Aboriginal IssuesNews

Aboriginal Land Council – 40 Years Strong

Saturday September 29 saw over 1,000 people gather in the Grand Ballroom at the International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour to celebrate 40 years of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

NSWALC original working committee – Joyce Clague (centre in wheelchair), the only surviving member of the group present (Ray Kelly was unable to attend), with family of four other original committee members who have passed away. Photo: Pauline Clague
NSWALC original working committee – Joyce Clague (centre in wheelchair), the only surviving member of the group present (Ray Kelly was unable to attend), with family of four other original committee members who have passed away. Photo: Pauline Clague

This was to celebrate the successes in land rights, honour the past leaders without whom the celebrations would not have been possible, and acknowledge the need to continue to work for the greater political, economic and cultural power of Aboriginal people in NSW.

On the October long weekend 40 years ago, while the Aboriginal Rugby Knockout took place in St Peters, 200 people attended a three-day conference at the Black Theatre in Redfern to discuss land rights.

It was decided at that conference to form the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and a working committee consisting of the Chair, Kevin Cook, and members, Joyce Clague, Kevin Gilbert, Alan Woods, Alice Briggs, Camela Potter, Linda (Trudy Longbottom), Betty Tighe, Ray Kelly, Jack Campbell and Ted Thomas, was set up.

The committee established the Land Council, built membership and campaigned for Parliament to introduce the Land Rights Act, which finally occurred in 1983.

This legislation acknowledges prior Aboriginal ownership of land and its spiritual, cultural and economic importance to Aboriginal people.

It allows Aboriginal people to claim Crown land that is not being lawfully used or occupied.

This year on the same October long weekend, while the Aboriginal Knockout took place in Redfern, over 1,000 people from across NSW and interstate gathered to commemorate that era.

Deputy chair of the NSWALC, Anne Dennis, put 1977 into context. It was a time when “Australian military personnel including Aboriginal servicemen, were adjusting to civilian life after the war in Vietnam”. Other Aboriginal people had become politicised after taking part in the anti-war movement. Many of the Aboriginal people who became involved in the land rights movement had also protested against the South African Springbok tour in 1971.”

Anne Dennis said, “In 1977, South Africa was still under apartheid, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for 13 years and Steve Biko had been beaten to death by police in South Africa.”

It was in this environment that the NSW Aboriginal Land Council was born.

The 1970s also saw the births of the Aboriginal Legal Centre in 1970 and the Tent Embassy in 1972.

Today the Land Council has 23,000 members across NSW, made up of nine regions from which councillors are elected for four-year terms to represent 120 local Aboriginal Land Councils.

On the night, the inaugural winners of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council’s (NSWALC) “40 Years Strong” Chairperson’s Award were Aunty Neita Scott and Paul Coe.

Aunty Neita won her award for being one of the most influential people in land rights in NSW. She played pivotal roles in helping to achieve Aboriginal housing, medical and educational services. She is the former Secretary of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, was a member of the Premier’s Council for Women, on the board of the Aboriginal Housing Office and was Chairperson of Narromine Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Paul Coe was acknowledged for his role in the resistance on the national and international stage.

In his acceptance speech, Mr Coe mentioned the many Aboriginal people who fought for Aboriginal rights, including his sister Isabel Coe, her husband Billie Craigie, Linda Craigie, Gary Foley and many others without whom the 40th anniversary celebrations would not have taken place.

These young people had moved from country areas to Redfern, where they continued to experience racism and to that was added police brutality.

In his essay “Black Power in Redfern 1968-1972”, Indigenous activist Gary Foley writes that “Paul Coe was motivated in his early activism by outrage at the police murder of his cousin Pat Wedge”.

Mr Coe mentioned Pat Wedge’s death and Ken Brindle, who had been bashed when he had gone with Paul’s Aunty, Mum Shirl, to Newtown Police Station, to inquire about why Pat Wedge, his mother’s brother, had been shot and killed at St Peters station.

He said, “It takes courage to stand up and fight for rights. It’s not something that parliament gives you, it’s not something that the media gives you. It’s only something that you can make, a determination whether you have got the guts to make a stand …”

Paul and Isabel Coe’s father Les and mother Agnes were also involved in the fight for Aboriginal rights.

NSWALC Chairperson, Roy Ah-See, led a moment of silence for William Bates, a Barkandji man who passed away in late September. He was also at the forefront of the land rights movement and was a leader in the blockade of Mutawinji National Park in 1983.

Another person acknowledged on the night was Diyan Coe, who as a 14-year-old won a competition to design the logo of the NSWALC. The logo, still in use, is a map of NSW with a yellow tree, its 13 branches representing the 13 regions in NSW, against a black background (the people) and its trunk against a red background, the red soil of Cowra, from where Ms Coe hails.

In a video made by the NSWALC, Ms Coe says the yellow “is to shine light on our people – we’d get land rights, we’d have human rights, we’d be able to live in our country”. Diyan’s mother was Isabel Coe, her father Les Collins, and her stepfather was Billie Craigie.

The Newcastle Yowies won this year’s Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout, meaning that next year’s Knockout will take place in Newcastle. In the Female League, the Redfern All-Blacks beat the Dhungutti Jindas 12-8.

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