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Tanami Downs : “Mongrel” station has new future

March 1993

Land Rights News Vol 2, No 27 Mar 1993 Area Returned: 4,200 sq km Mangkururrpa Aboriginal Land Trust Claim lodged: 19 June 1989 Title handed over: 21 December 1992

It was not until the beginning of this century that the traditional landowners of the area now known as Tanami Downs had to leave their country, after 22,000 years. Tanami Downs, until recently Mongrel Downs station, is about 700 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.

The station is in the far north west of the Northern Territory, right on the Western Australia border.

It is virtually surrounded by Aboriginal land. To the north and east is the Central Desert Aboriginal Land Trust and to the south, the Yiningarra Aboriginal Land Trust. Tanami Downs was purchased for the traditional landowners with Aboriginal Development Commission fund in early 1989.

A land claim over the Tanami Downs lease area was lodged soon after and was heard by Land Commissioner Justice Olney in late 1990.

His report recommending the grant of the land was issued in March 1992.

The country is a mixture of "poor and excellent cattle country." Although droughts are regular, the station has some mountainous areas with permanent water and the central and northern portions are good plains covered with "neverfail" grass, claypans and lakes, providing the basis for the cattle operation.

When purchased the station was running about 3,500 head of cattle. In non-Aboriginal terms, Tanami Downs is very isolated. But from 22,000 years ago up until 1945, the area was a focus for large ceremonial meetings in favourable seasons. Traditional language groups in the region include Warlpiri, Ngarti, Kukatja and Kartangarurra.

These traditional landowners did not start to leave their country until around the turn of century, when encroachment by the pastoral industry began to force them away.

The process was speeded up by gold rushes to Tanami and the Granites in 1911 and 1932, both influxes of newcomers placing severe stress on the Aboriginal peoples' water and food resources.

The severe drought of 1929-31 further hastened the forced evacuation. By 1945 most of the people had been forced to leave claim area. Some fled to cattle stations over the border in Western Australia, to appalling living and working conditions.

Though later threatened with eviction from pastoral properties in the region, many still managed to stay near Gordon Downs and build a viable community at Ringer Soak, where many of the claimants are still living now. Others were taken to ration depots at Tanami, Granites and Balgo Hills during the 1940s and were later transferred to larger settlements under the Government's assimilationist policy.

Attempts to establish a reserve area for the people on their own country around this time failed because of the influence of mining interests. As a result of this dislocation, the traditional landowners have been scattered to some extraordinary distances over north east Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Many have lived at Balgo, Balgo station, Ringer Soak, Halls Creek and Kununurra in Western Australia, and at Lajamanu, Yuendumu, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs on the Northern Territory side.

Now the cattle operation continues under the direction of a management committee of traditional landowners. In making his recommendation that the land should be returned to the traditional landowning groups, Justice Olney said that about 500 claimants would be advantaged by the grant and a further 500 would benefit, primarily from being able to protect sacred sites and their cultural identity. Mining interests are still likely to be influential in the region.

The area is considered to be highly prospective and it si expected the traditional landowners will receive a number of exploration applications. Small communities are now starting up in the old "Mongrel Downs" station.

True to its "traditional non-Aboriginal" name, the formality of the title handover ceremony was disrupted by some snarling and snapping from the station dogs, adding humour and a few jokes to the occasion.

The old name implied a place of poor quality and little value, but that was never the way the true owners saw it. With security of title the old "Mongrel" Downs now has a completely different future.