Ngarrindjeri native title claim settled | PHOTOS

On a momentous day for the Ngarrindjeri people, as Darrell Sumner stepped up to the microphone, the emotion written on his face was sadness.

He looked out at hundreds of faces – friends, family, supporters – and, beyond them, the River Murray and a single pelican which floated past.

A Federal Court hearing on the riverbank had just finished; a 2000-page document had been delivered to the legal team representing the Ngarrindjeri people.

Within its pages lay final proof of their traditional ownership of 578 parcels of land and water within the Murraylands, Coorong and Fleurieu – their native title rights.

But in that moment, memories of the Ngarrindjeri men and women who had gone before him – the late Tom and George Trevorrow and Matt Rigney among them – hung close.

"We started 20 years ago, 20 years, and 95 per cent of our elders have passed in that time, and we have not finished our quest for native title for all Ngarrindjeri lands and waters," he said, referring to a second claim over the Limestone Coast which is still being disputed.

"Maybe the South Australian Native Title Service will find some other dissatisfied group to keep us in the court, but we are Ngarrindjeri and we will prevail.

"To everyone present, and the generations still to come: we have often led the way in this country.

"Keep on doing so.

"Never forget you are Ngarrindjeri."

He described the occasion as a milestone in the history of two nations, one that was about more than paper and pen.

"Today is about recognising we have the responsibility and obligation to make sure our region is being cared for according to the cultural protocols of the Ngarrindjeri nation,” he said.

"Today we recognise that this land we stand on today is ancient, and that the people who have lived here for thousands of years belong to this place, and this place belongs to them."

Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources chief executive Sandy Pitcher responded on behalf of the South Australian government, and explained the next step in the native title process: the signing of a land use agreement which would set down the terms under which Ngarrindjeri could use their land.

"This will provide certainty around land tenure," she said.

"It will provide simpler processes for engagement.

Today we recognise that this land we stand on is ancient, and that the people who have lived here for thousands of years belong to this place, and this place belongs to them.

Darrell Sumner

"The Indigenous land use agreement ... will also resolve compensation for past impairment of native title by the state for acts that have been done on the determination area, and it does so in a way that will provide both financial and other benefits to the Ngarrindjeri people."

Court by the river

"Your attention, ladies and gentlemen: the Federal Court of Australia is now in session."

The formal part of the day's proceedings offered a rare sight: the Honourable Justice Richard White holding court in a marquee beside the river, as about 200 people watched on through the drizzle.

Shaun Berg, who represented the Ngarrindjeri during the court action, paid tribute to those who had contributed to the claim: Rigneys, Trevorrows, Rankines, Sumners and a dozen more besides.

Justice White said the occasion was about more than an agreement between the Ngarrindjeri people and the state of South Australia; it was an agreement by which every Australian was bound.

"Today marks the formal recognition of the traditional ownership, by the Ngarrindjeri people, of this land," he said.

"They are being recognised, in effect by all the people in Australia, as the Aboriginal people who have occupied this country prior to European settlement.

"So also is the maintenence of their connection to this land being recognised.

"The court's orders do not have the effect of creating native title ... instead they are a declaration that native title exists in the land and has always existed, at least since the time of European settlement in 1788."

He spoke about how government policy had changed since the 1960s and 70s, when Aboriginal people were absorbed into the broader community and given the same rights as other Australians, but only on the condition that they let go of their culture and language.

"In effect, the loss and even destruction of Aboriginal culture was to be encouraged," he said.

"It is useful to recall these things when we think about the significance of today's occasion.

"Today ... the court makes a public statement which will assist in the preservation of (Ngarrindjeri) society and culture."

With the application of a stamp by the registrar of the court, it was made official, and applause erupted as the determination was handed to Mr Berg.​