23 years after they lodged their claim, Nukunu people this week finally witnessed the Federal Court recognising their native title over a large area around Port Pirie.

The court determination came via consent: the state of South Australia considered evidence and agreed that the Nukunu people had an ancient and ongoing connection to their country.

The decision actually split the claim area in two parts, with the Court declaring that in one part of the claim area there could be positive determination – that Nukunu people had a connection to the country at settlement and that connection continued.  However, in another part of the claim area there would be a negative determination – that traditional connection to that part of the area had been lost.

To begin the historic court hearing at Port Germein, Nukunu elder John Turner spoke about his country and people before European settlement.

Before colonisation, my people has laws, they had ceremonial traditions, they had language and they had knowledge of customs and survival, social rules and kinship obligations.Today’s living Nukunu carry in our veins the blood of our ancestors. The stories we were told were ancient, as they connected us to our ancestors and the land”We are real, we are here and today we welcome you to our land.

In delivering her judgement about Nukunu native title, Federal Court Justice Charlesworth spoke about the historical connection of Nukunu people with the area and the reasons for the loss of connection with one part of the total claim area.That first contact would have occurred some time in the 1840’s, and from then European settlement and expansion in this area spread out from Crystal Brook, swiftly and with devastating consequences for the traditional owners. Around that time, the late 1840’s, 1850 or thereabouts, it was estimated that Nukunu society might have comprised about 3,000 members, and it’s understood that is consisted of eight or more matrilineal clans.By the turn of the 20th century, so much land had been cleared and settled, that there could be at any one time, 10 or more international ships out there at the end of that jetty. Taking wheat, cargoes of wheat, 42,000 bags of wheat on one ship alone. That’s some commercial achievement, when looked at through a western view of history. You are entitled to view that history somewhat differently.

One of the original claimants in the Nukunu native title application Rose Turner spoke about the long native title process after being presented with the written court decision.

Its been a long battle. I’ve been a named claimant since the jump off. This brother of mine nominated me at a community meeting to be one of the named claimants, and it’s been a long, hard battle. It’s not just been with government, it’s been with mining companies, oil companies, them wanting to put a nuclear facility up here. But hopefully this will put us in a better position to negotiate with interested parties. 

Outside the hall following the hearing, Nukunu elder and claimant Lindsay Thomas spoke to local media about what the day meant for him.

It’s just a happy day for me. It’s a relief that the stress is all gone. It’s such a long, long fight, and yes we got there in the end. We never thought we was going to because we are such a small group. And yes, I’m as happy as hell to tell you the truth. Yes. I’m not quite showing it but inside, you get to think on what we went through to get here. It’s just a long time and a big part of my life. But now it’s worth it. I’m still young enough to enjoy my country here.

Lindsay Thomas also reflected on what the determination means for the next generation of Nukunu people.

It means a whole new thing for them because they did understand the actual the title fight and what it meant. Along with the Elders, they went though the hard times with them. So their grandparents et cetera and their great uncles dying and stuff like that. That means a great deal to them now because they know that they’ve got control of their destination now. And we will encourage others as the older Nukunu, we will encourage them all the way.

By Lucy Kingston