The Rise of Aboriginal Rights and Land Rights was one of the most discussed issues in Aboriginal communities during the 20th century. The rights of Aboriginal people to their ancestral lands have dominated the politics of white-Aboriginal relations since the 1960s. Among the first Aboriginal groups to bring the issue of land rights to national attention was the Yolngu people from Yirrkala in northeastern Arnhem Land. In 1963, with the assistance of some members of the Methodist Church and a Labor Party parliamentarian, the Yolngu petitioned the federal Parliament against bauxite mining on their land. Their petitions, presented on traditional bark paintings, noted that they had never been consulted about the mining project and requested an inquiry. This led to the first legal case in Australia to test whether Australian law recognized Aboriginal land ownership, Milirrpum v. Nabalco. In 1971 a judge decided that while it was clear the Yolngu had lived at Yirrkala for thousands of years, Australian law, based on the principle of terra nullius, did not recognize prior Aboriginal ownership of the land.
In 1966, at the same time as the Yolngu were seeking control of their land, Gurindji workers at the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory went on strike for equal wages with white stockmen and better working conditions. Their strike quickly became a claim for land, as the Gurindji sought a pastoral lease on part of the station that covered their traditional lands. In 1975, after years of legal struggles, they were granted such a lease.
The passage in 1976 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act marked a radical change in governmental attitudes toward Aboriginal land rights. As a result of this act, more than 40 percent of the total land area in the Northern Territory has reverted to Aboriginal ownership. In 1985 the government officially transferred Uluru, one of the world’s largest monoliths, to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal peoples, who consider it sacred. They now lease the site back to the government as Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Australia.
Before 1992, land was returned to Aboriginal groups on the basis of laws passed by Parliament, rather than any judicial recognition that Aboriginal people were the original owners of the land. In a landmark 1992 case, Mabo v. Queensland, the Australian High Court overturned the concept of terra nullius, for the first time acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the original owners of the Australian continent. The court introduced the legal concept of native title, ruling that Indigenous Australians had title to land on the continent before European settlement in 1788. Indigenous people could claim native title if they could show a continuous relationship with their ancestral lands and if such title had not been extinguished by a valid act of government, such as a grant of the land to a private owner. In 1993 the government passed the Native Title Act, which aimed to harmonize the existing rights of non-indigenous people with the Mabo judgment. This act established the National Native Title Tribunal to hear land claims and mediate between indigenous and non indigenous interests.
In 1996, in the case of Wik Peoples v. Queensland, the High Court partially clarified the question of whether native title was extinguished by pastoral leases, in which individuals rent land from the government for the purpose of ranching and farming. The court found that native title could coexist with pastoral leases, but that the rights of the leaseholder prevail in cases of conflict. The ruling greatly upset pastoral leaseholders, and in 1998 the federal Parliament passed amendments to the Native Title Act that made it somewhat harder for some groups to obtain recognition of their native title. The Rise of Aboriginal Rights and Land Rights are important issues that decide the true place of Aborigines within their communities.