• A frameed photograph of the original handback in 1985, during an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the event at the community of Mutitjulu in 2015 (AAP)Source: AAP
The 30th anniversary has taken Anangu traditional owners – and the entire nation – back to that day in 1985 when the federal government returned the lands of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to their rightful owners. But what was the journey that preceded the victory?
Andrea Booth, Ella Archibald-Binge

26 Oct 2015 - 4:31 PM  UPDATED 26 Oct 2015 - 4:31 PM

The overwhelming emotion that Anangu traditional owner Pamela Taylor recalls feeling on 26 October, 1985, was relief.

"We were just so happy,’ she told NITV through a translator during 30th anniversary commemorations at Uluru.

"We were just so happy,’ she told NITV through a translator during 30th anniversary commemorations at Uluru.

“We were so happy that after all that struggle, all the talking, the fight to get it back - that it was finally going to be given back.”

Ms Taylor is the daughter of Tony Tjamiwa who was instrumental in the long battle towards the handback of the Uluru and Kata Tjuta lands to his people.She remembers the mass of people who gathered to share the momentous occasion. “Everybody drew together to celebrate, it was a really happy time."

Land within the Central Australia region was not particularly desired by settlers because the harsher climate was not conducive to living or agriculture. Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and the surrounding region, were declared the South West Reserve in 1920. It was one of a few reserves that Aboriginal people were placed in.

By 1940, reserves were being slimmed down to make way for mining resources in the region, and the magnificent rock was compelling tourists to the region.

In 1958, the area was declared no longer a reserve. It became the Ayers Rock Mt Olga National Par,  managed by the Northern Territory Reserves Board and owned by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.

For the Anangu people, there were grave concerns that mining, farming and tourism was ruining their land. In Anangu eyes, it remained their land and of incalculable importance because of their ancestor spirits, including the serpent, that had created and inhabited the region. But it was not until 1976, when the Aboriginal Land Rights Act NT was established by the Whitlam Government, that the Anangu traditional owners could see an opportunity to reclaim ownership.

The Aboriginal land rights act was the culmination of a series of powerful events. The 1967 referendumresulted in the creation of laws with respect to Indigenous people and inclusion of them in the nation’s census, the Freedom Rides through regional NSW worked to tumble racial divides between Indigenous- and non-Indigenous Australians and built momentum for the government to ensure better treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In 1973, the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission began under Gough Whitlam and chaired by Justice Edward Woodward to inquire into ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. 

Once the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 was introduced, traditional owners, along with the Central Land and Pitjantjatjara councils, lobbied then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to amend the Act so they could make an Aboriginal land claim.

But in 1977, the Commonwealth declared the area a National park.

Headway was made in 1979,traditional owners made headway following a land claim that gave them sole title to north and east parts of Uluru-Kata Tjuta.

Northern Territory hinders Uluru-Kata Tjuta land claim

By this time, the Northern Territory Government was growing anxious about where the ownership of Uluru-Kata Tjuta would settle.

While the Territory had announced it would amend the Aboriginal Land Rights Act to give traditional owners the ability to make pastoral leases infinite, it would not permit them ownership of their land. The NT Government, along with the tourism industry and farmers, began opposing the traditional owners work towards reclaiming their land.

In 1983, the Australian primeministership had transferred to Bob Hawke who announced the government’s intention to amend the land rights act to hand back the land to Anangu traditional owners.

The Northern Territory Government attempted to resist the maneuver one last time, fearing repercussions it could have on its tourism industry. It said it had not been sufficiently informed about the decision.

Its calls fell on deaf ears and the Anangu people were returned title of Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park.

On October 26 1985 the decision was consolidated in a ceremony known as the Handover where Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen gave traditional owners title and in turn they signed an agreement ensuring a 99-year lease to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service.

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Australian Parks and Wildlife Service management board was first chaired by Yami Lester, a land rights campaigner and Pitjantjatjara Council executive.

What has changed since that day in October 1985

In 2015, the Park continues to be jointly managed by Anangu, who demanded that a majority form the board, and Australian Parks and Wildlife Service. They operate according to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and the Aboriginal land rights act. The EPBC Act ensures that visitors to the park respect its natural and cultural values, while the land rights act ensures the rights of Anangu.

Uluru Kata-Tjuta has been the place of many developments. The Mutitjulu Pool in a significant area of the park, Mututjulu, is one of six projects under the Central Land Council’s community development program.

Central Land Council director David Ross says that the pool has provided incentive to children for their education. “Among other great outcomes, it has helped to lift primary school attendance thanks to the community’s ‘yes pool – yes school’ policy,” he said told media.

Other initiatives taking place in the park include the Uluru Rent Money project that traverses supporting dialysis patients, youth diversionary activities and community stores.

The Uluru Rent Money project has allocated $8 million to 80 initiatives with 65 of them already finished.

Aunty Taylor said she hoped there would be a greater focus on training and employment opportunities in the area. "I’d like to see a greater range of educational opportunities, things for the young, things that are going to help young people gain skills, things that’ll assist them to get the education they need to get good work in the future,” she said.

Mr Ross called on the Northern Territory on behalf of the Anangu people to make peace with the past.

“What they would like from the NT is to resolve its tussle with the Commonwealth over essential services and secure a brighter future for Mutitjulu.

“Our hosts want governments to resolve tenure issues and invest in good community governance as well as new housing and decent services.”