For 18 years, the Wubalawun people have fought to gain native title rights over one square kilometre of land over the township of Larrimah, in the central Top End.
On Wednesday, their claim was finally recognised by the Federal Court of Australia.
“It’s been a struggle,” said claimant Alan Maroney, outside the court in Darwin.
“[I was] forever questioning myself whether it’s been worth it, but after today, my heart’s been lifted to say, ‘Yes it’s been bloody worth it’.”
The Wubalawun community has been living on an outstation outside of the troubled township of Larrimah, 500 kilometres south of Darwin.
Elders hope the younger generation will now be able to move into the town and take control of the economy.
“We’ve got the bargaining power in regards to talking to the Northern Territory government in assisting us to build the township of Larrimah, which I believe can prosper,” Mr Maroney said.
“Building that town back up and making it a friendly town, instead of a town that you just pass in, get your fuel and pass through.”
The area under native title covers just one square kilometre, and is currently home to 11 residents.
“It’s relatively small, but it is nevertheless a significant determination,” Justice Richard White told the court.
“It’s a determination that native title exists and has always existed, at least since before settlement in 1875.”
He acknowledged that it had “taken too long” to be resolved, and commended the claimants for their “extraordinary patience and dedication”.
Traditional owner Jimmy Wavehill, who lives in Kalkarindji, helped his Wubalawun family to lodge the official claim with the Federal Court seven years ago.
“We help each other, we do our best, and we got our country back,” he said.
Mr Wavehill was also among the Aboriginal stockmen who walked off Wave Hill Station in protest in 1966, sparking the Land Rights movement, and has led previous successful native title claims.
Pre-settler Aboriginal economy recognised
It was an historic day, the Northern Land Council said, as the case represented the first time in the NT that both parties agreed that evidence of an Aboriginal economy in the area, prior to white settlement, should be part of the court’s determination.
“It means there’s recognition that there was basically an economy that Aboriginal people had at the time of the settlers arriving,” NLC chairman Joe Morrison said.
“Obviously, Aboriginal people know that there was a customary economy in place, and this recognises that in a modern context.”
Mr Morrison said it followed a precedent set by a native title case in the Torres Strait.
“It’s very important around Australia that this is being followed, because it recognises that Indigenous people are involved in commercial activities as well as just having a bundle of rights recognised by the Federal Court,” he said.
Justice White said it was significant the Northern Territory government had delivered joint statement with the claimants.
“I believe now that our next generation should be able to stand up and say, ‘Yes, this is our country’, finally,” Mr Maroney said.
There are also plans for ranger program to be set up to further secure opportunities for generations of Wubalawun people to come.
‘Bring our children back home’
The historic determination will mark an interesting turning point for the ailing township of Larrimah, which was rocked by the disappearance of long-time resident Paddy Moriarty last December in suspicious circumstances.
The Larrimah Hotel – also known as the Pink Panther Pub – was sold over the weekend for an undisclosed amount to an unnamed but reportedly prominent NT family.
Residents had expressed their desire to see it maintained and continued.
“It would be a disaster if it closed down … we’d die of thirst,” said local Len Hodson.
“The pub is very important for any town… if it closed up, we’re concerned that Larrimah will close up with it,” said resident Karen Rayner.
Mr Maroney said there was a lot of opportunity in the town.
“There’s been so many projects that have not been tapped into due to the makeup of the township,” he said.
“Now we can open up to places that have never been opened up before.”
He said he wanted to bring the next generation back to Larrimah, and had his eye on the northern part to build new homes.
“Bring our children back home, they [can] run the town,” he said.