By Wendy Robertson
The Yorta Yorta are the first Victorian Koori group to lodge a land rights claim following the 1992 Mabo decision. The claim is for areas of land along what is now the Victorian-NSW border which are part of their traditional lands. This is the 18th land rights claim made by the Yorta Yorta, a people who have been struggling for their tribal lands, and for compensation for the injustice they have suffered, since they were invaded and dispossessed in the 1840s.
The Yorta Yorta people occupied a unique stretch of territory located in what is known as the Murray-Goulburn region, according to Wayne Atkinson, a research worker for the Yorta Yorta Clans Group, in a background paper prepared for Ngairaty â Kooris Talkin', a special publication of the La Trobe University student representative council.
"Being river-based people, most of their time was occupied by fishing, as the majority of food was provided by a network of rivers, lagoons, creeks and lakes which were, and are still, regarded as the life-source of the Yorta Yorta people.
"The original Yorta Yorta territory was both rich and abundant in natural food sources. Archaeologists refer to this type of environment as a broad-based economy which is capable of producing a broad range and variety of food. Indeed the first white intruder to have contact with the Yorta Yorta commented on its richness and recorded in his recollections that the area could have supported 'twice the population' he encountered there in 1843."
The population of the Yorta Yorta before contact is estimated to have been approximately 2400. Within the first generation following the European invasion, the Yorta Yorta population was reduced by 85%. It seemed likely that the Yorta Yorta would eventually be wiped out as a distinct cultural group.
The Yorta Yorta were dispossessed of their traditional lands and left to eke out an existence on the edges of European settlements as remnant tribal groups. As in other parts of the frontier, violence continued as Aboriginal groups resisted the wholesale confiscation of their land.
The remaining Yorta Yorta population and other tribal groups from neighbouring areas were eventually relocated at Malaga Mission on the NSW side of the Murray River in 1874. In 1889 Malaga was closed, and the residents were relocated at Cummuragunja, which became the place where the Yorta Yorta were able to regroup after the holocaust. It also provided a base for the development of what became the Aboriginal political movement in the 1930s.
A small group of Yorta Yorta people were active in setting up the first Aboriginal organisations. These organisations, such as the Aborigines Progressive Association in Sydney in 1937, and the Australian Aborigines League in Melbourne in 1932, worked to raise the consciousness of the general community about the plight of the Aboriginal people. They demanded that Aboriginal people be given full citizenship rights, including the right to land and to retain their own unique cultural identity.
Another political activity in this period which involved Cummuragunja residents was the 1939 "walk off" in which the majority of residents packed up and walked off in protest against living conditions, the leasing of most reserve land to a European and the restrictive laws of the reserve system.
As early as 1860, members of the Yorta Yorta demanded compensation from Victorian authorities for the destruction of their natural fishing stock by paddle steamers. The demand was for a tax of 10 ($20) to be imposed on each steamer, with the revenue raised being used to buy food to replace the fish which had been driven away.
Between 1860 and 1993 there were some 17 separate attempts by the Yorta Yorta people to obtain land and compensation. The only successful claim came with the granting of 1200 acres of the former Cummuragunja Reserve. The land, granted under inalienable freehold title, was a mere fraction of their traditional land base.
In 1984 a claim was prepared by the Yorta Yorta Tribal Council (which has since been superseded by the Yorta Yorta Murray-Goulburn River Clans Inc), for the return of Barmah Forest to its traditional owners and for compensation for its past use and the destruction of traditional culture. A prior unsuccessful claim to the same area, including the Moria Forest, had been made to the Victorian government in 1975 by the Aborigines Advancement League.
"The 1984 claim and all other claims have had the same intent. The Yorta people have exercised their natural rights as the indigenous occupants and owners of the forest. Furthermore, the Yorta Yorta have shown through oral, documentary and material evidence that their social, spiritual, economic and cultural links with the area have not been broken since time immemorial. In other words, they can clearly demonstrate that their relationship with the area has been long and continuous", Atkinson says.
"Today the forest is still regarded by the Yorta Yorta people as a significant part of their tribal land which was taken from them by force; the resting place of their ancestors, who are buried there and their spirits; and the keeping place of their cultural heritage."
The legal basis for the 1984 claim was that in the 1967 federal referendum an overwhelming majority of the people of Australia voted to amend the constitution so that the federal parliament would have the power to legislate for the "peace and order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to the people of any race, including the Aboriginal race of Australia, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws".
The Yorta Yorta argued that the Australian government is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. Article 27 of this states:
"In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion or to use their own language".
The land is an inextricable part of culture, argued the Yorta Yorta, and the two are inseparable in Aboriginal belief; therefore the federal government should implement this covenant by legislating for the return of Yorta Yorta land.
In the Mabo decision, says Atkinson, the High Court laid to rest the legal fiction of terra nullius so there is a stronger case for indigenous land rights in Australia where groups can establish they have continued links with certain areas. "The current Yorta Yorta claim fits neatly into this criterion and is further strengthened by the final management report of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which clearly recognises the Yorta Yorta people's continued associations with the area."
The current claim will be the Yorta Yorta people's 18th attempt to seek justice for past injustices. The claim is now before the High Court.