It’s taken more than 200 years, but at last one of Australia’s first nations has been recognised by the courts as the original sovereign over a major urban area. In a rare display of justice for Indigenous Australians, a Federal judge ruled in September that the Noongar people of southwestern Australia still have Native Title over an area centred on Perth.
Native Title is the inalienable right of Indigenous people to use land for traditional economic and cultural purposes. Racist Federal and State laws mean that it’s incredibly hard to prove continuous connection to territory since white settlement. In Australia, everything governments did to exterminate the continent’s original inhabitants is excused by law, and so forced removal and mass murder don’t count when a people lay claim to what was their country.
But in the far west, the conquest only began in 1829. Government lawyers were forced to concede that there are many descendants of the original owners, and the Noongar people were able to prove that their culture, though damaged through two centuries of genocide, is still a living one. The governement lawyers, by the way, did not contest the proposition that the Noongar were sovereign before that year.
Malicious as ever, the white establishment, led by the State and Federal governments, is challenging the victory in the Federal Court. Big business, the chief beneficiary of the dispossession, is worried that it might have to negotiate with traditional owners and be required to pay for the use of West Australia’s vast natural resources.
The appeal must be dropped. Indigenous peoples have waited far too long for recognition of their 70,000 years of custodianship over Australia. Demand that the West Australian and Federal governments start negotiations for compensation and a treaty now. For too many years, the excuse has been that there has been no one to negotiate a treaty with. In southwestern Australia, there most certainly is — the sovereign Noongar people, whose land was never ceded, but stolen by force.