On this day: Yirrkala bark petitions before Parliament

By Jacqueline Outred 7 November 2013
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The bark paintings marked the first traditional campaign in the fight for Aboriginal land rights.

The Yirrkala bark petitions mark an historic point in the Aboriginal fight for land rights.

AFTER A LONG journey from Arnhem Land, two bark paintings of the Yolngu people were presented to the Australian Federal Parliament in Canberra in a campaign to protect sacred land.

The presentation of these petitions to the sitting parliament sparked a chain of events that would become monumental in the fight for indigenous land rights in Australia.

The artworks framed twin declarations, one in Yolngu Matha language and the other in English, undersigned by 17 different representatives of the Indigenous people from the Yirrkala reserve, in the north-east pocket of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

The Yolngu people were directly opposing bauxite mining activities within their traditional homeland on the Gove Peninsula.

Yolngu people and the Yirrkala bark petitions

One of the signatories was Wali Wunungmurra, 67, who still lives in Yirrkala today. He says the eventual significance of the petitions was not foreseeable at the time.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Wali told Australian Geographic. “All we knew is that we wanted the right to know what was happening to our land.”

The Yolngu were not the first indigenous group to protest the government’s use of their traditional land. They were, however, the first group to protest with traditional cultural approaches.

They took their opposition to the Commonwealth in their own language, says Rodney Dillon, an Indigenous Rights Campaigner with Amnesty International. “They sent it on their own terms. If they were to send it in broken English, it wouldn’t have been as impressive… I think that’s very significant and very powerful.”

Wali explains that what some might see as paintings are actually a display of knowledge and understanding of the land. They express the people’s law, culture, and connectedness with the land.

Traditional laws of indigenous Australians

The imagery painted on the petitions is a legal document in itself, says Dr Jakelin Troy from the Australian Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Services (AITSIS) in Canberra. “It’s a very sophisticated statement from people who fully understand how the British legal system works and how their own legal system intersects with that,” she says.

Although provoking a parliamentary enquiry, the petitions were ultimately unsuccessful. The Yolngu people persevered, taking their case to the Supreme Court in the Northern Territory in 1968. This was the first land rights case in Australia.

While their traditional connection was acknowledged, the court found that the claim could not be recognised by Australian law. It was rejected in 1971.

However, Wali says the petitions were about more than protecting sacred sites, they were about recognition. “Since the first white men landed in Botany Bay, the Aboriginal people were thought of as flora and fauna. He had no rights, and no place.”

The Yirrkala bark petitions made a step in bridging a chasm in understanding between a white man’s government and the Indigenous people of Australia. Before the bark petitions, Wali says, “we didn’t understand what we were saying to each other.”

Aboriginal land rights in Australia

While they failed in their ultimate intentions, many consider the petitions responsible for providing the traction needed to get the first Land Rights Act passed in Australia.

Jakelin says she, like all Aboriginal people, feels very strongly about the importance of the bark petition. “[It was a] moment in history where our rights were actually taken very seriously, I think for the first time.”

Wali agrees. “It had a rippling effect right across the Northern Territory and throughout Australia. We did it for everybody, all the people that were affected.”

The Land Rights (NT) Act was passed in 1976. As a result, Aboriginal people were given ownership over all Arnhem Land except the mining lease areas at Gove which were specifically excluded.

Copies of the petitions are on permanent display in Parliament House.

– Text by Jacqueline Outred