In August, 1975, the Commonwealth of Australia ‘handed back’ land to the Gurindji, who had fought a long battle for their country and helped usher in the era of land rights.
The Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, symbolically poured a handful of Gurindji soil into Lingiari’s hand and said:
“Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”
I had always assumed this was a gesture towards Aboriginal attitudes to land, an earthy complement to the European title deeds on paper.
“Feoffment entailed a set of acts that amounted to a ritual of possession. First, the actual delivery of the land took place by a means known as livery of seisin (which was a term for having both possession and title of real property). This was customarily done by handing over a lump of soil, a twig of a tree, of some other small part of the property that was regarded as symbolic of its whole … feoffment was a form of conveyance that had to be carried out on the particular land in question”
Given his sense of history, as well as early legal work that concentrated on tenant/landlord matters, Whitlam must have been well aware of this practice.