One of the most challenging tasks facing Indigenous people who have made a native title claim is compiling evidence to prove their ongoing connection to country.
It can take years to research all the necessary information required to demonstrate that native title should be recognised.
SWALSC historian/research manager Chris Owen.
Tribunal Member John Catlin.
SWALSC’s book provides a history of the single Noongar claim.
In a Federal Court trial evidence is presented as Expert Reports according to specific legal requirements—in a format many people would find difficult to understand.
Once a case is resolved the information is usually filed away and seen by very few people.
SWALSC Noongar history book
Noongar research makes history
In the case of the historical evidence collected for the Noongar claims, for the recognition of their native title in Western Australia’s South-West, all the hard work of historians and other researchers has been put to good use.
The Noongar people’s representative body, the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) has used its research as the basis for a new history book about Noongar people.
It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country: The Single Noongar Claim History, published in September 2009 by UWA Publishing, was produced by SWALSC’s research manager and historian Chris Owen.
Mr Owen used material he had initially compiled with Dr John Host for SWALSC’s Expert History Report for the Single Noongar Claim case trial.
“Connection or expert reports provide some of the best research in Australia, yet no one sees it,” Mr Owen said.
He and his colleagues at SWALSC didn’t want to waste the opportunity to use the extensive research material about the Noongar people’s history and culture, which had been considered by some to be ‘extinct.’
“There has been a lack of new and relevant histories of Noongar People,” Mr Owen said.
Many existing publications focused on loss and the sadness of the Stolen Generation, or represented Noongar people as passive victims. This book showed Noongar people as active survivors, Mr Owen said.
The book project
Mr Owen said the initial project to collate years of research material for the native title case took six months of solid work.
It took him another six months to edit the evidence for the book, which details the history, customs and laws of the Noongar people, their ongoing relationship to the land, their rights and interests, and their survival despite the pressures of colonisation.
Some information included in the native title report was not included in the book and kept confidential, for privacy and cultural reasons.
Mr Owen recommended other representative bodies consider using evidence as the basis for histories of their people, if they had the permission of the claimants and the resources to do so.
Collecting the evidence was very costly and publication of the book made the most of that resource, and in SWALSC's case ensured the Noongar story was told to the wider community.
Mr Owen said his task to later turn the legal evidence for the Noongar claims into the narrative It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country was supported by key stakeholders, including the National Native Title Tribunal, the Office of Native Title and the Federal Court
“Tribunal Member John Catlin and regional case manager Steve Edwards were very helpful, particularly in making available maps showing the Noongar claim areas, which are published in the book,” Mr Owen said.
Mr Catlin said that one of the great paradoxes of the native title process was that it provided a unique opportunity for structured historical research into the lives and customs of indigenous people, yet very little of that information was being shared.
“Instead of native title research being an invaluable educational resource for the entire community, most reports have restricted release,” he said.
“The exaggerated secrecy applied to much research and the difficulty of accessing non-sensitive research findings, even after a claim is determined, is a significant failing in the current system.
“Scott Cane’s Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2002) is a rare exception to the norm and It’s Still in My Heart: The Single Noongar Claim History deserves equal praise for making the Noongar story more readily available to a wider audience,” Mr Catlin said.
The Single Noongar Claim
The Single Noongar Claim trial resulted in the decision (subsequently set aside by the Full Court on appeal) by former Federal Court Judge Murray Wilcox in September 2006 that recognised native title over the city of Perth—the first Australian capital city where this has occurred.
The six claims represented by SWALSC which cover the bulk of the South West region and include the Single Noongar Claim are still active in the native title system and are being processed according to the Native Title Act.
However SWALSC and the WA Government announced in December 2009 they had signed an agreement to negotiate an alternative settlement which would resolve all native title claims in the south-west of WA legally represented by SWALSC. Negotiations are anticipated to be concluded by February 2012.
This alternative settlement shifts the focus from an evidentiary process to a negotiation which does not hinge on proving native title over Perth and WA’s south-west region.
The Noongar people will consider concluding their native title claims in exchange for a settlement ‘package’. This is considered a trade-off of native title ‘rights’ and will form the basis of discussions with the WA Government.
The negotiations are expected to include issues such as the recognition of the traditional ownership of Noongar land, health and education programs, joint management of some national parks and conservation areas, initiatives to strengthen Noongar culture and community self-determination and sustainable economic activities.
For more about It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country: The Single Noongar Claim History, why SWALSC published the book and the process Chris Owen used to write the book, see the link on this page to “Publish and be damned!’, a paper Mr Owen presented at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Native Title Conference in 2008.