Saltwater Country: An estate of sea as well as land, containing sacred sites; created, named and inhabited by Ancestral beings; existing in both the physical and spiritual world.
Sea country is an important part of Indigenous culture, and Indigenous people have an important role to play in the management of this sea country.
"Our relationship with the sea and its resources is fundamental to our religious, social and economic life and well-being... Ancestral Spirit Beings of the Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties created us and the known world – the celestial bodies, land, sea, living plants and animals.
The journeys of these ancestral creators crisscrossed the sea and the land creating the land and seascape and breathing life into the living things that inhabit it. The origins of these ancestral beings, their behaviour as they crossed the landscape, their meetings with other ancestral beings and their resting places have marked our sea and landscape with sites of great significance to us.
From these ancestral journeys and the network of important sites created across the land and sea, we gain our names, our identity and our way of life."
Djawa Yunupingu, former Dhimurru Director
In a campaign to educate outsiders about Yolŋu knowledge of sea country and the sacred significance of certain places, various Yolŋu people created saltwater bark paintings. Following this, a number of legal developments led Yolŋu to take their campaign one step further. Yolŋu clans from the Blue Mud Bay area initiated a native title case in the Federal Court to gain recognition of their sea rights under Australian law. The first hearings took place at Yirrkala and Yilpara, a homeland centre on Blue Mud Bay. A number of the Saltwater paintings, by Gawirrin Gumana, Djambawa Marawili, Baluka Maymuru and others, were used as evidence in these hearings. For the Yolŋu, these paintings are the equivalent of legal 'title deeds' to areas of land and sea.
After giving evidence at Yilpara, a group of Yolŋu leaders traveled to Canberra to observe the Federal Court hearings.
"Our interest is to come to the courts so we can hear the legal side of the Balanda (European) world, how did they see it. We know we can see the Yolŋu way... we know those areas, but the Balanda way it's pretty hard for them to put it to Yolŋu way of thinking. One day we might have the right way of doing... people will learn and they will come and have permits. So, we can all work together, you know, live and look after those important areas - Djalkiri (sacred sites, literally foundation). And this is what's happening here and now today. That's my interest." Djambawa Marawili
The court's initial finding was that native title did exist but that a previous decision of the High Court, that recognised the general public's right to fish and freedom to navigate, made it impossible to grant Yolŋu exclusive rights to the waters of Blue Mud Bay.
The Yolŋu appealed the decision and, in July 2008, they were finally successful in the High Court of Australia. A landmark court decision effectively gave traditional owners the right to control all access to their coastal waters between the low and high tide mark along 80 per cent of the Northern Territory's coastline.