Forty years ago, what is now named Nitmiluk National Park was called Katherine Gorge National Park and it sat under Northern Territory Government management.
While Jawoyn people had walked and cared for our country for tens of thousands of years – on government paper we had no official recognition of the strong connection we have to our home. We had no right over what happened to the place or what would become of it.
Tours came and went in the gorge, but we weren’t involved in the tourism businesses running in the park. We saw people visiting our country by the busload, but their engagement with us and our culture was minimal.
On March 31, 1978, we took the first step to self-determination and recognition of our connection to country by lodging a claim over our traditional lands, including the gorge and park area.
It was the time land rights came to Katherine. The rights movement had grown in the early 1960’s and expanded from the 1966 referendum and the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA) (NT) legislation in 1976.
When we made the claim, we always said we’d share our country and continue to let visitors come to the park and visit the gorge. We recognised that tourism was important for the town. We believed then, and still do, that sharing our country is a way to show people our culture and respect for the land.
The claim met fierce opposition from Katherine residents and the Northern Territory Government.
Locals formed groups such as “Rights for Whites” and mocked us by putting up signs on their front lawns declaring them ‘sacred sites’.
The Speaker for the Legislative Assembly led a street rally against land rights. The Territory Government attempted to expand the town boundaries from 33 square kilometres to nearly 4,700 square kilometres to incorporate part of Nitmiluk and nullify our land rights.
It was a long, drawn out process. Our initial hearings were not held until 1983, over five years after the claim was first lodged.
The findings from the hearings were finally released in 1988. They recognised our land rights and recommended our country be handed back – and we rejoiced. However the area was less than half the size we claimed.
On September 10, 1989, a decade since we lodged our claim, our country was officially handed back. It was a day of great celebration for Jawoyn. The song ‘Nitmiluk’ by Blekbala Mujik was performed at the ceremony.
As part of the handback, we established joint management of the Katherine Gorge National Park with the Northern Territory Government. The park was renamed Nitmiluk National Park – because the word Nitmiluk speaks for that special place.
While there are still many challenges ahead for us, our history shows how we preservere and fight for our country. Our love for culture and country will never die.
Next year we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the handback, including Nitmiluk.
On March 31 this year, we celebrate our first step to recognition of our land rights and connection to country, and reflect on how far we have come.