The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 grants certain land and other rights to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (the people of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara dialects) in South Australia.
The Act began its life as the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act and commenced operation on 2 October 1981. Symbolically, the Act came into force on the one-year anniversary of the date when Premier David Tonkin and the Chairman of the Pitjantjatjara Council, Mr Kawaki Thompson, signed their agreement to the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Bill.
The Hon Robert Lawson QC MLC provides the following history to the Act:
In 1976, an activist group, the Pitjantjatjara Council ('the Pit Council') was formed to lobby for land rights for the Pitjantjatjara people across South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Premier Donald Dunstan established a Working Party to investigate the feasibility of a separate lands trust to cover the North-West Reserve.
'Helped by their solicitors', the Pit Council concluded that they should 'avoid imposing an alien notion like trusteeship': (Cocks, 66, 68). The solution was vesting title in a new entity of which all Pitjantjatjara people would be members. It appears that the aboriginal people had been convinced that they needed the 'fee simple' to their lands. They wanted something superior to the communal title arrangements which had been granted by the Fraser Government under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (the 'NT Act').
In November 1978, Dunstan introduced a Bill which adopted most of the recommendations of the Working Party. In his second reading speech Dunstan did not disguise that he was seeking a wider audience than his Parliamentary colleagues and the indigenous people of the north-west.
A Parliamentary Committee investigated the merits of such a Bill, and reported in 1979 in favour of an Act that would give total rights to the Pitjantjatjara people over their traditional land in the northwest of South Australia.
...the provisions of this Bill will give South Australians an honourable place in international eyes with regard to the relation of Government to the treatment and status of ethnic minorities.
The Bill had not passed when Labor lost office in September 1979, Dunstan having resigned in February of that year.
In October 1980, the Tonkin Liberal government introduced an amended bill after a long period of negotiations, in which Premier Tonkin took a leading and personal role. The earlier bill was said to be 'unworkable', especially in its dealing with issues relating to exploration and mining. The new bill finally passed through both Houses in March 1981.
The Act, which introduced new concepts of land holding and land control for the benefit of Indigenous peoples, was an important milestone in the struggle for land rights not only for Anangu but for Indigenous communities worldwide. During discussion of the Bill, then State Premier, Hon David Tonkin, described it as “very much one of the most significant pieces of legislation which has come before this Parliament in its entire history.”
In 1984, the High Court of Australia described the Act as:
‘a special measure for the purpose of adjusting the law of the State to grant legal recognition and protection of the claims of the Anunga [sic] Pitjantjatjara to the traditional homelands on which they live and as the legal means by which present and future generations may take up and rebuild their relationship with their country in accordance with tradition, free of disturbance from others’.
In 2001, the ongoing significance of the Act was recognised in a major Centenary of Federation project charting the development of Australian democracy through key documents.
The land grant of all Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara land is dated 30 October 1981 and covers an area of about 102,650 square kilometres, or about 10.4% of the State.
The westerly section that comprises over half the APY Lands was formerly the North West Aboriginal Reserve, first proclaimed in 1921. Other former pastoral lease land, formerly known as Everard Park, Kenmore Park and Granite Downs, are included in the lands.