On this day: Aboriginal Australians get Uluru back

By Julian Swallow 7 November 2013
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It was 25 years ago that Uluru was officially returned to its Aboriginal traditional owners.

LYING AT THE PHYSICAL and cultural heart of our nation, the great monolith of Uluru is sacred to Australia’s Aborigines for its place in the Tjukurpa – the ‘creation period’ – as well as a mecca for trourists drawn to this most iconic feature of the outback.

Twenty-five years ago, on 26 October 1985, it was the focus of a ceremony held to transfer custodianship of Uluru and neighbouring Kata Tjuta to its Anangu traditional owners. The ceremony, performed in the shadow of the immense rock, remains one of the most significant moments in the Aboriginal land-rights movement.

Governor-General at the time, Sir Ninian Stephen, acknowledged its importance to both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. “Today we stand not merely in the centre of our continent but at its very heart. We stand beside what has become one of our national symbols, what original Australians know as Uluru, and what the rest of it think of as Ayers Rock,” he said.

The handover, described as “groundbreaking” by the director of the Central Land Council, David Ross, was emblematic of a growing awareness of the system of Aboriginal traditional law and land ownership that was ultimately recognised in the 1993 Native Title Act, passed by Federal Parliament.

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Under the terms of the handover agreement, the Anangu people leased Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years, ensuring the public’s ongoing access, as well as continued funds to the local community.

“Every year now … they have put money towards community projects like BMX tracks, craft rooms, mechanical workshops [and] outstation renovations,” says David.

While the agreement was broadly welcomed in most quarters, in others it was hotly contested. Philip Toyne, who negotiated the agreement with the Hawke Government on behalf of the Anangu, told the ABC in 2005 the agreement “was opposed at every turn by the Northern Territory Government of the day, by the tourist industry, by people who felt extremely threatened by Aboriginal people owning one of Australian’s great icons.”

First discovered by Europeans in 1873 (explorer William Gosse named it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia) the area surrounding Uluru is believed, by the Anangu, to remain home to Tjukuritja and Waparitja – creators whose journeys and activities are recorded in the landscape.

Since the park was returned to its traditional owners, there have been more than seven million visitors. While many undertake the climb to Uluru’s 348m summit in often searing temperatures, the Anangu ask visitors not to do so, as under traditional law the right to climb is restricted to senior men initiated into their culture.

Earlier this month Aboriginal people, with the help of the Indigenous Land Corporation, bought Uluru’s Yulara resort from the commercial operator that owned it.