The Yaegl people from the Lower Clarence region on the New South Wales coast have won an 18 year legal dispute over native title of their traditional land.
The Federal Court of Australia has granted native title rights to the traditional owners of an area of land on the NSW north coast, in the longest running native title dispute before the court.
The Yaegl Aboriginal Land Council's original claim, made in November 1996, was for land in the Lower Clarence region between Harwood and the area where the Clarance river meets the ocean. This was revised in 2011 when a claim was lodged to the Native Title Tribunal for around 1400 square kilometres of land in the Clarence Valley.
Justice Jayne Jagot gave the adjudication in front of a crowd at a sitting of the Federal Court in Yamba, and it was a shame it had taken so long to resolve the land rights matter.
"That we have finally reached this milestone, belated as it is, is a testament to the unity, determination and strength of the Yaegl people," she said.
"They, as a people, have endured the dispossession from their lands as a result of European settlement, which the Native Title Act 1993 is intended to recognise and redress.
"[They] have endured also the best part of two decades of legal process, to obtain legal recognition of who they are."
Traditional owner Deidre Randall said the land is something that her people have treasured their whole lives, and it central to their culture.
"18 years, nearly 19 years, I thought this day would never come," she said. "We've lost a lot of beautiful people in the meantime, who started this, claimants, so we're doing it for them as well. It's major, absolutely major."
Chair of native title service provider NTS Corp, Michael Bell, said the Yaegl people are relieved after nearly two decades of struggle.
"We've been fighting this long, so I can't see why we'd stop now,"
"The people here have stuck to it, they've been dogged," he said. "It's a great and glorious recognition that finally legally, under the mainstream system, they are the traditional owners of the land."
Traditional owner Bill Walker, who spoke before the court, said the Yaegl people will continue to fight for their rights and their land.
"We've been fighting this long, so I can't see why we'd stop now," he said. "We are strong people, we believe in what we believe in and most of that is culture and culture to us is our number one priority."
In her 'Welcome to Country', Aunty Lillian Williams told the crowd that it is important to remember to "respect one another's country".
They got to respect our land, like we've got to respect their land," she said. "And that's what it's all about, respecting and loving and caring."