• Budgeoli elder Max Eulo performing ceremony on Goat Island, April 2010, marking the first time in 200 years that Traditional Owners returned to the island. (TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)Source: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images
Colonial records document Wangal man Bennelong said Me-mel or Goat Island was his inheritance, handed down to him by his father, who was born on the island. The return of the island back to Aboriginal ownership represents a significant milestone in the history of Indigenous land rights.
Nancia Guivarra

25 Oct 2016 - 3:45 PM  UPDATED 27 Oct 2016 - 2:33 PM

Me-mel is an iconic piece of real estate.  It’s the largest island in Sydney Harbour, located just north of Darling Harbour, between Balmain and Millers Point, opposite the new Barangaroo Reserve, named after Bennelong’s beloved partner, Cammeraigal woman Barangaroo.  It’s the place where Bennelong and Barangaroo (and their descendants) visited often to feast and for recreation. 

The NSW Baird Government recently announced its plan to return Me-Mel to Traditional Owners.  The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (Metropolitan) will manage the land of behalf of the Sydney Indigenous community.  No timeframe has been set for its return, but Metropolitan anticipates that the process should be completed within the next 2 years.

Metropolitan CEO Nathan Moran told NITV: “Me-mel is one of the original sites [we’ve] pursued for return since the organisation began in 1983, along with Cockatoo Island.”

Me-mel is a Gadigal word for eye. The island marks the start of an EORA songline – it’s the creation site for Sydney Harbour. 

Mr Moran says the development is an important act of retribution and restitution by the NSW government. The move was first touted by former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, who campaigned for its return. 

The formal ‘handback’ process was started by Labor MPs Luke Foley and Linda Burney on Survival day, January 26th 2015.  Since then, Metropolitan have sought bipartisan backing for the proposal through the NSW Baird government. 

“Me-Mel is the site of the first penal colony.  There are multiple benefits for Aboriginal people to this handback.  Metropolitan have long advocated for a central and visible site for Aboriginal people to show our culture, resilience and innovation, to increase our health and wellbeing through acceptance and acknowledgement as original peoples of Australia, to celebrate our survival and to end centuries of dislocation from Sydney Harbour,” Mr Moran explains.   

Me-Mel is earmarked as a cultural and business hub for the Indigenous community of Sydney, but Metropolitan says they will also acknowledge and maintain its deep colonial heritage and history – they believe the site, its upkeep and ongoing value for tourism, will depend on an ongoing management partnership with the NSW government. 

Until now there is little precedent for a handover of such a significant place, and no precedent for Aboriginal control of sites handed back to Indigenous communities around NSW. 

Other sites have been automatically leased back to the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, who continue to manage them on behalf of Traditional Owners. 

Mr Moran says Metropolitan are firmly of the belief that Me-Mel should be controlled by the Aboriginal community, not just owned.

“Aboriginal ownership and control of our own lands is a true model of self-determination,” he says.

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