There was joy and sorrow in equal measure on the day that Justice Collier of the Federal Court came to Urunga to hand down a native title determination in favour of the Gumbaynggirr people.
Joy that the claim initiated by Aunty Marg Boney in 1998, over the coastal area south of Hungry Head, taking in Wenonah Headland and extending down to Oyster Creek, has finally been achieved.
Sorrow that the process has taken so long and that so many who were involved have been lost along the way.
Elders who have passed on in the almost 20 years since the application was originally started include Margaret Boney herself a decade ago, Uncle Tom Kelly, Eddie Briggs, who died last week, and Barry Phyball who died last month.
Ms Boney, an esteemed Gumbaynggirr Elder, was born at Bellingen in 1937. She was the great-great granddaughter of King Ben Bennelong, a Gumbaynggirr man born in the 1840s. She lived for many years in a camp near Wenonah Head in the claim area.
Although she could be present at the determination only in spirit, she was represented by her children, Christine, Marion, Frances, Kevin and Raymond Witt.
Frances Witt addressed the Federal Court wearing a tshirt decorated with a photograph of her mother.
Visibly moved, she described how her her ancestors had lived on the land that was the subject of the native title claim for generations.
“The biggest part of mum’s life was spent on that land,” she said. “We were known as the Urunga mob.”
Native Title Service Corporation CEO Natalie Rotumah also wept during her speech, saying that “Aunty Marg may have been small but she fought with an ocean-sized heart to protect the land of her people” and asking why the process had to take so long.
“I cut my teeth on Boney,” she said, referring to the official title of the proceedings that NTSCorp facilitated, the Gumbaynggirr (Boney-Witt) Native Title Claim.
“Back in those early days of Native Title, I was a community facilitator, driving the company car to Aunty Marg’s camp just up the road from here at Wenonah. There was so much to be done. Getting the lawyers out of the office and into the bush. Coordinating claim group meetings. Sitting down with Aunty Marg to take her affidavit. Helping the anthros to speak with the black fellas. But I loved it. Stepping away from my office chair. Walking out to the salt water and sand, the blue sky and bush, I was in my element.”
Michael Bell, Chair of NTSCORP noted the significance of this claim in being the first in NSW to recognise “the right to access natural resources and to take, use, share and exchange those natural resources for any purpose”.
“The recognition of commercial rights means that native title isn’t just about the symbolism, although that’s important,” he said. “It’s also about giving the mob an economic foundation to support culture and family. And there’s nothing more important than that.”
Uncle Richard Pacey described how his father and uncle passed on knowledge about the land,despite having been forcibly relocated from Yellow Rock in the 1930s.
”They would take us (kids) to get food at Wenonah Head. Seafood on one side, bush tucker on the other. It was better than Woolworths let me tell you.”
“Today’s determination of native title means that we can continue to practice our culture, take our young fellas out to the headlands and beaches to get a feed. Make sure that our sacred sites are protected. That means a lot to us all and its why my heart is full of hope.”
Another of the native title holders, Bellingen-born elder Colin Jarrett, is on the board of the Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) recently formed to represent the various families who now have native title rights over the land.
He said the first step was drawing up plans to strengthen their community and its Aboriginality.
“And then branch that out into the wider community. Because people need to know and value our culture.”