Native title & the Yorta Yorta

In 1992, the Mabo case led to the development of the Native Title Act (NTA) and Tribunal. In February 1994, the Yorta Yorta people were one of the first Indigenous groups in Australia to make a native title claim:

Our mob knew we were taking a chance trusting the system of the white man...but this is like an annihilation of our culture.

– Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta group coordinator

'Yorta people vow to fight on', The Age, 19 December 1998.

Before the Native Title Act, the law described Australia as ‘terra nullius'. This meant that Australia was 'empty' when Europeans arrived and Indigenous Australians had no right to the land.

The NTA gave hope to Aboriginal communities all over the country who – like the Yorta Yorta people – made claims to the government in an attempt to regain the land that had been taken from them after European settlement.

There was a real fear in the general public, however, that Native Title would lead to claims being made on people's personal property. In reality, the NTA only allowed claims to be made on unoccupied, crown land – which the Yorta Yorta land was.

In order to prove native title, Indigenous communities needed to show that they had an uninterrupted connection to the land, and that they observed traditional laws and customs on the land itself.

This was in many cases difficult to prove. On the one hand Indigenous history and culture relies on an oral rather than a written tradition. On the other, the traditional lives of Victorian Aborigines had changed beyond recognition since the arrival of European settlers. This resulted in the loss of language, cultural practices and land.

In the Yorta Yorta claim, the Federal Court of Australia ruled against them. The 1998 ruling was largely due to a conservative and controversial intepretation of the writings of Edward Curr, a squatter who recorded many observations of Aboriginal life in 1850s.

However, the Yorta Yorta people weren't discouraged. They persisted with their claim for the next ten years, and in doing so raised many questions about the Native Title Act,and the ways in which the Australian legal system assessed the validity of Indigenous ties to the land.

In December 2002, the High Court upheld the decision of the Federal Court in determining that the 'tide of history' had washed away and thereby extinguished the Yorta Yorta native title rights.

In April 2004, however, the Bracks government announced a cooperative agreement with the Yorta Yorta people that included recognition of public land, rivers and lakes throughout north-central Victoria.

Image from The Age of Margaret Wirrapunda from the Yorta Yorta people after the rejection of their native title claim.
An Age staff artist's map of the Yorta Yorta land claim area.
Historical outline of the land rights battle from The Age.
Feature article on the Yorta Yorta Native Title case from The Agwe.