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Kulyakartu determination

By Kim Courtenay, NRT horticulture lecturer

As a cluster of marquees flexed and squeaked in a scorching desert wind 400 kilometres east of the Sandfire Roadhouse recently, a Federal Court Judge brought down one of the most remote native title determinations in WA history.

Witnessing the decision were eight Kulyakartu Elders representing the last of those born into the traditional life of the area, having walked out of the Great Sandy Desert during the 1960s.

The formal hearing by Justice Neil McKerracher on October 12 found that the Kulyakartu claimants had maintained an unbroken physical and spiritual connection with the 35,500 square kilometre tract of country since European settlement.

The determination was reached through agreement by the Federal and State Governments who were both represented at the hearing. 

Following the decision the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion released a statement congratulating the Kulyakartu people and their legal representative, the Central Desert Native Title Services.

“Connection to land is of central importance to First Australians. The people of Kulyakartu have a deep connection to their country, caring for traditional and sacred sites and passing on stories and knowledge of country to their children and grandchildren, ensuring their history lives on,” he said.

The Kulyakartu claimants included renowned Aboriginal artists Muuki Taylor, Waka Taylor, Donald Moko, Daniel Walbidi and his father Merridoo Walbidi who played a key role in the determination process because of his unique link with modern and Aboriginal culture. 

Merridoo emerged from the traditional life in the Great Sandy Desert in 1962 when aged about 10 when his family walked from a remote corner of Kulyakartu country to Mandora Station near the 80 mile Beach. 

As Merridoo recalls, “We travelled at night in the moonlight because it was too hot during the day.”

Merridoo grew up on La Grange mission, now Bidyadanga community where he attended school, learned to read and write and maintained a close connection with his culture through a network of Traditional Elders from the desert who had also settled at the mission.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s he played a key role in promoting TAFE horticulture training programs at Bidyadanga including the establishment of a commercial scale plantation growing gubinge and several other traditionally important bush foods, a first in Australia.

Merridoo’s efforts were recognised in 2004 when he was named the Aboriginal Student of the Year at the Western Australia Department of Training Awards. His nomination highlighted his resolve that the modern world and Aboriginal culture must “walk together” to create a better future for all.

During the four day return trip to the site of the determination on the north eastern border of the claim area, Merridoo and the other Elders sang traditional songs, gathered wild foods and visited significant sites including a rock hole, a life-saving source of fresh water during traditional times.

A highlight was when a group of Kulyakartu boys painted in ochre performed a welcoming dance for Justice McKerracher.

In his conclusion Justice McKerracher said, “In making a determination of native title the Court is not creating it as such but rather recognising what has always existed".

Page last updated November 11, 2016