She might not be a household name like Eddie Mabo, but Dorothy Lawson has spent years quietly fighting for the right to have the ownership of her traditional homeland legally recognised.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of people who have died.

Key points:

  • Dorothy Lawson’s grandparents were not compensated in 1922 when SA took charge of Lake Victoria
  • The Court of Appeal ruled that any rights the Lawsons had were converted into a claim for compensation when their title was extinguished
  • The states could still seek leave to appeal against the judgment to the High Court

Lake Victoria, in far-west New South Wales, is an important Murray-Darling Basin water storage operated by South Australia to manage its downstream needs and to maintain its security of supply.

To Mrs Lawson, an 84-year-old Paakantyi Maraura elder, it is where dozens of generations of her ancestors are buried, and where SA colonial “overlanders” massacred her people in 1841.

It is also the place where she and others came into the world.

“Lake Victoria is our home,” Mrs Lawson said.

“We were born out there under a tree.

“There was no hospital — Granny delivered us, and aunties.

Lake Victoria is a major Murray-Darling Basin storage used to supply water to SA.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Christopher Testa)

Battlelines and state lines

The lake, not far from the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers, has been at the centre of a long-fomenting legal fight between Mrs Lawson and two state governments.

Mrs Lawson said her great-grandfather, Dan McGregor, along with his Maraura contemporaries, obtained the possessory title of their homeland in western NSW in 1848, having lived there uninterrupted for 60 years since the establishment of the British colony.

The claim is based on the Nullum Tempus Act and the principle of adverse possession, or squatters’ rights.

In 1922, NSW allowed SA to take charge of Lake Victoria to use it as a water storage.

Three judges of the NSW Court of Appeal have now ruled that any rights Mrs Lawson held over that land were converted into a claim for compensation under the Public Works Act when SA assumed management of the lake.

Fight of a lifetime

Mrs Lawson (nee Mitchell) was taken away from her parents when she was young — but she was not so young that she did not understand where she came from.

“We were forced into [the Menindee Mission], which was located 10 miles out of Menindee,” she said.

From the mission, she was taken to Cootamundra Girls’ Home, but she did not forget her people.

“I came back and, in my mind, when I came back, riding the train home when I turned 18, the thoughts were going through my head, just like that.

“I had no faith in the government.

Her return, as for so many members of the Stolen Generations, was far from straightforward.

There were family tragedies, but there were other obstacles too.

Mrs Lawson refused to give in to them.

‘No squatter’

In the early 1980s, the Wentworth Shire Council attempted to forcibly evict Mrs Lawson and other Aboriginal people who were living on public land near the township of Dareton, just across the Murray from Mildura.

She stood in the path of the bulldozers that were to remove her humpy to make way for a pony club.

Then she went to court and won the right to stay.

Maraura Paakantyi woman Dorothy Lawson has kept documentation throughout a life spent fighting for land rights.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Christopher Testa)

While she didn’t have faith in government, the outcome instilled some faith in the legal system.

“I watched my aunties and uncles be bulldozed around,” she said.

“I had faith then.

Not long after the 1981 court decision in Wentworth, Eddie Mabo lodged his first legal claim in Queensland, inaugurating a long battle that would lead to the High Court recognising Native Title in law.

Mrs Lawson also saw potential for a pathway to land rights through the colonisers’ law.

If the local press and shire councillors were going to call her a squatter, she would fight for her “squatter’s rights”.

‘Our Eddie Mabo’

The Lawson legal claim has been fought with few resources, but Mrs Lawson — Aunty Dot — is not alone.

She was proud that her representative in the Court of Appeal matter, Tony McAvoy SC, was Australia’s first Indigenous silk.

The historic Mabo decision of the High Court created a new system for Indigenous land recognition.(Supplied: Jim McEwan)

“Tony used to come down, now and again, visiting with senior counsel and he was one of those Aboriginal people I had a lot of faith in,” Mrs Lawson said.

Her son, Phillip Lawson, shares the sense of pride.

“People like Mum, the Stolen Generations, when they come back to the communities, they’re not accepted, some of them, because of the fact they haven’t had that bond while they were growing up,” he said.

“She knows where she’s from — she knows her identity, so she’s used that and relied on that.

Legal pathways

A tight-knit team, the Lawsons have been supported for many years by Mark Dengate, a non-Indigenous man, who despite not possessing a law degree, has spent many hours poring over legislation and case law and plotting a path to the recognition of their title.

Mr Dengate’s support for Mrs Lawson — who describes him as “always staunch, always there when I ask questions” — dates back to the early years of the Barkandji Native Title claim, which Mrs Lawson lodged as an applicant in the 1990s.

That claim was granted by consent determination in 2015, some 13 years after Mrs Lawson was removed as a primary applicant in a bitter dispute that went to court twice.

The Lake Victoria case, Mr Dengate hoped, would pave the way for First Nations elders to make land ownership claims in rural areas where Europeans settled after 1848 and where Native Title has been extinguished.

Mr Dengate represented Mrs Lawson as an agent in the Land and Environment Court in 2014, when they successfully argued she had the right to a 93-year extension of time to pursue her compensation claim over SA’s resumption of Lake Victoria.

“Although I’m not a legal representative, the law was good enough to be strong enough to still defeat the Crown in their arguments,” he said.

“That showed to me that the court was prepared to accept the law and that justified Mrs Lawson’s faith in the law.

“We’re not asking for a precedent — we just applied the law as it was.

High Court appeal possible

Mrs Lawson’s case still has a way to go, and it remains to be seen whether the SA Water Minister and NSW solicitors will seek leave to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s decision in the High Court.

The Court of Appeal judges referred the case back to the equity division after their ruling last week, with the next listing in the Land and Environment Court set later this month for further direction.

“I’m hoping to go ahead, lodge for compensation with the time and effort I’ve put up,” Mrs Lawson said.

The Court of Appeal outcome was a melancholy one for Mrs Lawson, who “not long lost an eldest son”.

“He was very determined,” she said.

“He wanted to see it through, he wanted to see what the outcome would be.

A spokesman for the SA Government said the judgement had “only just” been received and was still being assessed.

Mrs Lawson said Lake Victoria in the Murray-Darling Basin “was always our home”.(ABC News)

Because the court has ruled that Mrs Lawson is only entitled to a compensation claim, SA will be free to continue using Lake Victoria as its major upstream storage, despite Mrs Lawson’s sadness for what she describes as the “desecration” of her ancestors’ remains.

“The compensation claim itself has no bearing on the operation of Lake Victoria,” the SA Government spokesman said.

The NSW Government did not respond to a request for comment.

“Hopefully by [the directions hearing], we’ll have a bit more of an idea of whether the respondents will seek leave to appeal to the High Court,” Mr Dengate said.

“If they go to the High Court, I think they’d only be costing the taxpayers more than what it’s already cost them to have the same result.

“They’d soon work out what the reality was during those early years.”