In 2006, Federal Court Judge Murray Wilcox found the native title of the Noongar people over Perth metropolitan area had not been extinguished. Subsequent to this the State Government appealed the decision and, in 2008, the Federal Court left the question of native title in Perth open for further consideration. The Noongar claim covers 200,000 square kilometres of Australia’s south-west, and includes major centres such as Bunbury, Albany and Northam. In abandoning its litigation, the West Australian government is recognising native title and pursuing a negotiation process with the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council to seek resolution.
After the decision in 2006, which like The Apology should be a symbolic victory for the Noongar people, anxieties about the security of suburban backyards – that most defended of minor territories – and beaches in Perth were unleashed. Non-Aboriginal people, including community leaders and elected representatives, released alarmist verbiage about the possibility of forced alienation and removal from homes, beaches, streets and land. In handing down the 2006 decision, Judge Wilcox said that while the determination will not affect freehold or leasehold land or people’s backyards, it means that traditional owners will be able to maintain and protect significant sites in the area as well as hunt, fish and gather food. The ABC reported that Glen Kelly, from the South West Land and Sea Council, said “what this decision does is it enables Noongar people and the State Government and other parts of the community to begin talking to each other in a more constructive manner and for the state to engage Noongar people and to open a new chapter.”
In 2009, after more than a decade of court battles, the South West Land and Sea Council have entered in an agreement with the State Government to negotiate another form of recognising land ownership and developing a settlement package. According to a Perth Now report, the package is likely to include recognition of the Noongar people’s traditional ownership, a range of economic benefits, a revised heritage regime, land, and joint management of certain national parks. Not surprisingly, acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land use rarely factors in city-making processes in a country where denial of human rights continues. Native title is a fraught process yet, for all its limitations, it may present some curious opportunities. In the Noongar win there should be way – if not an imperative – to bring traditional knowledge and reconciliation into closer contact with planning and design as part of living and grounded culture, of restitching the fabric of culture, community and country. In recognising the significance of these landmark decisions and negotiations, authorities might reground the city of Perth, as the country’s only state capital over which native title has been recognised. While bureaucratic and regulatory, this acknowledges the strong memory and knowable links with traditional owners.
Understanding the cultural history of a place is ordinarily essential in planning, design and place making processes that engage community. However, such processes tend to overwrite Aboriginal histories with symbolic exceptions such as public art, conservation and multilingual signage woven into the movements of everyday. Even this recognition does not constitute the substance of the design or plan. There is mounting evidence that such rethinking is happening with projects such as Kevin O’Brien Architects Sep Yama – Finding Country, research at the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre with a strong focus on housing, and geographer Louise Johnson’s current research on post-colonial planning. In Sep Yama – Finding Country, O’Brien acknowledges that “every built thing sits on Country. The choice is eyes wide shut to maintain the belief of an empty land or to find Country and connect to it.” The project also included a proposition for rethinking the city map with Aboriginal places and thinking about settlement as making a camp, an approach to country as “something alive, something powerful to be engaged”. The planned and built environment is described as “the denial of Country made easy”, where Country itself is somehow out of place. The cultural dimensions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander relationships to the land, environment and place are not just matters for remote communities and mining leases. As O’Brien writes, “Every part of Australia, of this Country, has a memory. Australian cities continue to expand blindly both out and up – no one looks down, into the ground, into Country. An expertise of expansion has been amassed and architects are not part of it. An architecture of Camping eases Alienation because it looks into the ground.”
Making camps and caring for country are embedded in the ethos of The Queensland Folk Federation which presents the Woodford Folk Festival, The Dreaming and The Planting on its property in the heart of Jinibara Country, near Woodford in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. The Dreaming, as a festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and art, plays a vital role in drawing people to a site of cultural significance and creating a frame for a dialogue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures (traditional, urban, contemporary, rural, regional etc) and about cultural values about land, learning and heritage. When people go to those events, they come back with stories of the landscape – how the site turns to mud when it rains (and apparently it doesn’t always rain); how the site is rehabilitated after the influx of cars and humans in a makeshift settlement; how the land itself accommodates the activity, then quietly settles and regenerates when everyone is gone as if the land itself adapts to or changes with the rhythms and cycles of festivals. The Queensland Folk Federation has an environmental policy and, with a 500 year plan, environmental management is a major priority. Private landholders fill the gaps of the land use system, which performs a balancing act that isn’t particularly attentive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land use practices, memory and traditions. The Planting is a three day annual happening where people plant trees on site, learn about the environment, and in the evening live music and food bring everyone together. Since 1994, 80,000 endemic species have been planted on site, nesting boxes have been placed and endangered species have moved in. The site seems to speak, perhaps it even sings, calling us all to care for it and all the land.
There are many questions and many unresolved conflicts embedded here that prod consideration of whether what we prioritise is the same as what we value, even cherish. Perhaps there is potential for a postcolonial planning and design that doesn’t erase the people and their past; an approach to cities and settlement that grounds the complexity of land use in care for people and connection to place as well as the simplicity of, as O’Brien proposes, making a camp.
South West Land and Sea Council
Native Title Tribunal
Native Title Tribunal – South West Region Information
Kevin O’Brien Architects
Aboriginal Environments Research Centre
Queensland Folk Federation