60 years since the Yirrkala bark petition

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article does include images of deceased persons.

On the 14th of August 1963, a bark petition by the Yolŋu People of Yirrkala in the Northern Territory was presented to the Commonwealth Parliament.

The Yolŋu were protesting the seizure of their land by large mining corporations. Their action was a pivotal moment in the campaign for Land Rights, and for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

On the 60th anniversary of the petition being presented to Parliament, we proudly remember the heroic activism of the Yolŋu, and their union supporters.

Background to the petition

Yirrkala is located on the east coast of the Gove peninsula in Arnhem Land – the country of the Yolŋu.

In 1931, Arnhem Land was proclaimed as an Aboriginal reserve by an act of parliament. This restricted access to country. In the mid-1930s, a Methodist Mission was established at Yirrkala.

In the 1950s, bauxite was discovered just north of Yirrkala by a massive aluminium company. Bauxite is a rock heavy with aluminium materials – most of the world’s aluminium is extracted from the rock.

This discovery prompted changes in legislation on access to Aboriginal reserves to allow entry for mining companies and prospectors.

In March of 1963 the Menzies Government announced that it was removing over 36,000 hectares from the Arnhem Land reserve to be used for mining leases. A lease was signed with the Gove Bauxite Corporation, which was a subsidiary of the massive French aluminium producer, Pechiney.

This was done without any consultation with the Yolŋu people.

The Yolŋu began a campaign of lobbying and advocacy to try and protect their land. In response to their action, two MPs from the Australian Labor Party travelled to Yirrkala. They were Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley Senior.

The Yolŋu made a powerful case for their connection to country, and the horrendous effect that the mine would have on their land and their way of life. On this visit Beazley suggested that the Yolŋu petition the parliament in a manner that represented their culture.

The Bark Petition

The Yirrkala bark petition

The Yirrkala bark petition was painted in clan designs by senior Yolŋu artists.

The petition stated [original and translation courtesy of AIATSIS]:

‘Dhuwala wanga napurrungyu balanu larrunarawu napurrungu nathawa, guyawu, miyspunuwu, maypalwu nunhi napurru gana nhinana bitjarrayi nathilimirri, napurru dhawalguyanana dhiyala wanganura.’

[The land in question has been hunting and food gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial; we were all born here.]

On 14 August the bark petition (alongside another printed on paper) was tabled in the Commonwealth Parliament by the Labor Member for the Northern Territory, Jock Nelson.

This tabling was the first time that the Australian Parliament had formally recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander documents.

The Coalition Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, dismissed the petition, saying that its signatories were all young people with no authority to represent Yolŋu.

In response, the Yolŋu prepared another petition thumb printed by senior Yolŋu men and women. This second petition was tabled on the 28th of August by Labor Leader Arthur Calwell.

The pressure created by the petitions and the public campaigning around them led to the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the situation. The committee travelled to Yirrkala to prepare its report.

In October of 1963 the report was released – effectively accepting that the mining would proceed. The only concessions it offered was for some compensation, protection of sacred sites, and monitoring of the project.

An activist leafleting at the 1963 ACTU Congress

Union support for the Yolŋu

In the early 1960s, serious changes in attitudes within the union movement were taking place as the result of the activism and advocacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unionists.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unionists and their comrades challenged exclusionary attitudes in the movement. The effect of this activism could be seen in the union response to the Yirrkala petition, and the support shown for the Yolŋu by unionists.

The union movement’s attitudes were best expressed in the 1963 Congress, which took place in September of that year.

A number of union’s submitted proposed policy for the Congress supporting the campaign for wage equality, supporting the call for a referendum to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the census and for the Commonwealth to be given the powers to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (the 1967 referendum), and for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to exercise control over their land.

This was inspired by the campaign of the Yolŋu, and other communities whose countries were being threatened by giant corporations wanting exploit the land.

As the Queensland Trades and Labor Council argued in its proposed motion, these corporate giants were making “empty” promises about Aboriginal “welfare” while “pirating resources on aboriginal tribal grounds.”

The Building Workers’ Industrial Union argued in its proposed policy: “the removal of aboriginal communities from their traditional lands at Mapoon, North Queensland, and Yirrkala, Gove Peninsula N.T., in the interest of foreign investors is an outrageous assault on basic human rights, as those lands had been declared inviolate aboriginal lands.”

Taking the case to the court.

The right to land

In 1968, the Yolŋu shifted the arena of their campaign by taking their claim to court, seeking an injunction to stop the mining from the Northern Territory Supreme Court.

In 1971 the Judge overseeing the case, Justice Blackburn, handed down a decision that rejected the Yolŋu claim. The decision acknowledged that the Yolŋu had a deep connection to the land, but denied that this extended to ownership.

Following the decision, the Yolŋu released a statement saying:

“We cannot be satisfied with anything less than ownership of the land. The land and law, the sacred places, songs, dances and language were given to our ancestors by spirits Djangkawu and Barama. We are worried that without the land future generations could not maintain our culture. We have the right to say to anybody not to come to our country.”

Following the court’s decision, the ACTU Executive met to reiterate its support for the Yolŋu, and for the broader cause of Land Rights.

This included its ongoing support for the Gurindji strike – another epochal struggle for Land Rights at the time. Read all about the Gurindji strike and union support for the struggle here.

The ACTU Executive motion read:

“The ACTU Congresses have decided that tribal land rights justice must be provided for the Aborigines (SIC), and in view of the belief of the Yirrkala tribes than an appeal against the Blackburn decision would not produce a satisfactory solution the executive considers that the Federal Government should legislate immediately [when] Parliament resumes sitting to give tribal land rights to the Aboriginal people.”

This was a recognition of the Yolŋu’s decision to purse their case through parliament rather than to continue in the courts, where it was believed they would continue to be blocked.

This was part of the growing momentum for Land Rights in this period that led to the Whitlam Labor Government, following its election in 1972, forming a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights – the Woodward Commission.

This Commission led to the Whitlam Government’s introduction of a Land Rights bill into the House of Representatives. This Bill was initially stalled, before being amended and passed by the Fraser Government as The Aboriginal Land Rights Northern Territory) Act in 1976.

An heroic struggle

60 years on, we proudly remember the courageous and inspiring actions of the Yolŋu.

The fact that we still lack the basic right to land that the Yolŋu were campaigning for shows how far we still have to go.

This year, we have the opportunity to make a massive step forward as a country by recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a practical manner through a Voice to parliament.

A chance for all of us to come together, learn from our history, and make a better future for all Australians.

A better future based on listening, respect, and recognition.

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