Aboriginal people have inhabited the Australian mainland for more than 40,000 years. These people came to the Australian mainland from the north when Earth was experiencing much lower temperatures, causing substantial drops in sea levels. These levels ranged between 80 to 120 metres lower than at present, creating land bridges between the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea, and narrow straits between the islands of the eastern Indonesian archipelago and PNG and Australia. These small distances would have been easily navigated, and the sight of banks of clouds and the smoke from fires would have encouraged people to make the crossing.

Celebrations outside Cairns Courthouse for Native Title Determination in 2014.

The first known contact between Europeans and Aborigines occurred on the west coast of the peninsula in 1606 but it was not settled by Europeans until the 19th century when fishing communities, then ranches and later mining towns were established. European settlement led to the displacement of Aboriginal communities and the arrival of Torres Strait Islanders on the mainland. Today the peninsula has a population of only about 18,000, of which a large percentage (~60 %) are Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Visitor numbers per annum to Cooktown and the lower Cape York Peninsula are now 60,000 while 20,000 tourists venture to the top of the Peninsula and visit Cape York.

The effects of colonisation, mining and pastoral leases on the Traditional Owners and their homelands have been significant. It has impacted on traditional lifestyle and the handing down of traditional knowledge in some instances. Access to traditional homelands have been restricted and means that traditional practises are not consistently performed. This has the potential to lessen traditional knowledge retention in communities. Fortunately our elders have remained strong in the passing down of this knowledge and it has paved the way for land claims being made. A large majority of these claims were made through Cape York Land Council, Carpentaria Land Council and Queensland Land Council in the 1980’s.

Today many land claims are still being determined by the Native Title Tribunal. One of the most significant hand backs of lands has been the Kowanyama Land Claim which included clan groups from the Kowanyama area. Lisa Michl says, I helped my brother, cousin and senior elders to lodge the Kokoberrin Land Claim in 1997.” This hand back was a major milestone for the Kokoberrin, Kokoberra , Kunjen and Yir Yoront Peoples. Lisa explains, “While this battle has taken 17 years to win we are yet to gain access to our country without having to obtain permits and seek permission from the relevant parties. The images here show the day of our Native Title determination with senior elders in traditional Kokoberrin ceremonial dress at the Cairns Court House. This was a day of great pride and reflection.”