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‘It’s our place, our land’

1985: Australian government returns Uluru to its traditional owners

Photo: John Coppi. CSIRO Land and Water
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. What process did the Anangu people have to go through to regain ownership of their land? In doing so, what challenges did they have to overcome?

2. Since 2019 visitors are no longer allowed to climb Uluru. Why was this decision made? Do you think it will have an impact on the numbers of people who travel to see it? Give reasons for your answer.

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the handback of Uluru is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Traditional owners Mr Peter Bulla, Mr Peter Kanari, Mr Nipper Winmarti and his wife, Barbara Tjirkadu with Sir Ninian Stephen, Mr Holding and Mr Cohen (extreme right) and the special poster marking the handback of the title to Ulu<u>r</u>u-Kata Tju<u>t</u>a National Park.</p>
National Library of Australia obj-147249245

In a snapshot

Uluru is one of Australia’s most important icons. It is also a sacred site for the local Aboriginal people, the Anangu. The Anangu lobbied for decades for the rights to their traditional lands. Finally, in October 1985, the Hawke government handed back the title deeds for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Anangu people. Today Uluru and the park are jointly managed by the Anangu and the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Traditional owners Mr Peter Bulla, Mr Peter Kanari, Mr Nipper Winmarti and his wife, Barbara Tjirkadu with Sir Ninian Stephen, Mr Holding and Mr Cohen (extreme right) and the special poster marking the handback of the title to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Who are the traditional owners of Uluru?

2. Who was the first known European to visit Uluru? What did he name it?

3. What have been some of the problems associated with climbing Uluru?

Why is Uluru so important to Aboriginal people?

For the Anangu people, Uluru has been there forever and is a deeply sacred place. The Anangu believe the landscape was created by ancient beings, and that they are direct descendants of those beings. They believe they are responsible for protecting and managing the lands around Uluru and Kata Tjuta, a rock formation nearby (which is sometimes known as Mount Olga).

When did Europeans first visit Uluru?

The first European we know of who visited and climbed Uluru was explorer William Gosse. In 1873 he named it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, Chief Secretary of South Australia. 

In the 1890s a scientific team researched the geology, mineral resources, flora, fauna and Aboriginal culture of the area. They decided it was unsuitable for farming. Few non-Indigenous people visited the area until the 1940s.

‘You Are On Aboriginal Land’ t-shirt.

The first road to Uluru was not built until 1948. It brought miners and tourists, and the Ayers Rock National Park was declared in 1950. Tourism gradually grew, and a new airstrip was built to allow visitors to fly in. 

Kata Tjuta was added to the park to create the Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park (later known as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park) in 1958. The park was managed by the Northern Territory Reserves Board and the Anangu people were discouraged from visiting. However many still travelled across their traditional lands to hunt, gather food, visit relatives and participate in ceremonies.

When did the Anangu people start lobbying for their land rights?

In 1966 the Wave Hill walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen inspired many Anangu to return to their country. They lobbied the Northern Territory Government for the rights to their lands, and expressed concern about the effects of mining, grazing and tourism, and the damage of sacred sites. 

But the area was left out of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, which meant the Anangu could not claim rights to the land. 

This changed in 1983 when the Hawke government was elected. In November the government announced that the Aboriginal Land Rights Act would be changed and the title for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park given to the Anangu. 

Research task

 

There are many objects, photographs and paintings related to Uluru in the Museum’s collection. Look closely at one. What does it tell you about Uluru?

National Museum of Australia

‘My family were here for Handback. They really felt strongly about not leaving their country. It’s grandfather’s and the ancestors’ land.’

Traditional owner Barbara Tjikatu, 2015

When was Uluru handed back to the Aboriginal people?

The ceremony to hand back the title took place at the base of Uluru on 26 October 1985. Hundreds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people looked on as Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen passed over the title deeds to Uluru-Kata Tjuta. The traditional owners then signed an agreement to lease the park back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years.

Research task

 

Can you identify at least one other place in Australia that has been returned to its traditional owners?

‘The land was being returned to its original owners, so we were happy. Long ago Anangu were afraid because they were pushed out of their lands. And because of that Anangu left. But now a lot of people want to come back. That’s good. It’s our place, our land.’

 

Traditional owner Reggie Uluru, 2015

Nova Peris with Sydney 2000 Olympic torch in front of Uluru.

A management board was set up to make decisions about the park. The board members are made up mostly of Anangu people, along with government representatives. The park is still jointly managed today. 

In 1987 the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for its natural values. In 1994 the park was also added to the list for its value as a living cultural landscape. 

A Cultural Centre was opened in 1995, and in 2000 the Sydney Olympic torch started its journey by circling the base of Uluru.

<p>Traditional owners of Ulu<u>r</u>u gather around the base of the climb after it was permanently closed on 26 October 2019</p>

Photo: Mike Bowers/The Guardian/Eyevine/australscope

<p>Traditional owners of Ulu<u>r</u>u gather around the base of the climb after it was permanently closed on 26 October 2019</p>

Why has climbing Uluru been a problem?

Although William Gosse was probably the first European to climb Uluru, the first recorded climb was in 1936. The number of people climbing the rock soon increased, and some died during the climb. In 1966 a chain was added to part of the climb, for climbers to hold on to. 

Traditional owners were not consulted as further changes were made, such as extending the chain in 1976. The climb attracted more and more tourists. Over the years 37 people have died climbing Uluru, and many more have needed to be rescued. The Anangu people feel deeply responsible for visitors’ injuries and deaths.

View of Uluru with Kata Tjuta on the horizon, Northern Territory, 1973.

There were many other problems caused by climbing Uluru. The thousands of visitors caused erosion, and human waste and rubbish left on the top of Uluru washed down into waterways below. Climbers also trampled on shrimp that live on the rock, almost driving the species to extinction. 

Most importantly, Uluru is a sacred site for the Anangu. The Anangu have always believed that climbing Uluru is against the Tjukurpa, the belief system that guides every aspect of their lives. The tourist trail up Uluru followed the traditional path taken by ancestral Mala men when they arrived at Uluru.

In 2010 the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Plan of Management agreed that the board would look at closing the climb forever when less than 20 per cent of visitors made the climb and other conditions were met. By 2015 the number of people climbing fell to 16.5 per cent. In 2017 everyone on the board voted to ban the climb from October 2019. 

The Uluru climb was closed forever after a ceremony at Uluru on 26 October 2019, exactly 34 years after the government gave back the lands to the Anangu.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Who are the traditional owners of Uluru?

2. Who was the first known European to visit Uluru? What did he name it?

3. What have been some of the problems associated with climbing Uluru?