Essential documents from Aboriginal Australia: 2 – the 1998 Barunga Statement

"Sovereignty became treaty, treaty became reconciliation and reconciliation became nothing. … We will dig a hole and bury it. It will be a protest but I also hope that it can represent a new start for Aboriginal people”: Galarrwuy Yunupingu, 2006

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

This is the second of a series of posts looking at various foundational documents from Aboriginal Australians that variously call for land rights.constitutional recognition, redress for past injustices and more. It is no coincidence that these documents—the 1963 Bark Petition, the 1988 Barunga Statement, the 1993 Eva Valley Statement and the 1998 Kalkaringi Statement—all come from the Northern Territory, where a combination of culture, law and political effect meant that NT Aboriginal leaders were best placed to lead these fights.

If you want to understand the background to the Uluru Statement the content and context of these documents provide, for mine, essential reading.

Earlier this week I posted two pieces, one from me on the likely fallout from the Uluru Statement and another, more measured piece, from Kungarakan historian Sue Stanton. In my piece, I glossed over the pre-history to the Barunga Statement, which was handed to Prime Minister Bob Hawke by Northern Territory traditional Aboriginal owners in June 1988.

Yesterday I came across a wonderful piece by the late Will Owen at his website Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye where he wrote with a particularly incisive and insightful eye for many years on “Indigenous Australian art, culture, anthropology, music, politics and literature … ” until his sudden passing in early December 2015*.

In his piece Barunga Stories, written in February 2006, Will Owen presents an overview of the circumstances leading up to and following the presentation of the Barunga Statement to Bob Hawke in mid-1988.

After years of frustration at any meaningful response to the express calls for action in the Barunga Statement, Galarrwuy Yunupingu demanded the return of the Statement to the Northern Territory (from Canberra, where it had been displayed in the Federal Parliament since 1991).

Galarrwuy wanted to:

… bury it in a larrakitj, the traditional log coffin, in a symbolic act that proclaims the failure to achieve the goals set forth in the Statement’s text, and to symbolically bury the hopes of achieving a treaty between the government and its indigenous citizens.

Will Owen records this statement from Galarrwuy Yunupingu to the National Indigenous Times:

Sovereignty became treaty, treaty became reconciliation and reconciliation became nothing. … We will dig a hole and bury it. It will be a protest but I also hope that it can represent a new start for Aboriginal people.

After tracing the history of the Aboriginal calls for a treaty back to the closing days of the Whitlam Labor government and the Aboriginal Treaty Committee established in late 1979—and the subsequent white-anting of that committee by politicians uninterested in any positive steps towards a treaty—Will Owen notes that talk of a treaty had been off the political record until the lead up to the 1988 Australian Bicentennial, when Bob Hawke saw opportunity in re-visiting the idea of a treaty between Aboriginal Australia.

Will Owen sets out the background to Barunga in June 1988.

After the bicentennial celebrations of January 1988 and the protests that accompanied them in Sydney, there were politics aplenty in the air across the country and in the Northern Territory in particular. In June, the various threads came together at the Barunga Sports and Culture Festival. Barunga, which lies southwest of Katherine, was known as the one festival among many where Aboriginal culture received more than a perfunctory nod amidst footy competitions and other sports events.

So it was perhaps most appropriate that a group of men gathered together there to address issues of Aboriginal culture and politics. Among the leaders present were Galarrwuy Yunupingu, then chairman of the Northern Land Council, Mr Rubuntja (who passed away in 2005), his opposite number in the Central Land Council, Prime Minister Hawke, and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gerry Hand.

The Barunga Statement itself (see the full text below) was the product of several years of negotiations between Galarrwuy and other indigenous leaders across Australia. Taking inspiration from the Yirrkala Bark Petition created twenty years earlier, the Statement took the form of a typed set of demands surrounded by painted designs and affixed to a large (120 by 80 cm) piece of hardboard.

The painting combined several clan designs from Yolngu country in northeastern Arnhem Land on the left with a large design featuring traditional Central Desert iconography on the right. As such it visually affirmed the unified demands of the indigenous people of the Northern Territory and the Land Councils that represented the interests of those who had already attained the first measure of self-management promised by the Land Rights Act (NT) 1976.

The Barunga Statement was signed by the several representatives present, although, despite Hawke’s signature, it did not represent a legally binding document on the Federal Government. There is a sad irony to that fact once again, as happened with the Yirrkala Bark Petition, the concepts of the white man’s law were used to invalidate the demands that black man’s law be honored in Australia. It is sadder still in that one of the points in the Statement calls for a “justice system which recognises our customary laws.”

After a digression into an entertaining and informative analysis of an inter Yolngu clan dispute over the content of one panel of the Barunga Statement (well worth reading if you want some insights into the politics of Yolngu art and law) Will Owen documents the failure of mainstream politicians to address the Barunga Statement’s clear calls for negotiation of a treaty in favour of the weasel words of reconciliation, process and “walking together.”

By 2006, it was clear that the promise inherent in the Barunga Statement remained unrealised.

Now in 2006, the promise of Barunga remains unfulfilled. The National Indigenous Times quotes Galarrwuy Yunupingu as saying, “Sovereignty became treaty, treaty became reconciliation and reconciliation became nothing. … We will dig a hole and bury it. It will be a protest but I also hope that it can represent a new start for Aboriginal people.”

The focus of the government seems to have reverted to the documents rather than the process, and legalisms, “practical reconciliation,” and empty words have won the day again. NIT reports that the Howard government has not responded to Galarrwuy’s request, although they quote Amanda Vanstone (at that moment still occupying the post of Indigenous Affairs Minister) declining to comment: “We’re not aware of any formal request besides what has been made in the media, therefore there is no comment I can make.”

The Barunga Statement still hangs in Parliament House in Canberra. Next weekend the Barunga community will host the annual Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival. The Barunga Statement will be commemorated at the annual festival, in 2018, forty years on.

As I noted earlier this week in my piece on the Uluru Statement, the oft-paraphrased words of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana provide food for thought that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Full text of the Barunga Statement, 1998

We, the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia, call on the Australian Government and people to recognise our rights:

  • to self-determination and self-management, including the freedom to pursue our own economic, social, religious and cultural development;
  • to permanent control and enjoyment of our ancestral lands;
  • to compensation for the loss of use of our lands, there having been no extinction of original title;
  • to protection of and control of access to our sacred sites, sacred objects, artefacts, designs, knowledge and works of art;
  • to the return of the remains of our ancestors for burial in accordance with our traditions;
  • to respect for and promotion of our Aboriginal identity, including the cultural, linguistic, religious and historical aspects, and including the right
  • to be educated in our own languages and in our own culture and history;

in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, rights to life, liberty, security of person, food, clothing, housing, medical care, education and employment opportunities, necessary social services and other basic rights.

We call on the Commonwealth to pass laws providing:

  • A national elected Aboriginal and Islander organisation to oversee Aboriginal and Islander affairs;
  • A national system of land rights;
  • A police and justice system which recognises our customary laws and frees us from discrimination and any activity which may threaten our identity or security, interfere with our freedom of expression or association, or otherwise prevent our full enjoyment and exercise of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.

We call on the Australian Government to support Aborigines in the development of an international declaration of principles for indigenous rights, leading to an international covenant.

And we call on the Commonwealth Parliament to negotiate with us a Treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom.


  • I can’t praise Will Owen’s website, Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye highly enough as a source for information and enlightenment on may aspects of Australian art & culture. Better words about Will Owen’s lasting impact than I could ever write can be found at the In Memoriam page at his website posted shortly after his passing in December 2015. He is and will continue to be missed.


Follow the links below to see the rest of the documents in this series.


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