Maralinga : The struggle for return of the lands by Garry Hiskey

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Most will know of Maralinga as the site of the British atomic bomb tests in the 1950's. The Anangu people who were living there were relocated south to Yalata. In 1962, Premier Sir Thomas Playford announced the intention to gazette Maralinga as an Aboriginal Reserve once it was safe for the people to return to their land.

Hiskey's book is the meticulous documentation of the long process of negotiations it took before that promise was finally fulfilled in 1984 with the passing of the Maralinga Tjarutja Act, over twenty years later. Hiskey was the lawyer engaged to act on the behalf of the Yalata community. It was a role involving many challenges, not least of which was language, not only the language of the Anangu, but the language of legalese - the difficulty of trying to explain complex legal ideas to a group with a completely different world view.

The role involved dedication, persistence, a high level of integrity, and a growing sense of respect and friendship for the Aboriginal elders he represented. At one point in his book, at one of the meetings held on the land with the bird noises overhead, he writes that it could almost be regarded as the theatre of the absurd -  trying to reconcile the vastly different interests of a tribal Aboriginal group with the interests of a modern 20th century community.

There were of course all the political machinations of the different interest groups to also be navigated, as well as changing governments. It was a complex and prolonged process.

What stands out for me in this account is how much Hiskey came to appreciate the seriousness of the Anangu's responsibilities for their sacred sites. He says it made a lasting impression on him. There is a moment where he was alone on the lands, sitting on his swag and waiting to be picked up from 'jilly jilly corner', which must have been such a profoundly lonely yet significant moment that led to his commitment to secure whatever protection of culture the law could afford. Fortunately, in the end, the Maralinga lands were returned to the traditional owners. Hiskey's book is an important historical record of a momentous achievement.

Themes: Maralinga, Aboriginal land rights.

Helen Eddy