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  • Native title compensation claim brings High Court to NT for first time.

    Native title compensation claim brings High Court to NT for first time. | Photo: @ABCIndigenous

Published 16 March 2019

Most significantly, US$1.3 million of the damages is attributed to spiritual and cultural harm, serving as a big win for Indigenous groups.

In one of the most significant victories for Indigenous land rights, the Aboriginal Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples from the Northern Territory have been awarded US$2.5 million in compensation for colonial land loss, and loss of spiritual connection. This case sets a precedent for other governments in dealing with native title cases.  

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The Ngaliwurru and Nungali people are the traditional owners of the area surrounding the Victoria River, and anthropologists believe they have inhabited the terrain for as long as Aboriginal people have occupied the continent. The disputed land, now known as the Northern Territory, was claimed by the British Crown in 1825.

While the Indigenous groups maintained their tradition and use the land for fishing, hunting, trading and land maintenance, they were not consulted in the Northern Territory's building projects in the area. Roads and allotments were built for the new township of Timber Creek.

These construction projects totaled up to 52 acts that obstructed the native title of the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples for whom the High Court of Australia decided to award compensation for losses. The Court found the building of infrastructure on native land as an act that "extinguished" the peoples of their native title.

Most significantly, US$1.3 million of the damages is attributed to spiritual and cultural harm, serving as a big win for Indigenous groups. While the Northern Territory and federal governments called this portion excessive, the Court firmly defended the decision, saying it “was not manifestly excessive and was not inconsistent with acceptable community standards.” 

Native title lawyer Megan Brayne pointed out the significance of the High Court setting out "the principles for compensation,” especially as the first time the monetary value of extinguishing land rights was established.

Anthropologist Bill Stanner, who traveled to Timber Creek in 1934, introduced the concept of land-based spirituality and livelihood - that makes land seizure such an important issue for Indigenous peoples - to non-Indigenous Australians. Stanner explained how "health, culture and spirituality were inexorably intertwined with the use, and responsibility to care for, land."

In 1999, the first native title claim for Timber Creek was filed. The native title for Indigenous people was not recognized until 2006, and compensation did not come until 13 years later. While this decision has been classified as one of the most significant victories for Indigenous land rights, it points out the limitations and weaknesses of the system in responding to Indigenous issues.

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