The Iconic History of Uluru’s Traditional Land and Place Name Repatriation

Uluru. Courtesy of Unsplash, 2019.

Currently, there is a wave of ongoing successes for Indigenous peoples across the nation gaining back their traditional lands and place names. The handback of Uluru has been by far the most symbolic high point in the history of Indigenous land rights. In the Central Desert of the Northern Territory, lies this vast arkosic sandstone monolith, standing taller than the Eiffel Tower, with a circumference of 9.4km. The 550 million year old rock has been a part of Aboriginal culture for approximately 50,000 years and is the traditional home of the Aṉangu people (pronounced arn-ung-oo). To Indigenous Australians, Uluru is sacred as it holds many significant stories of the creation ancestors and is a part of Tjukurpa (pronounced ‘chook-orr-pa’) - the unique relationship between the natural environment and the traditional beliefs, laws and religious philosophy of the Aṉangu people (Parks Australia, 2021).

Aerial view of Uluru. Photo credit: Alexander Gerst. Courtesy of Creative Commons, 2021.

Uluru Traditional Land and Place Name Repatriation History

In 1873, British surveyor William Gosse became the first European to discover Uluru. Gosse named the monolith Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time. Onwards to 1950, Ayers Rock was declared a national park, and in 1958 it was excised from an Aboriginal reserve to form the Ayers Rock-Mt Olga National Park. Unfortunately, the Aṉangu people were discouraged from visiting the park during its period of development for the tourism industry, but many continued to hunt, gather food and participate in ceremonies across their traditional homelands - as they ought to. Some time after 1964, the government established a settlement at Kaltukatjara (Dock River) - after pressure from tour operators - to further push the Aṉangu away from their homeland, Uluru (Parks Australia, 2021).


Over the next decade, Uluru’s traditional custodians expressed their concerns about the desecration of sacred sites, pastoralism, tourism and mining to the government. After lobbying the government for the right to access their country, the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act came into force in 1976, and in 1979 the Central Land Council lodged a successful land rights claim on behalf of Uluru’s traditional owners. It is important to note that the national park - currently named at the time Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock–Mt Olga) National Park - containing the precious, sacred monolith was omitted from this claim as it was no longer Crown Land, deeming it non-eligible (Parks Australia, 2021).

Handback ceremony to the Aṉangu peoples in 1985. Photo credit: Peter Taylor. Courtesy of Parks Australia, 2021.

After more than 35 years of campaigning, the Aṉangu people were finally recognised as the traditional owners of the park on the memorable date of October 26, 1985. The historical handback ceremony of Uluru was held on the oval in the Mutitjulu community, and was where the Governor General of Australia, Sir Ninian Stephen, presented the Aṉangu traditional owners with the freehold title deeds for the park. The campaign’s success continued whereby, in 1987, Ulurwas listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 1994 UNESCO extended its recognition to the national park’s cultural significance. To top it off, the official name of the park ridded of its colonial name, and changed to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in 1993 (Parks Australia, 2021).


Ever since the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was repatriated to its traditional owners, the park has been jointly managed by Parks Australia, under the Australian Government, and the Aṉangu people. This joint management aims to help maintain Aṉangu culture and heritage and to manage and conserve the park’s ecosystem following and respecting traditional Tjukurpa methods (Parks Australia, 2021).


So, if you ever get the opportunity to visit Uluru, we hope that you see this phenomenal landmark as more than just a photo opportunity; we hope that you take in the ancient wisdom, culture and diverse plant and animal life. By doing so, you are not only acknowledging the pre-colonial history of the Aṉangu peoples, but are paying respect to their land, culture and traditions. Now that you have been given a brief insight as to the land and place name repatriation history, we hope you can take away the important fact that colonial history is not Indigenous history.

For more stories about traditional place name repatriation, check out our recent article Kakadu Town Jabiru Returned to the Mirarr Peoples and our previous articles Daintree Rainforest handed back to its Traditional Owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people and Fraser Island renamed to Traditional Place Name K'gari.