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Benalla’s Bpangarang people denied recognition thanks to Yorta Yorta landgrab

By Simon Ruppert

When it comes to the rights of its indigenous population Australia is decades behind most first-world countries.

Countries, such as the United States, have been moving to recognising and offer land rights to its original people since the 1960s.

Whereas in Australia our politicians like to say the right thing, often in the lead up to an election, but very little is ever done.

That is why the announcement of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria was so important - and groundbreaking.

However the traditional owners of the land where Benalla now stands, the Bpangarang, feel the assembly will not accurately represent the area. 

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The reason for that is the Yorta Yorta people have been recognised - despite only being formed in 1994.

Bpangarang elder Freddie Dowling said the problems started on a hot January day in 1994.

“We all went down to a special meeting in Shepparton and no-one knew what it was going to be about,” Freddie said.

“There was four people in a shed sitting at a table. Most of us had spilled out into the yard as the shed was only small.

“They said they were going to put in a native title claim for this area and they all said this was the best thing to do - it was not long after MABO.”

The Mabo decision was a turning point for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' rights.

It acknowledged their unique connection with the land and led to the Australian Parliament passing the Native Title Act in 1993.

“Then they (the four men sat at the table) said they were going cal it the Yorta Yorta claim - and all the elders said 'what's that?',” Freddie said.

“We were told it was just the name of the claim, and that this is Bpangarang country, we were all Bpangarang people and we would remain Bpangarang people.

“They said when we win everyone involved in the Yorta Yorta claim would have cars, houses, money, etc. Everything we had never had before.

“Most people there put their hands up to support the claim. But the Bpangarang elders said no.

“The elders said they would only support a Bpangarang claim.”

However, Freddie said there were a lot of Aboriginal people in the Shepparton area who had been there for generations and most wanted to support the Yorta Yorta claim.

“But at that meeting they put up a map to show what area they were claiming,” Freddie said.

“All of a sudden a roar came up from the Bpangarang people. We all shouted 'That's Bpangarang Country'.

“Some even said this was an act of war against the Bpangarang.

“I walked over to them said there's Wangaratta pointing at the map.

“That’s where my ancestors come from and I don’t want it called something else.

“So all Bpangarang people walked into the yard and we had a chat.

“We all said this is no good, we won't even exist anymore.

“So we wanted to make our own claim. But when we tried we then found out that as the application for Yorta Yorta was already in lodged there was nothing we could do before their case for recognition was heard.

“But we thought there's no way they could win - they call them selves the Yorta Yorta, and there's no such thing.

“It went to court and the Yorta Yorta land rights, which cover the Benalla area, got thrown out”

The case went through the various levels of the judicial system and got thrown out a couple more times.

“When it got thrown out by the last judge he said from now on no-one can claim that country,” Freddie said.

“So not even the Bpangarang - that’s a disgrace.

“People don't realise the damage the Yorta Yorta have done as now the real traditional people can't claim their traditional lands.

“It’s like if someone stole your car and you went to court and the judge said 'no-one can own it now'.

“I think they sometimes think these claims are about money.

“But we don’t care about the money. Our ancestors lived here for thousands of years without money - we don’t need money.

“All we want to do is survive. We don’t have aspirations to be big shots.

“Bangarang were the first in Victoria to get their application in.

“Yorta Youta applied after us. They claimed all of our county except from a bit at the bottom that the Taungurung want now.

“That’s our last piece of land that hasn't been taken and now the Taungurung want it.

“It's ridiculous. If these groups were happy to just claim their own country we would back them up 100 per cent. We'd get behind them.

“But they want our country. It's unbelievable.”

The Bpangarang people have been doing their best to fight the decisions that have been made.

However, Freddie said he did not hold out much hope that their rights would be recognised.

“The worst part is that the government are behind them,” Freddie said.

“The government should tell them its not their country.

“Every day we see on the news how much the government are trying to help Aboriginal people.

“That they want to protect our heritage. But in reality they just want to pull it apart.

“Sometimes I think white people are afraid of being labelled as racist.

“So when they hear a case put forward by the Yorta Yorta or Taungurung, for example, they think they have to agree or they'll be called a racist.

“But they need to look at these things properly.

“Because if they have their way right now the Bpangarang people would have no recognised traditional lands -and that's just not right.”