Hundreds are gathering at Nitmiluk National Park today to celebrate 30 years since Nitmiluk was handed back to Jawoyn traditional owners.

It also marks the day when Jawoyn people forged a historic agreement with the Northern Territory government to jointly manage the park under a new lease arrangement.

Jawoyn Association chair Lisa Mumbin says it was a time of much celebration.

“It was the time when whitefella law finally recognised our traditional Aboriginal law, which goes back tens of thousands of years,” Ms Mumbin said.

“For Jawoyn, land rights has always been about respecting the land and its people and we stand here today showing that it’s something that can benefit all Australians.”

The handback celebrations three decades ago came at the end of an 11-year battle Jawoyn people fought to get recognition of their living cultural and spiritual connection to country.

Former Jawoyn Association executive director Jak Ah Kit says Katherine was a tough town during those times.

“It was a time when what can only be described as racist groups formed in Katherine to oppose the rights of Aboriginal people to speak for their traditional lands — let alone lay claim over those lands,” Mr Ah Kit said.

“The then-CLP Northern Territory government fought Jawoyn people in the courts to try and stop the land claim, just as they had to every other land claim in the Northern Territory.

“Indeed, one late afternoon after giving evidence to Justice Kearney, shots were fired over the heads of one of the senior claimants.

“We did not have the power to speak out for country in the way we can today – we did not have a voice.”

“Today, things have changed for the better and Jawoyn have shown they are an important, positive part of the town.

Ms Mumbin added that many people thought Jawoyn were going to stop access to the park.

“Our leaders kept telling people we would share our country yet some parts of the community wouldn’t listen, there was a lot of fear,” Ms Mumbin said.

“But actions speak louder than words – our elders never closed the park and the motto Sharing our Country – whitefella and blackfella – has been kept strong ever since.

“Our leaders had a vision to ensure the next generation would have a future and this vision is why they fought so hard, for more than a decade, for our land rights.

“Ray Fordimail highlighted this at the handback – he said:

We are here today, we have our land back, and we have this piece of paper that tells the world this is Jawoyn country. But we can’t live on a piece of paper. Paper is a whitefella thing and means nothing unless there is respect for people and for country. It means nothing unless there is a future.

“It is a tribute to them that we not only won our land back, but we also secured important economic opportunities.”

Today Jawoyn Association manage tens of thousands of hectares of land through their ranger program and it jointly manages Nitmiluk National Park with the Territory Government.

“In addition to our land management and work in the park, we run tourism in the park with Nitmiluk Tours and are beginning to build our country with Jawoyn Contracting,” Ms Mumbin said.

“Our leaders created a future that delivered us control over our lands, respect for our culture and economic independence.”

Today’s celebrations involve official proceedings and the unveiling of a plaque at Gurriluk, the place where celebrations were held 30 years ago.

The anniversary has also been marked by the Nitmiluk Festival, which runs from the 6 – 15 September.

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