Mountain Man's Global Nativity Archive

The Yorta Yorta
Native Title Hearings

A Daily Commentary on the Progress of Justice

Rod Hagen

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - Southern Spring of 1996

Editorial Notation

Day 1 - Melbourne - Tuesday 8th October 1996

by Rod Hagen

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 1838.

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 Forest.

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 issues 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 claimants.

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.

Day 2 - Melbourne - Wednesday 9th October, 1996

The Yorta Yorta Native Title Claim hearings continued today in Melbourne, Australia.

(The Yorta Yorta / Bangerang are claiming their traditional lands along the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in northern Victoria and southern NSW).

Barrister for the claimants, Brian Keon-Cohen, continued his opening address. He tabled extensive documentation in support of the Yorta Yorta case including archaeological, anthropological, historical , and genealogical materials outlining the claimants association with the land from before white settlement to the present day, and statements from 30 Yorta Yorta witnesses who will be called later in the hearing.

He provided examples of the types of evidence the claimants will be relying on, describing evidence of traditional and contemporary land use, rights of inheritance and the complex web of relationships which bind the Yorta Yorta together as a community.

Debate continued about issues such as the confidentiality of genealogical and other materials. Legal representatives of the Herald Sun Newspaper (the tabloid newspaper of the Murdoch group in Melbourne) expressed concern about confidentiality provisions limiting publication of some materials dealing with family relationships and indicated a desire to be heard on the matter the following morning.

At the conclusion of the day Justice Olney convened a meeting of Counsel from the various parties to thrash out the confidentiality issue, and other issues such as hearing locations and facilities. A draft order concerning confidentiality was prepared for further discussion the following morning.

Day 3 - To be updated Soon

Expect it sometime November 1996

Day 4 - Mooroopna, Vic - Monday 28th October 1996

The Yorta Yorta / Bangerang Native Title Claim hearing resumed in a large marquee at Rumbalara, near the rural Victorian town of Mooroopna on Monday, 28th October, 1996. Rumbalara is a major community health and resource centre for Yorta Yorta people of the the region. It began life as a disasterous housing project after police and council authorities bulldozed longstanding fringe camps at Mooroopna in the 1950's. Today it provides an excellent example of the success that can ensue when self determination is given a real chance to work.

The hearing made news in more ways than one. For the first time, the Federal Court of Australia permitted television cameras to record procedings. The major Australian media outlets were all represented.

The Yorta Yorta claimants were also granted permission to film the entire procedings.

Proceedings commenced with a brief introduction to the community from Frances Mathyssen, Chairperson of the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative. Ms Mathyssen also paid tribute to Lyn Onus, a prominent Yorta Yorta artist who had passed away in the course of the week.

Ross Howie, counsel for the claimants, called the first Yorta Yorta witness, Ken Briggs, a member of the Yorta Yorta Elders group.

Mr Briggs gave detailed evidence of his descent from Yorta Yorta people living in the region prior to white ocupation. He spoke of the passage from generation to genertion of traditional rights in the area; rights to the land and its resources, rights to control access to the land. He spoke of his own education in such matters, by men and women who were already old when he was boy in the 1920's and 30's, and of the difficulties which they had faced as a result of the pressures of white settlement in the region.

Ken spoke of the 1939 'walk-off" when the majority of the Yorta Yorta left teh settlement because of an oppressive manager and a dispute about use of some of their lands by a timber mill. They set up camp along the river banks and in the forests near Barmah and Mooroopna. The camps remained for nearly two decades, providing the first home for many of those living today.

He expressed deep concern about the environmentl degradation which had resuklted from the imense pressure on the land and the waterways during his lifetime, and indicated that the Yorta Yorta people .

Ken Briggs was followed by Alf Turner, another Yorta Yorta elder, who spoke in part of the the long history of Yorta Yorta attempts to have tehir interests recognised by white society. He had spent asignificant part of his childhood living with William Cooper, one of Australia's most prominent Aboriginal leaders in the 1930's.

William Cooper's mother was born before white occuption of the area. Cooper was one of te founding members of teh Australian Aborigines League, and organised petitions to King George V seeking better treatment of Aboriginal people. He played an active role in the famous "Day of Mourning" in 1938. He spent most of his life living within Yorta Yorta territories and was buried at Cummeragunja settlement.

Both Ken Briggs and Alfred Turner gave evidence of matters such as traditional boundaries, food prohibitions, the traditional and contemporary use of natural resources and many other matters. Each demonstrated deep knowledge of genealogical associations with the area, dating back to the time of first white occupation in the 1830's.

The day's hearing closed at 4 PM

Day 4 - Mooroopna, Vic - Tuesday 29th October 1996

Ken Briggs gave further evidence this morning, providing extensive information about the family histories and ancestry of scores of Yorta Yorta. After 3 hours of examination, he was replaced by Frances Mathyssen (Chairperson of the Rumbalara Co-operative).

Ms Mathyssen's evidence occupied the remainder of the day. She discussed processes of cultural change and adaptation - emphasising the fierce determination of the Yorta Yorta to maintain their cultural traditions despite being surrounded by non-Aboriginal society. She indicated some of the formal and informal processes which the Yorta Yorta use to maintain these traditions - ranging from the development of formal educational programs at places such as Worawa College, through cultural camps, to the individual activities of parents and grandparents throughout the Yorta Yorta community.

Ms Mathyssen also spoke about the use of traditional herbal remedies, the continuing dependence of many people on traditional food sources and the use of ochres and other natural resources for artefact manufacture.

She spoke too of the immense stress placed upon the burial of members of the Yorta Yorta community on their own territory so that their "spirits can roam free".

The hearing was adjourned at 4.12 PM until the following morning.

This page was last updated
Sunday 17 November 1996


Mountain Man's Global Nativity Archive

The Yorta Yorta
Native Title Hearings

A Daily Commentary on the Progress of Justice

Rod Hagen

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - Southern Spring of 1996