Over 20 years ago, Australia’s High Court handed down its second native title decision after 1992’s Mabo in the case of Wik vs Queensland. The decision found that the native title of the Wik People of Cape York was not necessarily extinguished by the granting of pastoral and mining leases over the land.
Before Mabo, Australian law did not recognise the traditional law and customs of Aboriginal Australians as a valid basis on which to claim ownership over land. After Mabo, in 1993, the Native Title Act was passed – the Commonwealth law under which native title claims can be made.
The political fallout of the Wik vs Queensland decision three years later was massive. A newly elected John Howard and his supporters scrambled to keep pastoralists and miners on side, reconciliation be damned, and talkback radio went into overdrive – the media had a field day. The decision led to the longest ever debate in parliament over amendments to the Native Title Act, which culminated in the incorporation of a large number of changes in 1998.
But no one stopped to ask the Wik people how they felt about all this.
In his documentary Wik vs Queensland, director Dean Gibson does just that. Gibson, whose family is from the Peninsula, visits Cape York to speak with elders and locals about the instigation of the original claim back in 1993 and how the community banded together to see the case through those rough years and beyond.
Gibson says, “[The claim] was all about: we know that you are here, miners and farmers, you are part of the landscape, but as Aboriginal people we can’t just be stomped on, we need to have an equal and prominent seat at that table.”
We hear from Professor Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and others representing the Wik Peoples, along with Aboriginal elders and journalists caught up in the media circus at the time. There are also interviews with the fiercely determined traditional owners, including Fiona Wirrer-George Oochunyung, granddaughter of claimant Jean George, and former deputy major of Aurukun, Phyllis Yunkaporta, who give their take on the lead up and heated reaction to the decision.
“Wik people are warriors, Wik people are fighters," says Wirrer-George Oochunyung. "That fight? It’s not conscious, it’s instinctive.”
Wik vs Queensland airs on the anniversary of the decision, Sunday 23 December at 8:40pm on SBS. View it any time after that at SBS On Demand.