“This is a big day for us,” Kenbi traditional owner Jason Singh told the crowd. “At last we have waited and we get our land back.
“Thank you all for coming and welcome to our country.”
A crowd of several hundred, including Malcolm Turnbull, sat at Mandorah facing Darwin harbour, the city’s skyline in the distance. For 37 years the people of this land have looked across to the seat of power of the Northern Territorygovernment, which for four decades fought against them and their rights to their country.
In April an agreement was finally reached. On Tuesday the title deeds to the 55,000 hectares of the Kenbi land claim, covering the Cox peninsula on the western side of Darwin harbour, were officially handed back.
At almost four decades since it was officially lodged, the Kenbi claim was one of the longest running in Australian land rights history. It has been particularly fraught, with three challenges in the federal court and two in the high court. It was awarded to just six individuals, known as the Tommy Lyons group, and a separate group of Larrakia people have maintained their claims of ownership and unhappiness at the decision.
Long negotiations with government over the cost of cleaning up toxic waste and arms materials on the land also caused delays and tension. Many senior Larrakia died before its resolution.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull poses with traditional land owners, Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion (far right) and Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles (second from left) after a ceremony on Tuesday where the Kenbi deeds were handed back. Photograph: Stefan Postles/Getty Images
“The Kenbi land claim was a hard-fought land rights battle,” the prime minister told the gathered crowd. “But it represents so much more than just a battle over land. It is a story that epitomises the survival and resilience of our First Australians, the survival of Larrakia people. For you are the land, and the land is you.”
Turnbull said the leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in working with each other and with governments was the key to ending Indigenous disadvantage and pointed to the 12 Indigenous candidates for the federal election.
“From the west coast whereKen Wyatt, the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives is seeking re-election; across to the east coast and to the heart of our biggest city, where a young man called Geoffrey Winters is running for the seat of Sydney,” he said.
“If six or seven of those candidates are successful, we will have parity in our parliament – that is, our First Australians will be represented in the parliament as they are in the population.”
Turnbull congratulated the traditional owners but said the handback had to also acknowledge the injustices and trauma of the past and present. “This trauma and suffering can not be denied,” he said.
“Prior to European arrival, this land, Australia, was cared for by hundreds of nations of Aboriginal people. Yours are the oldest continuing cultures on Earth. Our nation is as old as humanity itself, and Larrakia people were, and are, the Aboriginal people of the Darwin region.”
The former Aboriginal land commissioner Justice Peter Gray formally identified the traditional owners of much of the claim in 2000. But he didn’t expect it to take 16 more years to reach handover.
“Im just very glad that it’s happened,” he told Guardian Australia in Mandorah. “I’m very sad there are lot of people who have died along the way.
“I’m so thrilled to be here. I think if I compiled a list of achievements from my legal career it would be a short list but this would be up there.”