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Dr Katie O’Bryan
Monash University

Australian governments, particularly in more recent times, have become increasingly aware that Indigenous Australians have a very different relationship with country than non-Indigenous Australians, a relationship involving a connection to land and waters that is more holistic in nature, involving cultural obligations to care for county. Those connections also have a spiritual  dimension, the importance of which is not often understood or respected by the colonial legal system in which they are forced to operate.

My paper will provide an overview of how the current colonial legal system accommodates (or doesn’t, as the case may be) Indigenous connections to country. I will then consider whether there is any evidence of a shift towards better legal recognition of those connections that will enable Indigenous cultural and spiritual connections to country not only to survive, but to thrive, or whether it is simply window dressing that merely perpetuates the supremacy of colonial rule.

My focus will largely be on legislation dealing specifically with Indigenous Australians, such as the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 (Vic), and cultural heritage protection legislation. However, I will also consider the policy context, and other environmental, land and water management legislation insofar as they evince an intention to accommodate Indigenous connections to country. In that respect, I will outline some recent amendments to Victoria’s water laws as well as some international developments that may have a bearing on future directions in Australia.

Dr Katie O’Bryan is a lecturer in law at Monash University. Prior to entering academia, she practised as a solicitor in native title, acting for native title claim groups in both Western Australia and Victoria. She holds a Master of Laws in Environmental Law from Macquarie University and a PhD from Monash University focussing on the legal recognition of Indigenous water rights.

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