• Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion with the traditional owners at the Yarralin handback ceremony. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A land dispute that began 44-years ago when Aboriginal workers walked off a Northern Territory cattle station has finally led to the hand back of more than 50,000 hectares of land to the traditional owners.
Laura Murphy-Oates

16 Jun 2016 - 9:03 AM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2016 - 9:06 AM

In April 1972 around 200 Aboriginal workers and  their families walked off the Victoria River Downs (VRD) station to protest their pay and working conditions.

They walked to Wattie creek more than 160 kilometres away to join the Gurindji people, whose ongoing 1966 Wavehill walk-off was to become an enduring national symbol of the land rights movement.

For the Yarralin traditional owners it was the start of a 44-year dispute over land that many would not live to see resolved.

“I feel more for those oldies, you know my, um, grandfathers and them older fellas, my mums uncles and aunties that fought then,” says traditional owner and Yarralin deputy Mayor Brian Pedwell.

On Tuesday a contingent including the federal Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion and Northern Land Council CEO Joe Morrison visited the 400 strong community of Yarralin, seven hours drive south west of Katherine.

The community wore T-shirts with the slogan: 'We never gave up the fight', and celebrated with traditional dancing and singing.

The minister announced 20 new houses for the community and also apologised to the traditional owners during the ceremony.

"I'm sorry it took so long for this land to be returned given your involvement at the start," said Mr Scullion.

The hand back of 50,310 hectares of land, known as the Wickham River land claim, comprises three blocks of land, now officially held as freehold land by traditional owners under the Ngalkarrang-Wulngann Aboriginal Land trust.

The federal government has signaled its interest in signing a township lease with the community.

Lesser known land rights struggle

The VRD walk-off in 1972 triggered a 12-year standoff between the Hooker Pastoral Company who owned the land.

Traditional owners demanded 240 sq/km land, to become known as Yarralin, of the 12,300 sq/km property (approximately 2 percent of the lease overall), with an eye to acquire more  another 2100 sq/km block  in the long term.

In 1975 the Hooker Pastoral company agreed to the smaller claim but no action was taken by the Territory government to officially hand over the land.

It would take until 1984, and 12 years of strikes for the NT government to hand over just 149sq/km of land to the Ngarinman Yarralin Community Incorporate.

However, that claim was bungled by financial mismanagement, with the corporation dissolving in the 1990s.

The current ‘Wickham River land claim’ was lodged in 1983, but lay dormant until 2009 when it was brought before the Aboriginal Land Commissioner.

The current claim has been radically expanded from the original 3100 hectares to include land formerly owned by the Land Corporation and the Yarralin Township.