Singing the Law

 In Aboriginal Land Rights

The Adnyamathanha People have lived in and around the Flinders Ranges in the north of South Australia long before the coming of white settlement. In 1994, the Adnyamathanha filed the first native title claim in South Australia, seeking a determination from the Federal Court that they hold customary rights and interests, including the right to hunt native fauna, collect and use native flora and conduct traditional practices such as funerals, on their country.

Extensive mediation with other parties, usually conducted by the National Native Title Tribunal, has been carried out since that time. A key focus of this mediation has been resolution between the Adnyamathanha and other aboriginal groups, concerning partially overlapping claims. At the time of writing, agreements have been reached with all but one neighbouring aboriginal group.

The claim is currently subject to programming orders in the Federal Court and may go to trial in late 2008. A major report, comprising three volumes with over 350 pages has been produced by an expert anthropologist who was retained by the Adnyamathanha. This report has recently been filed in the Court. Discussions have also commenced with the State Government in the hope of reaching a Consent Determination, without the need to go to a contested trial. Full hearings of native title claims are notorious for the length of time involved, their complexity and the amount of money which is inevitably consumed in the process. The Adnyamathanha are hoping to avoid such a trial, if possible, by convincing those representatives of the State and the other major parties that the Adnyamathanha have continuing connection with the Ranges.

There are actually two Adnyamathanha Native Title Claims. The smaller No. 2 claim covers only the area of the Flinders Ranges National Park. The larger one, however, covers a very substantial area of approximately 75,000 square kilometres, from Lake Torrens on the western side of the claim, across Lake Frome towards the NSW border on the eastern side of the claim, and from Hawker in the south to Lake Blanche in the far north of the State. These claims seek the Court’s recognition that the Adnyamathanha have native title rights and interests, which co-exist with the rights of pastoral lessees, and in the case of national parks, which do not detract from the continuing operation of the parks.

The term Adnyamathanha literally means “ranges mob” or “rock people”. The Adnyamathanha still speak “yura ngawarla” (the Adnyamathanha language) amongst themselves and still teach their children to speak this language. Adnyamathanha also follow the “mura” or the “law history”. This is not a legal system as we know it, written in statutes or interpreted by courts, but rather a set of core beliefs and rules, asserted by the Adnyamathanha to have been handed down through the generations, including by way of stories, songs and rituals from the original ancestral beings.

At the end of October 2007, the Federal Court convened a hearing of “preservation evidence” given by an Adnyamathanha traditional elder, Ken McKenzie. Such evidence is taken in native title claims in circumstances where a key witness is elderly or frail and there is a possibility that they will not be able to give evidence at the full trial. Ken McKenzie is respected as being one of the traditional songsters of the Adnyamathanha who has a strong knowledge of Adnyamathanha mura and songs associated with particular sites of the Flinders Ranges. As Ken said: “I believe in the mura. It’s real”.

Much of Ken’s evidence was given in yura ngwarla, particularly when speaking of the mura. The hearing took place over 3 days on the claim area. The conduct of the hearing itself constituted a significant logistical exercise. As one of the lawyers representing the Adnyamathanha, I initially had to plan and consult with Ken McKenzie to ascertain the feasibility of visiting certain places, and rule out some which were too inaccessible given the time available. It was vital to ensure that Ken’s health could cope with the length of the hearing. The Federal Court has a special co-coordinator to deal with such hearings. Detailed maps were provided by the Native Title Tribunal, showing the route that would be taken and the sites which would be visited. All the parties were required however to bring their own food and drink and 4WD vehicles, in order to be relatively self-sufficient. The hearing was recorded, video taped and transcribed. Participants took FM radios, which could be tuned to a special frequency so that all those attending could clearly hear the evidence which was being given by the witness at each location.

The preservation hearing commenced at the Hawker Sports Club on 29 October 2007 where chairs and tables were rearranged for a formal hearing. His Honour Justice Mansfield presided.

At the commencement, Ken welcomed the Federal Court to Adnyamathanha Country. Richard Bradshaw and I were representing the Adnyamathanha claimants, Bob Ellis an anthropologist with an extensive knowledge of Adnyamathanha culture, attended, as did lawyers and experts, from the State and from the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement together with staff from the Court. Following the preservation of evidence in chief and cross examination of both Ken and another elder Stuart Patterson, the parties then drove to a site south of Hawker at Yourambulla Caves.

Ken told a story at this site of an old woman who used to live there near a waterhole. Yuras (the term Adnyamathanha use to describe themselves) would visit this place and she would feed them.. She would cook them mai (a traditional food made by Adnyamathanha from local plants) but other yuras started to realise, however, that visitors to the woman were not returning. So two young yura men visited her. After eating with her, they pretended to go to sleep, but instead put two logs in their sleeping places. They then stood away and they watched her from her camp. They saw her get up in the night and come along with fire on a spear. She speared the logs but then realised that she had been tricked. The young yuras sprang up. They struck their boomerangs at her, and killed her. Then, frightened, they ran north towards Wilpena Pound.

From here begins an extensive story line that continues right through into the northern Flinders Ranges. Ken pointed to two Rocky outcrops which the Adnyamathanha believe are the two yuras. Importantly, one was an Arraru yura and one was a Mathari yura. Ken told how the Adnyamathanha society still strongly adheres to its moiety system. Each Adnyamathanha person is either Arraru or Mathari. A yura has the same moiety as their mother and the respective moieties are passed down through the generations following the mother’s line. The moieties come from the mura and are central to how the Adnyamathanha relate to each other and the land. Ken explained how he was of Arraru moiety. People of his moiety have associations with particular sites and with other features such as the north wind. As he was Arraru, he could only marry a woman who was Mathari. Margaret, his wife, is Mathari and therefore associates with the south wind.

We looked out towards the Willochra Plains in the distance. It had not rained for a long time and the country was looking very parched. So Ken decided to sing a rain song. He said he wouldn’t sing it for very long, just enough to bring a little rain. He told the judge that he didn’t want to wash out the Federal Court hearing. On the second night of the hearing, it rained at Blinman in the Flinders Ranges. We are still considering how we might submit this as proof of the powerful connection that Adnyamathanha have with their country.

From Hawker we drove to Wilpena Pound and stayed there overnight. In the morning Ken spoke about the impact of the white man on his traditional land. As he said: “When the gunfire came here a lot of the camp fires went out. The white people chased the yuras away”.

We inspected an art installation that has been recently set up at old Wilpena Station with funding from the State Government. It was designed and created by members of the Adnyamathanha to reflect their different experiences. Inscribed in the installation are contributions from various Adnyamathanha, including from Ken. One inscription says: “We needed them and they needed us”. Ken told the Court how the Adnyamathanha felt that they needed the pastoralists to get money and food, following white settlement, but the pastoralist also needed the Adnyamathanha to do all the stock work. Ken himself gave evidence about his days as a drover (when he was in his late teens), as being in charge of driving large herds of cattle hundreds of kilometres.

Over the next two days, we visited many sites throughout the Flinders Ranges. We held hearings on tops of hills, in creek beds and by rocky outcrops. A typical session would commence with the sound and video recordists setting up their equipment at a site and Ken, the lawyers and the judge being fitted with portable microphones to their clothing. A compass would then be set on the ground to give bearings. This was important so that when Ken pointed to various geographical features in different directions, the locations could be clearly noted for the transcript. The hearing would commence by the tipstaff formerly announcing that, “the Federal Court is now in session”, at which time, as counsel for the Adnyamathanha, I would begin by giving a description of the surroundings and location, before commencing to ask Ken questions about the significance of that place.

Ken would usually then talk of the mura associated with the site which could include the mura stories about ancestral beings or ancient events, which occurred at that place. At several sites, he also sang a song associated with that site, which he had been taught by his father or uncles, and he occasionally performed a special dance.

On one occasion, we drove our 4WD vehicles along a very rough track on a pastoral property which was owned by an Adnyamathanha Community and not usually accessible to visitors. We suddenly came upon lush green bull rushes with a spring and stream flowing down a gully. Ken sat down and told the mura story about this place, which concerned the meeting of an Arraru man and a Mathari woman who were brought together by an old Wilyaru man (initiated man). He then pointed to a rock face and at his request, we climbed up a steep hillside to find a small cave with delicate ochre drawings painted on the inside walls. Ken told us that those paintings had been made by the Wilyaru man long before the white man came.

Ken continued with his story of how the young man and woman woke in the morning and heard bellbirds talking to each other and the young man then sang her a song, Ken then proceeded to sing a hauntingly beautiful song in yura ngawarla, which was the song of the bellbird or wudi apatha.

As we drove through the Ranges, Ken also gathered samples of native flora. He told the Court about uses to which it could be put, for food, for soap, even for poison. He talked about the seeds on the Spinifex, for instance, which is called wakati. He told how the echidna one day was being cheeky with a yura boy. Having had enough of him, the boy seized the echidna and threw him in the Spinifex, and that’s why the echidna got his spikes. Ken also spoke about the yakka bush, which is called arta in yura ngwarla. He described how Adnyamathanha would strip honey off the stalk when it was in season. He talked about other foods such as the urti or the wild peach, and where there were good places in the Ranges to find it. Ken also spoke about the use of some plants for medication and how for instance yura would put certain seeds in a sore to heal it.

Having completed the three day hearing, we not only had preserved important evidence for the Adnyamathanha claim, but also had a valuable sound and video record of a part of Adnyamathanha culture of the Flinders Ranges, particularly of the songs and dances, which Ken had performed at different sites.

As Ken told the Court, “Sometimes there’s time to cry for the place and sometimes to be sad for the place, but I’m glad to be back here and sing to all of you today. I’m glad to admit you all to this country.”

This article was published in the Law Society Bulletin.

If you need advice about Native Title law, please contact Graham Harbord or any other members of our Aboriginal land rights team on 8231 1110.

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