Hullo, I'm Mary Yarmirr. I am a land owner from Minjilang, or Croker Island which is about 150 kilometres north east of Darwin, and I am a senior elder of the Mandilarri clan.
In 1994 my people and five other clan groups lodged a native title claim over the seas of Croker Island so that we can protect our sea interests. Our claim covers some ten main islands and includes sacred sites and dreaming tracks in the water and on the sea bed.
Our claim is the first native title claim to the seas, and is currently before the Federal Court - it is referred to as the Wik of the seas.
This claim is crucial to the survival of my people and myself because it's about our traditional law - and for us sea country and the land are one. The importance of the sea to a traditional person is our very life. The resources that we have in the sea, the sacred sites which are submerged in the waters are all part of us. It's our traditional law and beliefs, our culture, and we are the only people that can recognise and accept it. My people believe that all human beings go together with the land and the sea. If we have land and no sea, we will die. If we have sea and no land, we will die. If we have land and sea, people will live free. Our law tells us that our rights to land and sea cannot be broken. We are responsible for our sacred places and our traditional country from the beginning of time to the end of time. We are responsible for ensuring that the law is passed on and that our land is protected. Our spirituality can be seen and heard in our songs and dances. This is my native title.
But I am concerned every day of my life about the preservation of my sea country. I see a lot of things that disturb my sea country such as trawlers, the boats, the pollution onto our shores, the nets that are caught in the reefs. Through our native title sea claim my people can limit the pollution of the sea and stop the depletion of fish stocks, and preserve the animals of the sea for the next generation.
It is also crucial to us that the wider community understands this and respects our law.
The colonisation of Australia and the imposition of the British common law for over 200 years legalised killing of Aboriginal people and theft of our land. Our sophisticated and ancient system of law was ignored or ridiculed by most of the colonists.
Until 1992, the common law didn't recognise indigenous rights to land. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was passed in order to 'give' people some land back, but it did not recognise our inherent right to that land.
The Mabo decision was the turning point, when the High Court 'discovered' that native title has existed all along. It recognised our native title rights, and it also rejected the absurd notion of terra nullius. It took over 200 years to tell us what we always knew. The resulting Native Title Act now sets out the process which we must follow to establish those rights.
It is difficult to understand why we, the Indigenous people of this country, must identify ourselves to prove ownership of what we have always owned, and to claim what is already ours.
The native title law is like the immigration laws. To leave or enter Australia, you must show your passport as proof of your right to enter. We have to prove who we are in order to be able to live in our own country, on our own land. We are treated like migrants or aliens in our own land.
During the first hearing of the Croker Island native title sea claim, old people who have lived on their country all their lives had to stand and be interrogated to prove their rights.
We are very glad that the High Court has finally recognised us, but it is still very hard to accept that we must prove ourselves over and over again to satisfy the foreign system of law, which continues to ignore our system.
Our law means that clans have inherent rights to control the seas that form part of our estates.
The common law of Australia states that the Crown owns all the seas.
This is a fundamental difference between our two systems.
How can we move together towards tomorrow?
The answers seem hard to find. However, the interests of non-Indigenous people in our estates and our rights to those estates are not mutually exclusive. They can co-exist.
We insist, however, that all who seek to share our resources do so in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding of our rights. We are talking about consultation, negotiation, and agreements which protect and preserve our inheritance - not just for our children and grand-children, but also for the future generations of all Australians.
It is clear that the Land Rights Act and the Native Title Act were intended as beneficial legislation for Aboriginal people, and the High Court has confirmed this intention. Its basic principles, and the important rights they protect, must be maintained to ensure that it continues to provide rights, benefits and opportunities for Aboriginal people.
But, to further protect our land rights we need a law which is stronger than the laws which governments change according to pressure from small but powerful interest groups.
We need a stronger law to protect our interests. We need something in whitefella law which is strong and lasting and faithful to our law. The closest whitefella law which can do this is the Constitution.
Therefore, I believe that our Indigenous interests, including our native title and land rights laws, must be protected and enshrined in the Australian Constitution. I believe that at the coming Indigenous Constitutional Convention we can work towards this outcome.
The centenary of the Australian Constitution in 2001 provides an opportunity to focus our attention on this issue,
It is only when Indigenous law is protected and secured that we can attain a position as equals in this country.
I am speaking from my heart for my culture, my spirituality and my law, I ask that all you women, and all the women of Australia of all cultures to support us in our fight to defend our native title rights.
The Federal Government's proposed amendments to the Native Title Act is an attack on Indigenous women's lives, our religious beliefs and on our spiritual relationships with the land and sea.
We do not accept the denial of our rights on pastoral leases and other land. We will not give up our right to negotiate because the right to have a say over our country is our life. The right to negotiate enables us to protect our culture and our future.