Wuthathi sacred sites lay below the iconic white silica sands. Picture: Kerry Trapnell

Wuthathi return to their old country

12 January 2017

Wuthathi Traditional Owner Dion Bender-Warren was born and bred in Cairns, a two-hour flight down the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula from his tribal homelands. Like many of the descendants of the Wuthathi since European invasion, his family was forcibly relocated from their traditional country. His grandfather Tom Warren was forced off sometime around 1930, says Dion. Wuthathi families were dispersed from their land into ‘neighbouring’ communities across the Cape, though sometimes further afield, to make way for commercial grazing and occupation leases. Yet from a young age, Dion knew about his true home around the Shelburne Bay area and always felt the urge to return:

“We had no say in the matter of leaving, because the government had full control over everything. We had no rights back in my grandfather’s day. But we all sort of stayed in this area and we all knew that was the old country. We were saying it all the time that we were traditional owners,” says Dion.

Last month, the Wuthathi regained 1181 square kilometres of their country after the Queensland state Labor government signed over title deeds during an official presentation held at Lockhart River.

Traditional Owners were joined by Queensland treasurer Curtis Pitt and state cabinet ministers Mark Bailey and Steven Miles for the handback which will now see significant land and islands in the Shelburne Bay area returned to the Wuthathi after a battle that has lasted four decades.

“This day has been a long time coming,” state treasurer Pitt said. “We cannot stress enough that it is a handback, not a handover. This land is going back to its rightful owners.

Twenty years ago, five Traditional Owner family groups began to get the paper work together which ultimately led to the success of the Wuthathi Native Title claim in 2015. Over 12 months on and now the freehold title deeds to their homelands has been returned.

The White Point area of Wuthathi-Shelburne Bay. Picture: Kerry Trapnell

This land includes the iconic white dune fields and perched freshwater lakes that the area is renowned for, as well as the offshore MacArthur Islands, Saunders Islands, and the Sir Charles Hardy group of islands. Extensive heathland and wetland surrounding Harmer Creek and MacMillan River, and woodland extending west to the Great Dividing Range are also included in the title deeds.

Over 350 square kilometres of country located at the southern end of the bay will become National Park and will be jointly managed by the Wuthathi people and the Queensland government. Over 800 square kilometres will be returned as freehold to Traditional Owners, providing the Wuthathi with the opportunity for future economic development based on environmental and cultural conservation.

“Just to get that recognition is what we’ve been fighting for all these years. Everybody’s been taking turns of speaking up and having a go on the committee, so we’ve been sharing. We’re trying to do it all together,” says Dion.

Dion’s cousin, Chrissy Warren, returned with her family to Cairns from Papua New Guinea. Her grandfather Leonard Warren — Tom Warren’s brother — ended up there when he was forcibly removed from Wuthathi country. His granddaughter Chrissy remained unaware of her Aboriginal roots until older brother Nigel coincidentally met the then 16 years-old Dion in a Cairns schoolyard.

Wuthathi Traditional Owners Chrissy and Dion in Lockhart River for the handback.

With a physical resemblance to match the shared family name, Dion took Nigel home to meet his own mother and after many years in PNG, Chrissy’s family were reunited with their “mainland” cousins. Their names were immediately added to the native title claim and they’ve been helping with the fight for title rights ever since, says Dion.

“To even know that we had family here was quite a surprise really. Even though anything was possible back in those days. But we’ve been welcomed back into the fold. It’s just so overwhelming,” says Chrissy.

Currently a director on the Wuthathi Aboriginal Corporation board, Chrissy says the Traditional Owners have discussed many possible future projects and are currently in the process of establishing a Wuthathi ranger program to work in partnership with the existing Heathland rangers stationed near the northern border of Wuthathi country. She says the board hopes to have two ranger stations to cover Wuthathi country on the mainland, with a third station to be based on one of the islands included in the handback.

“There’s been tourists flying in with helicopters, collecting our crays to sell to restaurants back in Cairns. There’s tourist companies coming in not asking permission to go on country, they’re cutting fences, just tearing through with 4WDs and quad-bikes. Making their own tracks, destroying sacred sights,” says Dion.

“We’re not trying to block people from going there, we just want them to stop running over our sacred sites. It’s just looking after country, maintaining it. It’s as simple as that.”

Wuthathi Davis Convent dances at the Lockhart River Nyimuchin Community Hall.

“I’m sure we’re still going to have some challenges ahead of us in stopping mining or whatever people want to do on our country, “ says Chrissy, “but we’re just so happy to get Country back. We’re just wanting our Wuthathi people to get back on country.”

That will come with the next dry season, when the Wuthathi head back to their own country for a proper celebration, says Dion. “That wasn’t a celebration, that was just the signing of the papers. We want to do it our way, have our own ceremony now.”

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