Ngarrindjeri and others native title claim to be determined by Federal Court at Sturt Reserve, Murray Bridge

Claim: The Ngarrindjeri and others have spent almost 20 years trying to prove their continued connection to 40,000 pieces of land. A decision on the area labelled "part A" will be handed down next Thursday. Image: National Native Title Tribunal.

Claim: The Ngarrindjeri and others have spent almost 20 years trying to prove their continued connection to 40,000 pieces of land. A decision on the area labelled "part A" will be handed down next Thursday. Image: National Native Title Tribunal.

After almost 20 years, a native title claim by the Ngarrindjeri and other Aboriginal people is about to be settled.

Next Thursday, in a ceremony at Sturt Reserve, the Federal Court of Australia will announce its determination about a claim over traditional lands stretching from Murray Bridge southwest to Cape Jervis and southeast almost to Tintinara.

In legal terms, that could mean granting the traditional inhabitants of the area a right to live, hunt, fish, or teach laws and customs on some of their lands and waters.

But Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority chief executive officer Clyde Rigney said that for his people, it would mean something more.

"It will be a massive day," he said.

"Only in the last 20 to 30 years are Aboriginal people starting to see what opportunities and rights they do have.

"We're no longer on missions, no longer on fringe camps, no longer being kept out of towns – all that past history that excluded Aboriginal people from the development of Australian society is now behind us.

"This does as much for Ngarrindjeri social and emotional well being ... getting that acknowledgement means a lot.

"It's not about us as the first nations people of the Murray, Lower Lakes, Coorong and coast saying 'we want that, we want that, we want that'.

"It's not 'here's an amount of money'."

Native title explained

The federal Native Title Act provides a means of recognising the legal rights of traditional land owners in parallel with the mainstream land management system.

It was passed into law soon after the 1992 Mabo case, in which the High Court recognised for the first time that Australia was not an uninhabited land, "terra nullius", when British settlers arrived.

Under the act, traditional owners can gain a legal right to live, hunt, fish, or teach laws and customs in an area.

In some cases they may be granted an exclusive right to access an area.

The claimants must demonstrate that the rights they seek are part of their traditional laws and customs; that those laws and customs are still practised today; and that they have an ongoing connection with the land.

The Ngarrindjeri and others native title claim was first lodged on July 6, 1998.

The Ngarrindjeri and others claim includes two parcels of land; the other, on the Limestone Coast, will be dealt with separately by the courts.

The Federal Court had resolved in February 2016 to finalise the claim by the end of this year.

Exhaustive process

Luke Trevorrow got involved in the native title negotiations soon after he finished high school 12 years ago.

Members of a working party have examined 40,000 individual land titles across the district in an attempt to determine whether the Ngarrindjeri connection to each piece of their country still existed in a workable sense.

Anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, lawyers – all have had their say.

In a spiritual sense, Aboriginal people's connection with country was and would always be unbroken, Mr Trevorrow said: "we have a right to that and it will never go away".

But practically speaking, ownership of land now used for housing, farming or business could not just be given back, nor compensation given for it.

Most of the land on which native title would be recognised was Crown land such as national parks.

In time, Mr Rigney said, Ngarrindjeri would be able to assert their right to conduct cultural activities there alongside bushwalkers and campers.

"Native title is not going to overturn licensing, the permit system and that stuff; all it does is provide us with a stronger negotiation starting point, and an acknowledgement that Ngarrindjeri are the traditional owners," he said.

It would be up to Ngarrindjeri to build on that foundation in a way that could improve the lives of Aboriginal people, and many decades of work still lay ahead.

But he thanked those who had gone before, the dedicated people who had believed in righting the wrongs committed by settlers and missionaries over two centuries.

"The people who started this journey and continued it along the way understood this was one of the main things that needed to occur for Ngarrindjeri to be healthy again."