Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority, South Australian government begin work on groundbreaking Aboriginal treaty

We are Ngarrindjeri: About 50 people gather at Murray Bridge Town Hall for a public meeting on Friday, led by Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority chair Eunice Aston, centre. Photo: Peri Strathearn.
We are Ngarrindjeri: About 50 people gather at Murray Bridge Town Hall for a public meeting on Friday, led by Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority chair Eunice Aston, centre. Photo: Peri Strathearn.

Work has begun on a treaty between the Ngarrindjeri people and the South Australian government – the first of its kind in Australian history.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher announced last Wednesday that the government would aim to secure treaties with three Aboriginal regional authorities before the end of 2017.

The leaders of the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority (NRA), which has become a model for those elsewhere since its establishment nine years ago, hope they will be the first to sign such an agreement.

The first treaty will set a precedent for others in SA and Victoria, where similar work is underway.


On Wednesday, Mr Maher and representatives of the Ngarrindjeri, Adnyamathanha and Aboriginal peoples of the far west coast formally met at Parliament House for the first time.

The government would recognise the "cultural authority" of South Australia's first people, Mr Maher said, and "consider the consequences of settlement".

"The fact that so many Aboriginal people to this day face such significant disadvantage remains the greatest stain on our society," he said.

An independent commissioner would be appointed to handle negotiations, $4.4 million provided to support the work, and nothing ruled in or out.

Two documents will be produced during the treaty process: one to establish the rights of Ngarrindjeri, and one laying out what practical measures might be needed as a result.

Not about compensation

Flinders University professor Daryle Rigney, a Ngarrindjeri man who responded on behalf of his people, made it clear that the negotiation would not be about compensation or payback for past wrongs.

"Ngarrindjeri recognise that (settler) interests are not able to be undone and, using their own sense of fairness and justice, they would not endorse such," he said on Wednesday.

Rather, the case for a treaty has been built on the "letters patent" issued by King William IV in 1836, his instructions for the establishment of South Australia.

"Nothing ... shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal natives of the said province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own person, or in the persons of their descendants, of any lands therein," His Majesty wrote, indicating that the land's first inhabitants had a right to remain there.

Those orders were later ignored, Mr Rigney said.

"The possibility for a healthy, respectful relationship was sadly missed during the founding of the state, with all the consequences of the ... injustices that followed," he said.

"With (Wednesday's) announcement, hope returns: hopefulness that we can collectively move forwards on a journey towards restorative justice through proper, ongoing, contemporary Aboriginal practices of sovereignty and nationhood."

‘A big, big day’

On Friday, NRA chair Eunice Aston led a hastily convened meeting at Murray Bridge Town Hall in response to the announcement.

Present were about 50 Ngarrindjeri people: elders, labourers, professionals, mothers and children.

"If we get to be the first ones in SA to get a treaty, we want to be ready to go," Ms Aston said.

"It can't be just something that ends up with a one-off payment ... we want it ongoing forever so all our generations after us will have something to look up to and have goals to achieve.

"This is our opportunity, and we're only going to get one."

The thought of treaty brought emotions to the surface for many.

Cyril Karpany recalled his elders, who had been "ignored, put down and arrested, shut out of towns, schools, hospitals and shops".

"Many elders before me, they spoke of treaty, said they wish it will come true one day," he said.

"That day is here, today, for us."

Marshall Carter said he never thought he'd see such a day within his lifetime.

"This is a big, big day for us," he said.

"It's a treaty for our grandies and their grandies ... it's about putting a system in place that'll help our young people."

Victor Wilson said he had always had faith that Ngarrindjeri would be restored to their rightful place.

But he said generations of governments had pushed his people to the bottom, and that a lot of healing would have to occur.

"We have to forgive other people, say sorry when it's our fault, and other people have to say sorry too," he said.

"That is what being a nation is.

"We were a nation; we have to get back there."

On the table

It has taken us a long time to get to this point. A lot of healing has got to take place. We have to forgive other people, say sorry when it's our fault, and other people have to say sorry too. This is what being a nation is.

Victor Wilson

Questions from the crowd were recorded to give shape to the early negotiations.

Should Ngarrindjeri have the right to access private land or riverfront for cultural activities such as hunting and fishing?

As the traditional owners, should Ngarrindjeri families be entitled to free Crown land for affordable housing?

Should Ngarrindjeri have their own justice system, and if so, how could it work alongside mainstream courts and prisons?

Would a treaty apply only from 2017, or be backdated to 1836?

Could Ngarrindjeri be given ownership of all roads in their country, then employed to maintain them?

No answers nor guarantees were given at the meeting, but they will come.

  • All Ngarrindjeri are invited to treaty meetings at the NRA's office at 50 Old Princes Highway, Murray Bridge East, every Tuesday from January 10.


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