or in recent times, looking for work. The community began as a temporary camp in the mid 1880s, and by 1900 had become permanent, though it residents remained highly mobile.

From the beginning of the twentieth century until 1987 the land was under the control of various Commonwealth and State authorities. In 1954 the community came under the control of the Commonwealth once more. In 1975, after much community lobbying to regain control of their land, the Commonwealth offered the people a lease over the reserve. The community rejected this offer and were eventually successful in winning full title to the land in 1987. Since then, the land has been managed by the Wreck Bay Community Council.

In 1995, the Community Council also obtained title over Jervis Bay Commonwealth National Park. The Council has leased this area back to the Federal Government for use by all Australians.

Wave Hill

The issue of Aboriginal land rights was first brought to national attention in 1966, when 200 Gurindji stockmen, domestics and their families walked off the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory demanding better wages and conditions. The strike, led by Vincent Lingiari, was the catalyst for two decades of struggle as Gurindji people battled to regain control of traditional lands and establish their own cattle station.

In 1967, Gurindji people petitioned the Governor-General, claiming 1295 square kilometres of land near Wave Hill. Their claim was rejected, but in 1975, they won a lease for their land. This, along with 90 square kilometres of land voluntarily surrendered by Wave Hill owners, became Dagaragu cattle station.

In 1985, following a recommendation from Justice Toohey of the Aboriginal Land Commission that the Gurindji be granted traditional land adjacent to Dagaragu, the Gurindji lease was converted to freehold.

The decision was an important milestone in the land rights struggle - as was Dagaragu, the first Aboriginal owned and managed cattle station.


"To expect us to tell you everything in our Law in one day is arrogant. The State Government has not given us a proper hearing... Instead of talking you should have been listening; instead of assuming you had all the knowledge, you should have been trying to learn."

Yungngora Community letter to Premier Court, Western Australia.

In 1971 the Yungngora people employed on Noonkanbah station walked off in protest over poor pay and conditions. Then in 1976, the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission bought Noonkanbah station for the Yungngora community, and the work of revitalising the station under Aboriginal management was begun.

In May 1978, the Yungngora community learned that an exploration company was intending to drill on areas sacred to them. The Yungngora people offered to show drillers alternative sites from the sacred areas. This was refused.

The Western Australian Government was determined that the exploration should proceed and claimed that the religious beliefs of the Yungngora had been "trumped up" or inspired by outside influences.

After court action by the Aboriginal Legal Service, the mining company was required to protect the sacred places. When this was not done satisfactorily, the community blocked access. Elders used media coverage of the blockade to explain their religious beliefs and the importance of the sites. In April 1980, the drillers were finally forced to leave the site.

In August 1981, the Western Australian Government enforced, by law, its rights to oil exploration drilling. The Government provided a heavy police escort so that drilling could continue in the area of the sacred site. The Yungngora resisted peacefully but in vain. Many were arrested and the drilling went ahead.

No oil was discovered.


Uluru is an important place for Aboriginal peoples of the Central Desert. It is a symbol of Australia and a major tourist attraction. When Uluru was returned to Indigenous owners in 1985, it also became an important symbol in development of co-operative relations between government and Aboriginal people.

The largest stone monolith on earth, Uluru was named 'Ayres Rock' by explorer William Grosse in 1875. Regarded as economically useless, Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) were included in the South West Aboriginal Reserve in 1920. In 1958, Uluru and Kata Tjuta were excised from the reserve and declared a national park.

In 1985, the Commonwealth Government made an agreement with the traditional owners of Uluru and Kata Tjuta where the freehold title to the park area was to be vested in the Uluru Kata Tjuta Land Trust, which would then lease the park back to the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Tourism in the park has continued to increase since the handover. The Uluru Kata Tjuta Land Trust has developed plans which aim to preserve the area's heritage value, safeguard the interests of the local Mutijulu community and protect the many sacred sites of the park.

Terra nullius

What is terra nullius?

Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning 'land belonging to no one'. When colonising Australia, the British Government used this term to justify the dispossession of Indigenous people. The British colonists did not recognise the land was being used as Indigenous people did not use the land in the same way as the British. The British saw no evidence of agricultural, social or religious structure like their own, and therefore incorrectly concluded that Indigenous people did not own the land but simply roamed it. By using the principle of terra nullius, the British Government claimed sovereignty over Australia, ignoring the rights of Indigenous people who had lived there for at least 60 000 years.

"The common law of this country would perpetuate injustice if it were to continue to embrace the notion of terra nullius and persist in characterising the Indigenous inhabitants of the Australian colonies as people too low in the scale of social organisation to be acknowledged as possessing rights and interests in land."

Justice Brennan of the High Court of Australia.

Indigenous Land Use

Marking the Land

"My own education was a Yolngu education. It took place with our large family group living in the places on our land that hold special importance for us. With Mum and Dad we went from place to place and every place had its stories."

Mandawuy Yunupingu, Artist/Performer, Arnhem Land, Boyer Lectures,1993.

Over thousands of years Indigenous people have lived in Australia developing a unique system for signposting and marking the land. This system is interconnected with stories of the Dreaming and Spirit Ancestors. Indigenous people use natural features of the landscape to identify and mark the land and its significance. Many Indigenous children learn these "mental maps" of their countries and about how places relate to each other and to people.

Dreaming Tracks

"Our story is in the land... it is written in those sacred places, that's the law. Dreaming place... you can't change it, no matter who you are."

Big Bill Neidjie, Gagadju Elder, Kakadu, 'Australia's Kakadu Man Bill Neidjie' 1986.

Dreaming tracks trace the creative journey of the Spirit Ancestors as they formed the land and laid down the Law. Dreaming tracks are sometimes called 'songlines' and record the travels of the Spirit Ancestors who 'sung up' the country into life. It is believed that performing the right songs and ceremonies at points along the Dreaming track gives people direct access to the Dreaming.

Many Aboriginal communities travel along Dreaming tracks with their young people, telling the stories of the sites. They explain and perform ceremonies to educate the young people about their country and their Dreaming.


Toas are carved wooden and painted objects once used by the Dieri people who live near Lake Eyre in South Australia. They are thought to have been placed in the ground as directional markers, but their true purpose remains a mystery. Their painted tops take many forms. The shape of birds heads, animals, objects such as boomerangs or abstract designs. At the turn of the last century, missionaries made large collections of them.

A Land of Plenty

"A lot of people say Aboriginal people never farmed the land... never ploughed the land and they never grew wheat and they never planted apple tres and orange trees. We never had to. Our mother, the earth, she gave herself freely to us. And because we respected her and loved her, we never had to go and do all them other things. That would have been harming our mother. So we just took what she gave us."

Paul Gordon, Language Officer, Brewarrina, 1996.

Indigenous people accumulated a vast store of knowledge of plants and animals and of the foods and medicines they provided. Aboriginal people call these foods and medicines, bush tucker and bush medicine. There is a huge variety of bush tucker and bush medicine all over Australia for people who know where to find it.

The disruption of Indigenous communities and families during the conquest of Australia resulted in the loss of information about collecting, preparing and using bush medicine. However, as western societies are becoming more and more interested in other forms of healing and natural remedies, efforts are being made to record and publish Indigenous peoples' knowledge of bush tucker and bush medicine.

The Sea

The sea, rivers and waterways of Australia have always played an important role in many Indigenous Australian lives. People first arrived in Australia after crossing 60 kilometres of ocean on crude rafts. They lived along the coasts, then moved inland following rivers an streams. Over time, a wide variety of boats, rafts and other forms of transport were developed, along with fish spears, harpoons, fish hooks and nets for fishing. It is thought that some fishing and boat building technology to have first been introduced by seafaring peoples from the islands to the north of Australia, while other forms were developed in Australia.

Hunting Implements

A variety of tools were developed for hunting and gathering of food. These included spears, boomerangs, clubs, nets, traps, and more recently, rifles. Spears were probably adopted soon after the first Australians arrived in Australia, while boomerangs have been used for at least 10 000 years. Spear throwers and more elaborate fish and animal traps are more recent, some forms dating back a few hundred or a thousand years. In the past, each cultural group made different types of tools, sometimes painting or incising them with clan designs or personal designs.

Bush Food and Medicine

Nutritional studies show that much bush tucker is high in nutrients. Some native grain seeds that Aboriginal people grind into flour have far higher levels of iron, zinc and fibre than wholemeal flour or rice, and the wild plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) is possibly the world's riches source of vitamin C.

Most bush medicine consists of barks, roots and leaves, but non-herbal materials such as animals and minerals are also used. Bush medicine is often administrated in conjunction with ceremonies. Although many Aboriginal people know remedies for everyday ailments, older women are recognised as the experts in bush medicine.

Australia's Untold Stories

Pemulwuy - New South Wales

Pemulwuy was the first of the Aboriginal resistance fighters. Between 1790 and 1802, Pemulwuy waged a guerrilla war on the young colony of New South Wales. This was in response to the invasion of his country, the killing of his people and the restriction of his peoples' food sources caused by the British.

Pemulwuy planned and carried out several 'lightning' or guerilla attacks against the European settlements in the Parramatta and Toongabbie areas.

Pemulwuy was a strong, charismatic leader with a fierce determination to rid his land of the European settlers. He was able to organise his people into a force of more than 100 warriors. The early Governors of the colony recognised Pemulwuy as a threat and sent large parties of soldiers to protect the settlers.

After years of resisting and evading the authorities, Pemulwuy was eventually shot and captured in 1802 and died of his wounds shortly after.

Pemulwuy's reputation as an elusive and powerful leader was so great, that as proof of his death, his head was removed from his body and placed in a bottle of spirits. It was later sent to Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed into Botany Bay with Captain James Cook in 1770.

Waterloo Creek - New South Wales

In late 1837 and early 1838, Major James Nunn of the New South Wales Mounted Police led an expedition into northern New South Wales to resolve complaints by settles about attacks by Aboriginal people.

Nunn was instructed by the Acting Governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Snodgrass, to:

"act according to your judgement and use the utmost exertion to suppress these outrages. There are a thousand blacks there, and if they are not stopped, we may have them presently within the boundaries."

Nunn's expedition travelled widely looking for Aboriginal people believed responsible for the 'outrages'. They eventually cornered a group of Aboriginal people at Waterloo Creek and in a 'battle' lasting ten minutes, massacred 40-50 people. The exact number is not known. Nunn's party then continued its murderous path for the next three days, killing every Aboriginal person it encountered.

On their return journey to Sydney, Nunn and his party were welcomed like heroes by towns along the way.

Myall Creek - New South Wales

In early May 1838, 28 Kwiambal people camping on the Myall Creek station, were murdered by a posse of heavily armed men who had been out hunting Aboriginal people. Most of those killed were women and children.

Eleven men were eventually arrested and tried for murder on 15 November 1838, amid an atmosphere of anger over white men being tried for murder of Aboriginal people. In summing up the case, the Chief Justice said:

"It is clear that the most grievous offence has been committed; the lives of nearly thirty of our fellow creatures have been sacrificed, and in order to fulfil my duty, I must tell you that the life of a black is as precious and valuable in the eye of the law as that of the highest noble in the land."

In spite of the overwhelming evidence, the jury found all eleven men not guilty with only 15 minutes deliberation. However, a second trial was ordered amid great public indignation. This time, only seven men were accused. They were found guilty of murder and hanged. They were the first Europeans to be executed for killing Aboriginal people.

The gaoled men were not even aware they had broken the law, because killing Aborigines was commonly considered a frontier sport.

The Blackline - Tasmania

Tasmania is Australia's second oldest colony, therefore its Aboriginal population experienced early effects of colonisation and were constantly on the 'front line' of violence and reprisal. Random killings and massacres of Aboriginal people were commonplace and Aboriginal people responded in kind. The colonial administrators saw the only answer to the problem of racial violence was removal of the Aboriginal people to reserves or islands out of the way of European settlement.

'The Blackline' is the name given to a systematic attempt by Tasmania's Governor Arthur in 1830 to capture large numbers of Aboriginal people. The strategy involved 2200 soldiers and settlers marching through the bush in a closely packed continuous line. They forced the Aboriginal people in front of them, towards the Tasman Peninsula, where they could be rounded up and captured. This massive effort captured two Aboriginal people - one elderly man and a crippled boy.

Despite the failure of 'the Blackline' the process of removing Aboriginal people to islands continued. On the islands Aboriginal people died in great numbers because of European diseases, poor food and accommodation, ill treatment and, sometimes murder.

Kalkadoon - Queensland

The Kalkadoon people of the Mt Isa region of western Queensland first came into contact with the advancing European pastoralists and miners in the mid 1860s. At first the Kalkadoon people worked with the Europeans as guides and labourers. But as the number of settlers and their stock increased, the competition for the land's resources became more intense, leading to conflict.

The Kalkadoon people began a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the settlers and their stock from about 1871 to 1884. The Kalkadoon gained a reputation as ferocious warriors with an ability to vanish into the bush.

In 1884, the Kalkadoon people killed five Native Police and a prominent pastoralist. The Queensland Government responded by sending a large contingent of heavily armed police to confront the Kalkadoon. The Kalkadoon had retreated to a defensive position now known as 'Battle Mountain'. After fierce resistance the Kalkadoon succumbed to the greater firepower of the police.

It is estimated that 900 Kalkadoon people were killed during the six years that they fought to protect their land.

Jandamarra - Western Australia

One of the most complex figures of early Aboriginal resistance is Jandamarra. He was a Punuba man who lived in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia from 1870-1897. In his early years he lived and worked as a respected stockman.

In 1889 after his initiation Jandamarra met an older Punuba man called Ellemarra and became more aware of the problems being caused by the settlers and their sheep. In 1888 there was a serious drought and the Punuba people were suffering. This was because of the arrival of the Europeans and their sheep had destroyed much of the food and water supplies that the Punuba protected to help them in times of drought. As a result the Punuba needed to hunt sheep to live.

Ellamarra, still considered a young man by his people, knew a lot about the Punuba law and was greatly respected by the younger men. Ellemarra was a natural leader - a good warrior and he was not afraid to stand up to the invaders. He taught Jandamarra and the other young men much about their law.

Jandamarra and Ellemarra were captured in 1889 when Jandamarra walked up to a number of police troopers he knew, and they tricked him into guiding them to his campsite. Jandamarra didn't know that he was wanted by the police. His old employer had laid charges against him for killing a sheep in May 1889, annoyed that Jandamarra had not return to the station after his initiation. The police dropped the charges against him and he returned to stock work. He eventually became a police tracker. He later helped police capture Ellemarra and 16 other Punuba warriors.

Jandamarra was scorned by his people for helping the police capture Ellemarra, so he assisted Ellemarra and the other warriors to escape. During the escape, Jandamarra shot a policeman. He joined the band of escapees and began a campaign to rid the area of European settlers. Colonial authorities responded by sending 30 police to capture Jandamarra and the band. In the battle that followed at Windjana Gorge Jandamarra was injured but managed to escape. He continued to taunt police and was soon believed immortal by his people. His campaign came to an end in 1897 when, after another skirmish with police, he was tracked and shot dead by an Aboriginal trooper.

Jandamarra is still remembered by his people as a defender of Aboriginal rights.

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