Tensions flare among traditional owners as calls grow for royal commission on the administration of native title

Enice Marsh, right, visits Adnyamathanha land in outback SA for Dreamtime stories. Above, Adnyamathanha children play in campfire smoke. Pictures: Greg Mayfield, Marco Del Grande
Enice Marsh, right, visits Adnyamathanha land in outback SA for Dreamtime stories. Above, Adnyamathanha children play in campfire smoke. Pictures: Greg Mayfield, Marco Del Grande

To Enice Marsh, the shimmering bush country north of Port Augusta is sacred.

The 76-year-old South Australian often travels from her property at Gladstone to her "homeland" near Lake Frome, about 480 kilometres from Adelaide.

There, she savours the communal rituals of billy tea, stew and damper with other Adnyamathanha or "rock" people.

"We do cultural things such as tell Dreamtime stories, visit sites and share stories about different places. It is magic," Mrs Marsh says.

"I could find it in the dark. We know all the little side tracks and where we go collecting seeds and rocks."

Enice Marsh takes her billy and pannikin to the Adnyamathanha lands in the South Australian outback where she soaks up stories of the Dreamtime.

Enice Marsh takes her billy and pannikin to the Adnyamathanha lands in the South Australian outback where she soaks up stories of the Dreamtime.

When former Australian of the Year and Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes took a break from football after fan abuse grew intolerable, he escaped to the Gammon Ranges on Adnyamathanha land.

Goodes, described as an Adnyamathanha man, is a "nephew" of one of the operators of Iga Warta cottage at Nepabunna, in the ranges. It was here where the inspirational footballer found some solace.

And yet here beneath the stillness of outback SA and under the cloak of tribal heritage a sense of unease is growing among the Adnyamathanha about the management of mining royalties and family interests under the Native Title Act.

About 2500 Adnyamathanha qualify for the royalties from the Beverley uranium mine, in the north-east of the Flinders Ranges. Most of them live at Port Augusta, which is known as the "crossroads" of Australia. And the people there truly are at an intersection - between their sacred country and the modern financial world under the native title system.

It is a tension increasingly felt around Australia as hundreds of millions of dollars flow from mostly mining companies into Indigenous corporations as a result of native title decisions. The federal regulator, the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, reported in 2016 that the top 500 Indigenous corporations it oversaw earnt $1.92 billion.

Mrs Marsh, a tribal elder, says a royal commission is needed on the administration of native title.

"Since consent determination in 2009, our people are more disadvantaged than ever before," she said. "The ones who want to follow their culture and customs are abused or ignored."

Mrs Marsh and her "brother" Charlie Jackson are members of the Aboriginal Reform Group of South Australia, which is challenging the Adnyamathanha Tribal Lands Association, an indigenous corporation, to clarify the handling of its royalties.

Mr Jackson describes native title as the "monster" that is devouring Aboriginal life.

Reform group members Charlie Jackson, Enice-Marsh and Robert-Wilton.

Reform group members Charlie Jackson, Enice-Marsh and Robert-Wilton.

When I called on Mr Jackson at lunchtime in his workplace in Port Augusta, he was on the phone talking to a supporter.

To someone overhearing the conversation, it was incomprehensible, but it was the tongue of the Adnyamathanha.

Hundreds of kilometres away, also speaking the language on the phone, was Paul Keath, one of several senior white advisers to the reform group which is campaigning to overhaul native title.

The reform group says the idea of ceding land from the Commonwealth to the tribal owners is flawed and has resulted in "black colonialism" where some indigenous people have authority over others through the distribution of royalties.

The reform campaigners are highly organised with representatives from the law, accounting and politics. They appear to be a formidable force. Mr Keath is a veteran of the tribal tongue so his connection to the cause evidently runs deep.

Back in the 1990s, his company Parakeelya devised a landmark economic relations plan for the world's biggest zinc mine, Century, near Normanton in Queensland. It led to more than 300 Aboriginal people working at the mine and dozens of successful Indigenous businesses being set up from royalties flowing from the site.

Mr Keath, a former lawyer, says the same path must be taken with other resources developments and Indigenous corporations.

"The existing situation is catastrophically ineffective and an extremely destructive investment of government money," he said.

From Western Australia, through the deserts of the Northern Territory and outback SA and across other states, the native title industry has flourished. Mr Jackson describes it as a "spider's web" of regulation.

Their solution? To develop a new institute capable of dispersing royalty money to education and social projects for Aboriginals.

But they say a royal commission is needed to clear the air before opportunities for Indigenous businesses, like those operating in remote Ceduna near the Great Australian Bight, can be pursued.

The local corporation there invested in a D10 bulldozer which it hires out for earthwork projects. This is seen by elders as a way to develop their community.

Mark Koolmatrie, a Kukubrak elder from southern SA, said the federal government should reconsider its decision to refuse a judicial inquiry "at this time".

He said he respected Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt's opinion on the matter, but disagreed.

"Our communities are in dire straits because of native title," he said. "It allows indigenous family dynasties to flourish. Only certain families run the whole show. Wherever you go there are handpicked people who run native title. When government hands down a decision to award native title, there are only a few people who make decisions.

"It is black colonialism. No longer are there white people with a colonial mentality, but there are black people who are destroying communities. If this model continues, there seems to be no future for our people."

The distribution of mining royalties was "instant gratification" for some. "It goes against everything," Mr Koolmatrie said. "Our whole way of life is built on caring and sharing."

Asked about a state inquiry, the SA government said the reform group should take its concerns to the National Native Title Tribunal.

Mr Koolmatrie said the tribunal was part of the problem: "I understand where the state is coming from, but it is frustrating. One of the big problems in government is the notion that it is up to the communities to sort out their internal problems."

He said Aboriginals around the country were caught up in internal politics. "The whole native title system is supposed to improve our life, but it actually decimates our cultural life and being," he said.

Mr Koolmatrie, of Noarlunga, runs two companies - one solves environmental problems and the other provides cultural experiences.

Mark Koolmatrie, a Kukubrak elder from southern SA, visited Lakota Indians in South Dakota to discuss "cultural trauma".

Mark Koolmatrie, a Kukubrak elder from southern SA, visited Lakota Indians in South Dakota to discuss "cultural trauma".

Earlier this year, he travelled to the United States to meet Lakota Indians in South Dakota to discuss "cultural trauma". He was a guest of the Australian Embassy in Washington and met World Bank representatives to discuss the issues of "First Peoples".

Back in Australia, the issues still simmer.

At Coffs Harbour in northern NSW, Aboriginal academic and businessman Rod Williams says native title has "divided" his people and cost millions of dollars in legal fees.

Mr Williams, a lecturer in Aboriginal organisational management at Southern Cross University, is a former treasurer of the NT Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce and spent 26 years as a business consultant. His "mob" is the Western Bunbjalung from near Grafton and Casino.

"The indigenous land-use agreement under native title that we reached at the end of last year is not financially viable," Mr Williams said. The agreement was "very much controlled by lawyers".

"It is a shame," he said. "Some of the clauses in the agreement make it hard for us. Why is so much of our money chewed up by the legal people and processes that we have to follow, when really we are just trying to get back some of our land? I understand some legal work has to be done ... but when do we step out and start managing our own affairs?"

Referring to native title in NSW, Mr Williams said that when he set up his consultancy he had expected opportunities to write business plans and help people to bridge the cultural divide.

"But those opportunities have never presented themselves for people with my expertise because it is very legalistic," he said. "People like me get cut out of it. I thought that once people got their land back and their titles, the next question would be about what can they do to make it sustainable. It never gets past the stage of the legal people who have been involved in getting back the title."

In Port Augusta the Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation has been put under special administration by Canberra-based regulator ORIC. Kokatha is a "registered native title body corporate" managing the native title rights and interests of the traditional owners of more than 140,000 square kilometres in central SA.

The registrar's office said an examination of the corporation's books had revealed "a range of governance issues", including a dispute among directors affecting the board's ability to operate. The corporation had income of almost $5 million in 2017-18.

Former deputy chairman of the corporation Chris Larkin can't hide his deep frustration.

Former deputy chairman of Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation Chris Larkin, right, shakes hands with managing director and chief executive officer of OZ Minerals Andrew Cole in 2016.

Former deputy chairman of Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation Chris Larkin, right, shakes hands with managing director and chief executive officer of OZ Minerals Andrew Cole in 2016.

"The corporation has not simply made rash or stupid decisions. This whole episode is a disgrace," Mr Larkin said. "It is disappointing that the recently-appointed registrar has felt the need to seek media attention at the expense of the dignity of Kokatha people and the integrity of future relationships with Aboriginal corporations that turn to ORIC for help and leadership.

"We are appalled with the decision ... we have always acted in the best interests of our community and the future of our children."

A spokeswoman for ORIC said the grounds for special administration were set out in the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act.

The native title industry grew out of Eddie Mabo's High Court victory in 1992. Greg McIntyre, who helped represent Mabo, said lawyers were not to blame for problems in the system.

Mr McIntyre, a Senior Counsel and president of the Western Australian Bar Association, said the situation was similar to Family Law where lawyers were wrongly accused of creating disputes.

Even though they may be viewed as "fanning the flames" in native title conflicts, he said, they did not start the divisions. A royal commission was unnecessary as ORIC and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission supervised corporations.

Asked if there was conflict between Indigenous families over native title and royalty distribution, Mr McIntyre said, "yes and no", adding that up to 400 claims had been dealt with, mostly with the parties reaching agreements and rarely going to trial.

"Some people say they should receive royalties and that other people are 'not as important as we are' in the distribution of royalties," he said. "I get regular calls about that."

A woman familiar with a disputed claim, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions, said an Indigenous corporation with a board comprised of multiple members of the same family had done a deal with government for millions of dollars to help set up local businesses.

"There has been a lot of animosity. Most of the board members live outside our lands," she said. "Some of our people attend native title negotiations and come back to report to us, but they say it is confidential. We are in the dark."

In some areas tempers have flared. Police had to be called to an Adnyamathanha meeting in the Flinders Ranges township of Hawker. The Kokatha hired "bouncers" to supervise their meetings.

"There are bashings and abuse," says a person familiar with the situation. "It is not native title itself - it is the administration of it. The little kids are the ones suffering from the situation around native title and the ones not yet born. When you see the little kids with their snotty noses and they are all happy with icecreams or lollies from our money, you think that is exactly why we do what we do. But you feel like a dog chasing its tail."