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Journey to handback

In an ancient country Anangu are the custodians of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. This has been the way for thousands of generations. But as the twentieth century wore on their heritage and way of life was disrupted by the arrival of more and more Piranpa (the Anangu name for white people).

Slowly their land was taken from them and their sacred traditions were ignored.

But after traditional owners were dispossessed of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, they fought back to reclaim their rights, their traditions and their land. This led to a symbolic moment in Australian history 30 years ago.

This is their journey to handback.

The Piranpa

Anangu homelands cover a vast area in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory and the main dialects spoken by the Anangu are Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra.

Due to the isolated nature of the region including Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the history of contact between Anangu and Piranpa (the Anangu name for white people) was somewhat different to that experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in other parts of the country.

In 1862 John McDouall Stuart completed the first south to north (and return) crossing of Australia, travelling from Adelaide to Darwin. William Ernest Giles and William Christie Gosse explored the region southwest of Alice Springs in the early 1870s and named the main features. Giles named Kata Tjuta, Mount Olga in 1872 and Gosse named Uluru, Ayers Rock in 1873.

But due to the harsh conditions, pastoralists were not attracted to the area west of Curtin Springs and south of Lake Amadeus. Instead the area, including Uluru and Kata Tjuta was declared the South West Reserve in 1920, as part of a larger system of reserves created as sanctuaries for Aboriginal people.

Until the 1940s very few Piranpa visited this remote country apart from prospectors, missionaries and Native Welfare patrol officers. The first missionaries in the Northern Territory were members of the Lutheran Church in Germany who came to Central Australia and established several settlements between the 1878 and the mid 1900s. By 1928 there were seven missions in the Northern Territory.

Missionaries came on camels and they saw my family as they were camping in the bush. One of them said “I am going to make you a place that will be your home at Areyonga. I’m going to take you to Areyonga and make a house for you to live in. So they took us. They walked, and I was on a camel. We would camp and travel. I was very young and had no idea what was happening.” Traditional Owner Julie Brumby
“He said, ‘Do you know how to pray, hold hands, hold hands. Yes – okay, all you kids hold hands – everybody hold hands.’ He spoke in half Luricja as well, ‘Hold hands and get your heads down and talk and listen – pray to the heavens, talk to God.’ We did not know this, why are we doing this, what is up there in the sky? He said that God sits in heaven and looks after us well, like Christians – all Anangu. We thought what a crazy idea that is, that is only the sky!” Traditional Owner Barbara Tjikatu

In 1940 the size of the reserves was reduced to allow for mineral prospecting. In 1948 a dirt track to Uluru was created and tours to the Rock began in earnest. By 1950 both miners and tourists were making regular treks to the area.

A man named Len Luit visited Uluru on a tour with students from Knox Grammar School in Sydney in 1950. He immediately recognised the potential of the area as a tourist destination and by 1955 was offering regular tours.

On the back of the tourism potential, the Commonwealth was convinced to remove Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the Reserve and name it a Park in 1956 under Territory legislation.

The Anangu never ever gave up on their right to their traditional country though, and in 1971 meetings were held in Ernabella by the Office of Aboriginal Affairs where traditional owners for Uluru expressed their concerns about pastoralism, mining, desecration of sites and tourism pressures on their land.

On 24 May 1977, the Commonwealth declared the area a National Park under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975. The Park was owned and supervised by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (now Parks Australia), who in turn paid the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory to employ rangers to manage the Park.

“Mutitjulu is the main place at Ayers Rock, and white people have gone through it, having gone around and come from Inintitjara. Having gone around the other side they went through this place. It is a holy cave. Warayuki is holy, it is a truly holy cave.

 “White girls do not know about this. Black girls do not know about this. This is men’s business. It is a holy cave. It is my camp. Uluru is my camp. This is mine, this holy cave.

“Yes, this is a holy cave. I alone truly know about this place. I was put into this place. Yes, my fathers and grandfathers entrusted me with this cave. This holy cave. And girls have broken this thing of mine. And I have become very sad. This is my great ceremony, my holy ceremony, my great camp with its holy tree and Mutitjulu on this side is holy. Ayers Rock is holy. I am Uluru and these things are mine. And this is what I have to say to you in Canberra:

“A girl has broken that which is mine, my holy cave. And I became very sad. And I am constantly sad. And I am speaking to you. Perhaps you will help me, please. Others have broken my camp, they have gone through it and broken it completely. I don’t know, the white people came from afar. I was ignorant of this as a child, but I grew up at Uluru and I became a man, I grew up and became a man and they entrusted me with these places, Warayuki, Uluru. Yes, Uluru and Apara. They are mine. These two places, Uluru and Apara are mine. I became a man there and I learned all about it but I did not teach my sons. Now I want to teach my sons about this place.

Paddy Uluru, Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, submission on behalf of the Central Land Council.

Land rights

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT (1976) gave Anangu a chance to reclaim their land. In May 1977, the Commonwealth declared Uluru-Kata Tjuta(Ayers Rock and Mt Olga) a National Park, effectively transferring the ownership of the park to the Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

A successful land claim submitted in 1979 gave Traditional Owners title to lands north and east of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, but the National Park was omitted.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Chaney, said in the Senate yesterday that the Government had accepted the recommendations of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Mr Justice Toohey, to grant the land, known as the Lake Amadeus Luritja land claim.

Earlier, Mr Justice Toohey had ruled that Ayers Rock, and the National Park that surrounds it and the Olgas, was alienated Crown Land within the meaning of the Land Rights Act, and thus could not be made the subject of a claim.

The decision provoked strong protests from Aboriginal groups throughout Australia, and promises from both Senator Chaney and the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, that they would look sympathetically at changing the situation to allow a claim to go ahead.

Jack Waterford, Canberra Times, 12/10/79

Traditional Owners, the Pitjantjatjara Council and the Central Land Council lobbied Prime Minister Fraser and Senator Chaney to amend the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976 to allow an Aboriginal land claim. Over the next three years there were offers and counter offers from the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory Government, but no decision could be reached.

voters split

"Of course we want Uluru. Uluru is one of the most sacred significant places to Aborigines all over Australia, not only us mob here. The mob from the Top End they sing about that serpent he come down this track, down this way.

"That serpent go to Ayers Rock there. Queensland people talk about Ayers Rock in their stories, the New South Wales people, the West Australian people, they talk about Uluru.

"We want Uluru back. But not under the proposals that Paul Everingham has proposed. No way… We want total management. We want land rights as land rights are supposed to be and not watered down."

Vince Forrester, Dreamtime land becomes nightmare fight, Financial Review, 30/8/82


From the moment the Central Land Council, on behalf of the Anangu, announced their intention to lodge a claim that encompassed Uluru and Kata Tjuta, there were a number of groups who objected strongly to the possibility.

The Northern Territory Government, the local tourism industry including motel owners at and near the rock, as well as pastoralists with interests in the area all expressed concern. They announced their intentions to oppose the claim almost immediately.

When Prime Minister Hawke announced the handback in 1983 it took many by surprise, particularly the Northern Territory Government who felt they were not appropriately consulted on the decision, and as a result the intensity of the opposition to the handback increased dramatically.  

The Northern Territory Government and the various tour operators and motel owners around Uluru feared that should the Anangu gain control over the National Park, they would restrict access, causing detriment to the Territory's tourism industry.

"Ayers Rock is one of the best known natural features in Australia. It is the Government's (NT Government) view that no single group should be allowed to dictate who can visit and see this feature. It should be administered in the interests of the entire Territory and Australian communities."Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Everingham

In August 1982 the Northern Territory Government announced proposed changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT (1976) that would enable Aboriginal people to convert term pastoral leases to perpetual pastoral leases, and hand title of the Uluru National Park to the Northern Territory Government.

But under the proposed changes Aboriginal owners of cattle stations and other pastoral leases would no longer be able to claim traditional ownership of the land, and land claims to stock routes, national parks and other public land in the Northern Territory would also no longer be permitted.

As the political battle around the upcoming handback swayed back and forth, the Anangu stayed strong in their resolve, with many Traditional Owners working tirelessly to assure the people of Australia that tourist operations at the park would continue as usual.

A joint statement by the Central Land Council and Pintjantjatjara Council sought to clear up any misconceptions, stating that the Traditional Owners had always recognised the legitimate tourist interest in the National Park, and supported the concept of leasing back the Park to the Commonwealth. They also supported a joint management scheme in which Aboriginal, conservation and tourist interests would all be represented.

"For the visiting tourist it will be business as usual. Any rare and limited restrictions necessary for ceremonial purposes are likely to be confined to those sites already registered as sacred by the NT Government's Sacred Sites Authority and already subject to restrictions.
"Such ceremonies should be respected as a vital part of traditional Aboriginal life."Traditional owners promise business as usual, The Age, 16/11/83

This stalemate continued until November 1983, when the newly elected Hawke Government announced it would amend the Aboriginal Land Rights Act to return the title for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Traditional Owners.

"This is an historic decision and is a measure of the willingness of the Government, on behalf of the Australian people, to recognize the just and legitimate claims of a people who have been dispossessed of their land but who have never lost their spiritual attachment to that land."Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Launceston Examiner, 12/11/83

AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.