Our native title story

Ngurrunyjarri wanggayin garndaganyjibarndi, ngabuwarra ngarrarigu, ngarrari ngabuwarra nyindama.


From way back, old people tell us, look after country, and country will look after you.

This page is dedicated to sharing the Thalanyji People’s native title determination history. More than that, it explains why native title exists, and how it affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation.


The impact of terra nullius

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on the Australian continent for more than 60,000 years, in different and distinct groups with their own languages, laws and customs. They have always had a strong and spiritual connection to Country. Yet when the British arrived in 1788, they declared that Australia was empty land that belonged to nobody – Australia was declared as terra nullius. The occupation of First Nations people and their connection to the land was not recognised, and the land was claimed without agreement or payment.

Eddie Mabo’s legacy

The terra nullius legal fiction persisted for more than 200 years. It wasn’t until 3 June 1992, that the High Court of Australia acknowledged that terra nullius should not have been applied to Australia. This was largely due to a Torres Strait Islander man by the name of Eddie Koiki Mabo.

Mabo fought to change Australian laws on land ownership which he passionately believed was wrong. The Mabo case ran for ten years before the High Court of Australia recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land that existed before the British arrived. Sadly, Eddie Mabo wasn’t alive to witness this – he died just five months before the decision was made. Today, 3 June is widely celebrated during NAIDOC Week and is known as Mabo Day.

“My family has occupied the land here for hundreds of years before Captain Cook was born. They are now trying to say I cannot own it.”

Eddie Koiki Mabo

Managing native title

The Mabo decision forced the Australian government to accept the removal of terra nullius and led to the Native Title Act being passed in 1993. The Native Title Act set out the framework for First Nations people to claim native title over Crown land. The Act establishes rules around how traditional law and connection to country is legally recognised.

The Act states that, when a native title determination is made, native title holders must establish a corporation called a Prescribed Bodies Corporate (PBC) to manage and protect their native title rights and interests. BTAC was established as the PBC entrusted to look after the rights and interests of Thalanyji People.

But many see native title as a flawed and limiting system which has brought heartache to many First Nations people. The onerous conditions required to prove native title can make it difficult to obtain. For instance, the Thalanyji People have several native title claims that are still undetermined, and continue to work tirelessly towards reconnecting with their traditional lands.

Thalanyji native title determination

The Thalanyji are land and sea people who, for thousands of years, have flourished in their homelands; in the range country and the plains of the Ashburton River that flows across the claypans through mangrove swamps and creeks into the ocean. The traditional owners supported themselves through fishing, hunting and through maintaining their culture and language.

The Thalanyji People lodged their native title claim under the Native Title Act in 1996. Through commitment and unity with their anthropologist and lawyer, the Thalanyji People demonstrated the depth and strength of their connection to Country. On 18 September 2008, the Federal Court convened in Onslow for the historic recognition of native title of the Thalanyji People. Native title was awarded over 11,120 square kilometres of land in the West Pilbara including a native title in Onslow, bringing a sense of recognition and renewed cultural strength.

Download maps of the Determination Area

With several claims still undetermined, the native title process is still integral to both the Thalanyji People and BTAC. We continue to work together to achieve legal recognition of Thalanyji native title rights to all their traditional lands.

“We have waited a long time for this day. This occasion means everything to us and to our elders, who at last have the recognition of their ties to their country, to our own generation, who have the task of carrying the ongoing role of maintaining our culture and connection with the land, and to our children, who will learn from us the culture and spirituality of our country.”

Shirley Hayes, then Chairperson of Buurabalayji Thalanyji Association

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.