IT is no easy thing to have a native title claim accepted for registration under federal law.
Claimants, following in the footsteps of the famous Eddie Mabo, must demonstrate a continuous link with the land in question. This requires intensive archaeological work, deep digging in libraries among diaries and historical records and impeccable documentation of family roots.
All that, just to be allowed to register a claim under native title legislation.
That the Plains Clans of the Wonnarua People have succeeded in making this step is extremely impressive. That they have made the claim over a large swath of land from which they have proven their families sprang before white settlement is equally noteworthy.
It would, perhaps, have been easier to chisel away at small parcels of land in the hope that this less ambitious course would yield readier success.
Succeeding in the larger application means the clans have established themselves as the ‘‘go to’’ people for a large tract of the valley.
Under the law the claimants may move forward to seek determination of their claim in the Federal Court. Or, as seems more likely in this case, they may use their new position of influence to negotiate with others who have various interests in the land. This inevitably includes the transnational resource companies that operate massive coalmines in the region.
Many people don’t understand the difference between federal native title legislation and state land rights law.
It is under the latter that a number of recent claims by a local Aboriginal land council over properties in the Newcastle area have been made.
These claims, including the former post office building, the Newcastle rail corridor and a portion of the harbour entrance, are generally unrelated to issues of traditional ownership and occupation – although these issues have been raised, incidentally, in the context of some of the claims.
Native title, however, is necessarily based on proof of deep familial and traditional ties.
For that reason alone, some mining companies might now be wondering what the future holds for some of their extractive proposals.
Until now, a certain set of rules had come into play when issues of Aboriginal heritage arose on land subject to mining proposals. It seems likely that a new set of rules will now apply, and that the Wonnarua Plains Clans will have a role in shaping those new rules.
The sad truth is that much Aboriginal heritage in the Hunter has been damaged or destroyed, some of it as a consequence of mining.
The Wonnarua Plains Clans appear anxious to ensure that some of what remains is preserved and protected.