Monday was “a day for all Yindjibarndi”, according to Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Michael Woodley, when his people gathered at Millstream Chichester National Park to hear their exclusive native title rights acknowledged on-country following a more than decade-long legal battle.
It was an emotional moment as a crowd of several hundred listened to Federal Court judge Steven Rares deliver his determination of Yindjibarndi exclusive native title over a 2700sqkm area of Pilbara land.
The case ruling, first made in July, is the culmination of a 14 year legal claim by the Yindjibarndi over an area of land on which the Fortescue Metals Group 70 mtpa Solomon Hub mine sits.
Justice Rares said the order acknowledged the Yindjibarndi people’s rights pre-dated European settlement and had been continuous ever since.
“That order acknowledges that the Yindjibarndi people not only possess today, but also have continuously possessed, since before the British Crown claimed sovereignty over Australia, specific native title rights and interests in the claimed area that have not been wholly or partially extinguished,” he said.
Mr Woodley said hearing Yindjibarndi rights officially acknowledged on their land made it one of the most significant days in his people’s history.
“It was emotional at that time, now having the judge come on- country and hand the judgment to the Yindjibarndi people in person will make it that much more special,” he said.
“It will become more real and authentic in the sense that the Yindjibarndi people have succeeded in the highest level... in challenging the laws of the land.”
Mr Woodley has previously said YAC planned to sue FMG for compensation, expected to be in the millions, after the win.
Last week, he said the corporation would be using their native title legal rights to protect their interests.
“Fortescue does not have a relationship with the Yindjibarndi people and they are operating on our country without an Indigenous Land Use Agreement,” he said.
“So we’ll be exploring all our legal rights to make sure the Yindjibarndi right to protect our country and sacred sites is upheld.”
The Federal Court is now expected to make final orders, beginning a 21-day window during which respondents may lodge an appeal.
In July, FMG managing director Neville Power said the company was likely to appeal the outcome, but last week he said they had not yet decided.
“Consistent with our position during the trial, Fortescue welcomes the recognition of Yindjibarndi native title; however, the Federal Court decision relating to the concept of exclusive possession has potentially wide-ranging implications for new investment in resources, agriculture and tourism,” he said.
“We have not made a final decision on whether we will appeal the decision and have 21 days to consider our position following today’s determination.”
WA Indigenous Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt yesterday announced the government would not be appealing the decision.
He congratulated the Yindjibarndi people on their native title win.
“On behalf of the Western Australian Government, I congratulate the Yindjibarndi people on their successful determination, and of achieving recognition of their native title rights over their land,” he said.
“Today’s declaration has been the culmination of a long struggle by (them).”
“I look forward to working with the Yindjibarndi people to see what opportunities they wish to pursue and seeing the traditional owners make decisions about their land.”