Renowned holiday isle back in hands of the people banished 120 years ago

Samala Cronin, the Woppaburra woman, stands on the pure white sands of Konomi, or North Keppel Island, and watches her people being officially recognized as the rightful guardians of the area.

It is a sweet and bitter moment.

For nearly 120 years, its people were forcibly removed from their islands in central Queensland and suffered great suffering, but in a landmark ruling on Friday, they were recognized as holders of local titles, proving their steadfast attachment to their land.

Cronin said the ruling would set a precedent for others still fighting to determine indigenous ownership.

“Today is not like any other day,” she said.

“It’s not like any other decision to approve Aboriginal property.

“We are the only original group to have been removed from the country for more than 80 years and to achieve exclusive property rights in our country.”

Woppaburra elder Nellie Richards after sentencing.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semler)

At a private in-country hearing on Konomi, Honorable Judge Rangia of the Australian Federal Court ruled that more than 567 square kilometers of land and sea would be recognized as the state of Wupapura.

The claim includes 13 islands including Woppa, known as Great Keppel Island.

Graphic map of the Keppel Islands off the coast of Yeppoon
The claim covers 567 square kilometers and 13 islands, including the two largest, Woppa (Great Keppel) and Konomie (North Keppel).(News letters)

The original claimant group includes descendants Yulowa “Weerobilling”, Nellie “Ooroong-ooran”, Oyster Maggie, and Fanny Lohyse/Singh.

Ms Cronin said that claim was originally challenged by state and federal governments due to the requirement to prove a constant, continuous connection to their land – a difficulty initially due to the more than 80 years they spent abroad after their brutal removal.

A drawn aboriginal man squatting next to a smoking ceremony while people roam around
The Woppaburra people celebrate this occasion with a smoking ceremony.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semler)
Aboriginal boys at a smoking party outside
Uncle Bob Muir says it was “very special” to see young and old come together.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Heinz)

“Our people have suffered so much on these islands,” said Ms. Cronin.

“For us to get what we have today, to get a successful result against every stranger, it’s a precedent in the original title.

The South Queensland Indigenous Property Services said the recognition of the exclusive and non-exclusive indigenous property rights of the Woppaburra people, including the possession, occupancy, use and enjoyment of parts of the area to the exclusion of all others, and the non-exclusive rights to hunt, hunt, and gather from the water.

Meaghan Cummins of the Konomie family said that she and Debbra Witteman first partnered to take care of the country through the Traditional Marine Use Agreement (TUMRA) 17 years ago.

Two Aboriginal women standing on the beach
Megan Cummins and Debra Whitman.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semler)

Her message to the people of Woppaburra was to “remember the removal and rejoice in our resilience”.

After making the decision, Ms. Whitman said, “You’ll hear a lot from us, and always [be] Welcome to visit the country and enjoy the festive moments on Konomie.”

a long trip

Uncle Bob Muir has been at the center of the battle for land rights decades ago, which began with his mother in Woppa.

Close-up of an aboriginal man standing on the beach overlooking the ocean
Uncle Bob Muir says official recognition of the original property was a long time coming.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semler)

“With that, we got the land through the Queensland Aboriginal Lands Act and now we have recognized local ownership as well.

“It was a great trip.”

Mr. Muir said the Wababura people were removed from their country in 1902, and only returned in 1984.

He said that the experience of getting together was “very special…not to mention the recognition of the original title”.

future force

Mr Muir said the ruling means the Woppaburra people will once again run their country, and also increase their presence in terms of tourism and business in the area.

He said the design, which was surrounded by the Wupabura people, was “surreal”.

“It’s very special, as an elder, you really want to try and make sure that the work and the things that we do are going to be done by our young people,” he said.

Ms Cronin also said the experience of seeing her family, their children and their children playing in the ocean was “super”.

Little boy playing in the sand on the beach
Mr. Muir says the ruling will mean more young Woppaburra will be involved in running the country.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semler)

For Jordan Cummins, the day was especially significant.

It was the first time his infant son, Elijah, and eldest daughter had been in the Woppaburra area.

An aboriginal man holds an aboriginal child on an island and smiles at him.
Woppaburra man Jordan Cummins takes his son Elijah to Konomi for the first time.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semler)

“I feel lucky and privileged,” said Mr. Cummins.

“Although we have not fully recovered our land, we are now recognized.”


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