Land won back

Traditional owners Rohan Long and David Stafford performed the Ngatijiri purlapa (budgerigar ceremony) at the Yurrkuru handback celebrations in 2014.

More than half the land in our region – approximately 418,000 square kilometres of the southern part of the Northern Territory – is Aboriginal land.

Aboriginal land is private property and its traditional owners hold it collectively, mostly through a unique form of freehold title under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This title is inalienable, meaning it cannot be sold or mortgaged. Aboriginal land trusts formally hold the land upon its grant, typically after a land claim. Land trusts have come to refer to this title holding entity and to the land area itself.

The Land Rights Act, a federal law unique to the NT, recognises Aboriginal spiritual affiliation and responsibility as the basis for traditional ownership, by implication dating back indefinitely. Traditional owners have a deep affinity with particular areas of land. Much of their sense of identity derives from it. One area is not exchangeable for another, unlike under Western land systems.

The return of the Uluru—Kata Tjuta National Park under the Land Rights Act to its traditional owners in 1985 was a landmark in land rights history. It was the first time Aboriginal people in Central Australia agreed to jointly manage their land with a federal government agency, Parks Australia. National park joint management is now the norm here.

Another significant milestone is the Warumungu land claim, one of the longest and hardest-fought claims in land rights history. Repeated court challenges from the NT government after the claim was lodged in 1978 meant that it was not heard until 1985. The Aboriginal Land Commissioner hearing it recommended the grant of a large part of the claim area in July 1988. It took another three years before any of the land was granted to its traditional owners and five years before most of it was returned.

Land Rights News has long reported on traditional owners’ efforts to win back their land. Here are some of the stories:

Land Claims


Ammaroo Station handback

Land Rights News – Vol 10, No.1 (Mar 2020)

There were no ceremonies when the Minister for Indigenous Australians and his entourage arrived at Ampilatwatja to mark the handback of a part of Ammaroo Station, after one of the ceremonial leaders had taken ill.

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Land Rights News – Vol 4, No.2  (Nov 2014)

The 22 year battle for justice by the traditional owners of Yurrkuru (Brooks Soak) is over.

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Barrow Creek Land Claim

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.40 (Jul 1999)

The construction of the Barrow Creek Telegraph Station in 1872, 280 kilometres north of Alice Springs, had a profound impact on the Kaytetye traditional owners of the land. It confronted them with strange new humans, new animals like goats and cows and what was then modern technology. 

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Central Mt Wedge back

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.37 (Oct 1995)

News that the 3,244 square kilometre Mt Wedge pastoral lease, some 350 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, was going up for auction generated a great deal of excitement and interest from its traditional owners.

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Mt Frederick repeat claim won

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.37 (Oct 1995)

Aboriginal freehold title to 2,350 square kilometres of land in the remote Tanami Desert near the Western Australian border benefits traditional owners from three different language groups.

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Simpson Desert returned to Eastern Arrernte

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.34 (Nov 1994)

Eastern Arrernte people celebrated title to their traditional lands in the northern Simpson Desert on 19 August 1994 when then federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner granted them nearly 23,000 square kilometres of it at a ceremony at Arkarnenhe Well about 250 kilometres east of Alice Springs.

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The Warumungu land claim campaign

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.32 (Jul 1995)

This claim was one of the longest and hardest-fought in the history of land rights.

Early explorers described the Warumungu people as flourishing in the 1870s, but by 1915 the invasion of their lands that followed the exploration brought them to the brink of starvation.

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Luritja finally seal station deal

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.32 (Apr 1994)

In December 1993 the CLC helped the Tempe Downs Aboriginal Corporation to buy, on behalf of the traditional owners, the neighbouring pastoral leases Tempe Downs and Middleton Ponds, together totalling approximately 4,750 square kilometres.

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Tanami Downs: a new beginning for the “Mongrel” station

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.27 (Mar 1993)

Pastoral lease turned Aboriginal land trust, Tanami Downs – formerly Mongrel Downs – is about 700 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, right on the Western Australia border.

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Undoolya Bore, Ooratippra and Mt Peachy

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.23 (Jul 1991)

Dispersed as their lands may be, Aboriginal land trust members from Undoolya Bore (10 kilometres east of Alice Springs), Ooratippra (400 kilometres north-east) and Mt Peachy (100 kilometres south) happily came together – in Tennant Creek – to receive their land titles. 

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Western Desert land claim: handback at Piccaninny Bore

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.23 (Jul 1991)

“We’ve got two titles,” said Yingualyalya Aboriginal Land Trust Chairman Mick Inverway Jungarrayl. “White man’s title and Aboriginal title.” 

Mr Inverway was speaking at Piccaninny Bore, 600 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, following the handback to traditional owners of two areas of land near the Northern Territory-Western Australian border by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner.

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Wakaya Alywarre land claim

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.17 (Feb 1990)

On the eve of the Wakaya/Alyawarre land claim hearing in 1989, the NT government offered the claimants grants of NT title if they dropped their claim under the Land Rights Act.

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Mt Allan – NT withdraws action

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.17 (Feb 1990)

In 1990, the NT government withdrew legal action over the grant to traditional owners of Mount Allan Station, 240 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, and agreed to pay the CLC’s legal costs. An injunction restraining the Registrar-General from registering the title deed, the final step in securing Aboriginal freehold land, usually something of a formality, was lifted.

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Taxpayer millions believed wasted in claim appeals

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.14 (May 1989)

In the wake of a Federal Court decision on Mt Allan, the CLC challenged the NT government to reveal how much it had spent fighting land claims. 

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Talking history: Murphy Japanangka at McLaren Creek

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.11 (Nov 1988)

I grew up with horses and cattle. I was working at Kurundi station.

I did everything – droving, branding, mustering, breaking horses, fencing, making a yard, everything. 

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Chilla Well win to traditional owners

Land Rights News – Vol 2 No.10 (Sep 1988)

The Federal Court dismissed an appeal by the NT Government against a land grant to the traditional owners of Chilla Well about 400 kms north-west of Alice Springs on the edge of the Tanami Desert. The government had submitted that there was a public road on the claim area. The Land Rights Act prevents claims over public roads.

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Warlpiri, Kukatja and Ngarti land claim

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.2 (Mar 1987)

The Warlpiri, Kakatja and Ngarti land claim was the eleventh presented by the CLC under the Land Rights Act on behalf of traditional owners. In all land claims, the presentation of the case before the Aboriginal Land Commissioner was the culmination of a long process of CLC research into and consultation with the traditional owners of the land. It was for the Land Commissioner to consider the evidence presented, and other relevant matters, and decide whether or not to grant the land.

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Mt Barkly land claim

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.2 (Mar 1987)

The Mt Barkly claim was the first time Aboriginal people had used the Land Rights Act to claim a previously purchased pastoral lease, necessary to convert the lease to Aboriginal freehold title.

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Daguragu station land claim

Land Rights News – Vol 2, No.2 (Nov 1986)

The courageous actions of the Gurindji people in their demand for land rights took the realities of decades of oppression of and colonial injustice to Aboriginal people into the sitting rooms of urban Australia.

Many heard and saw on television for the first time Aboriginal people telling of their exploitation by the pastoral industry.

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Uluru—Kata Tjuta land claim

Land Rights News – Vol 2 N.1 (Nov 1985)

In November 1983, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that Uluru—Kata Tjuta National Park would be returned to its traditional owners. This was land that the Aboriginal Land Commissioner could not recommend for grant under the Land Rights Act because it had already been alienated as a national park.

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