Aboriginal Land Rights
Galarrwuy Yunipingu, the chairman of the Northern Land Council, is one of the leading figures in the movement for Aboriginal land rights. He is a member of the Yolngu people, who in 1963 sent petitions, mounted on traditionally painted bark, to the Australian government seeking recognition of the rights of Aboriginal people to their lands.
The Aborgines have long struggled for basic rights in Australia. When the British first arrived in 1788, they proclaimed that the continent was legally uninhabited and claimed all the land in Australia for the British Crown, without compensation to the Aborigines. The ensuing two centuries witnessed massacres, forced migrations, and, finally, the resettlement of the surviving Aborigines into small missionary-run communities.
The 1960s witnessed a rise in Aboriginal activism that created a revolution in public thinking about the rights of Aborigines, who were finally recognized as citizens of Australia in 1967. The government began to transfer control of Aboriginal reserves and missions to Aboriginal land councils during the 1980s, following a decade of heated debates and aggressively pursued lawsuits. The first large transfer of land occurred in South Australia in 1984. Uluru, in the Northern Territory, and the land around it, was returned to Aboriginal control the following year.
In 1992, the High Court of Australia issued a ruling that further expanded the scope of Aboriginal rights and land claims, by recognizing that the land had been inhabited when the first colonists arrived in 1788. This ruling has been interpreted to mean that as much as 80% of the land in Australia, including the central districts in Sydney and Brisbane, may someday be returned to the descendants of its original inhabitants. Today, some 450,000 square miles, or about 15% of the country, mostly in the Northern Territory, has been returned to Aboriginal control.