Earlier this year I attended my clan’s Native Title hearing. It was held in Taroom, Queensland (QLD), which is a four-hour drive South-East of Rockhampton. It took two days each way to get there, via Brisbane.
Being in QLD was bittersweet for me. I lived in Cairns as a young kid, and before undertaking the Juris Doctor I worked there as a costume designer. I had also travelled there to visit family a few times since leaving and hold good memories of QLD. It is a beautiful place famous for its stunning environment and unique early colonial architecture. Being in the warm semi-tropical climate is always rejuvenating – simultaneously energising and deeply relaxing. I am blessed to know many wonderful and inspiring people there. However, I always have in the back of my mind the knowledge of the pain and devastation this place has wrought on my family.
The last time I was there it was for a family reunion to visit my Great-Grant Uncle Ted Waddy’s grave. He was the twin brother of my Great-Grandfather Fred Waddy. He and my Great-Grandmother, Ruby Waddy, were the children of massacre survivors and had incredibly brutal, hard lives under the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (1897). The Act (amongst other things) enforced segregation and strict control by the State of the Aboriginal people’s movement and wages. It destroyed our languages and culture by assigning a ‘Superintendent’ who had the power to enforce arbitrary rules – people were flogged for speaking their language, practising ceremonies, or for attempting to escape. Breaking these rules could result in being sent to Palm Island as punishment – the fate of my Great-Aunt. At the cemetery my Aunty described how her fair-skin (as compared to her siblings) was the reason her family lived in constant fear on-the-run. They always managed to prevent her from being removed, but so many that were removed are still traumatised by the experience. The suffering is generational.
It was the first time I had been back to Taroom (Iman ancestral land) since I was nine-years-old. The corporation set up by the claimants (as part of the Native Title process) organised two big charter buses to pick up a group from Rocky which had to leave at four in the morning to get us there on time. It was freezing cold and dark while we were waiting for the bus to arrive – just picture Mums and babies wrapped in thick fleece blankets, young ones wearing ugg boots and clutching pillows, Aunties rushing around organising the mob in hand-knitted red, yellow and black beanies. After the bus took off, I was able to get in a solid hour of sleep before the sun began to rise.
Iman Country is beautiful – like the backdrop of a Western film, in high-definition. As the sun rose, I was engulfed by its colours, smell and sounds – my spirit became clear and light. There really is no better feeling that being on Country.
The Federal Court sitting was held in the Taroom town hall, which was packed to the rafters. I suspect virtually every member of the town was in attendance, along with various stakeholders from the State of QLD, MPs and mining interests.
The judge talked about our history for a long time – he spoke of the massacres and how our families were forcibly marched over 200 kilometres, from the Taroom Aboriginal Reserve to Woorabinda. That despite the brutality of the State’s colonial policies, the Iman people have survived. Our connection to the land was impacted, but not destroyed, and we still have our languages (though it has now been classified as ‘endangered’).
The expressions of the non-Indigenous people in the hall revealed a dawning realisation that they would have to face the truth: their ancestors committed acts of genocide and stole our land. Finally, the judge said, “We’re not granting Native Title, we are recognising it, because it has always been here.”
I know how lucky I am as a law student to have experienced this. The Iman fought for Native Title for thirty years, and many of the original claimants are no longer with us. This was a historical day commemorated by traditional dancing and a big party with speeches and a live country band at the local show ground afterwards. My mother, Marcia Langton, along with many others including Sean Brennan, worked on the drafting of the Native Title Act 1993 in the aftermath of the Mabo decision. I have a strong sense of where I come from, and that there is much more work for me to do.
Ruby Langton-Batty is of Yiman decent (QLD), and has lived in many different places across the country including Darwin and Melbourne. Currently based in Sydney, she is an intern with Corporate Citizenship at KPMG and is completing a Juris Doctor (Law) at UNSW.