The battle for Sea Country legal rights


The Australian National Maritime Museum acknowledges the Yolngu people as the traditional custodians of the lands and waters of North-East Arnhem Land. We pay our respects to them and their elders both past and present.

The Yirrkala bark paintings are held in the ANMM collection and were purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery.

Cultural Warning

The Museum would like to advise visitors that this content may contain the names and artwork, by deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Members of the Northern Land Council flew into the homeland centre of Yilpara to commence the Blue Mud Bay legal case hearing. Image courtesy Northern Land Council.

Members of the Northern Land Council flew into the homeland centre of Yilpara to commence the Blue Mud Bay legal case hearing. Image courtesy Northern Land Council.

A tireless fight

30 July 2018 marks ten years since the landmark High Court decision that granted sea country legal rights to the Yolŋu people of the Northern Territory. The exhibition Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country centres around 40 Yirrkala bark paintings from the Saltwater Collection, created by the Yolŋu artists who petitioned for sea rights by painting their Saltwater Countries onto bark and revealed sacred patterns or designs, known as Miny’tji, as evidence of their connection to Blue Mud Bay. This legal fight was just one small part of a much richer Indigenous history and relationship to the sea.

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Raising the flag for National Reconciliation Week 2016: ‘Our History, Our Story, Our Future’

Sea rights flag.

The Blue Mud Bay sea rights flag flying in Yirrkala at the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre

Each year National Reconciliation Week celebrates and builds on the respectful relationships shared by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.

The dates that bookend the week are significant milestones in the Reconciliation journey:

  • May 27—Marks the anniversary of Australia’s most successful referendum and a defining event in our nation’s history. The 1967 referendum saw over 90 per cent of Australians vote to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and recognise them in the national census.
  • 3 June—Commemorates the High Court of Australia’s landmark Mabo decision in 1992, which legally recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a special relationship to the land—a relationship that existed prior to colonalisation and still exists today. This recognition paved the way for land rights or Native Title.

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Saltwater Visions

Every small bit of sea has a name
– Djambawa Marawili

During National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June), after extensive negotiations between Traditional Owners and the Federal and Northern Territory governments, it was announced that about 4000 square kilometres of ocean was added to the Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area in North East Arnhem Land.

The Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area was originally declared in November 2000. It covered an area of coastline and hinterland country on the western edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria –  part of the traditional lands of the Yolŋu people. Importantly, a large area of sea country is now included. Continue reading