Essential documents from Aboriginal Australia: 1 – the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petitions

Bukudjulni gonga’yurri napurrunha Yirrkalalili yulnunha malanha Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr, nanapurru dhuwala mala, ga Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, Magarrwanalmirri, Djambarrpuynu, Marrkulu, Gumaitj, Galpu, Dhaluangu, Wangurri, Warramirri, Naymil, Riritjingu malamanapanmirri djal dhunapa.

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 first 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 Petitions, 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.

I’ve written here before about the background to the Yirrkala Bark Petitions to the Australian Parliament and the precursor to those documents, the panels painted as the title deeds to their land made by local Yolngu traditional owners. You can read my earlier piece here and wonderful background and analysis by the late Will Owen here.

On February 18, 1963 Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that the government would grant leases to mine bauxite in land excised from the Arnhem Land reserve.

Yolngu at Yirrkala were unaware of any of the machinations that had gone on before-hand. It was later revealed that the Methodist Overseas Mission (the organisation then responsible for the management of Yirrkala) had supported the excision without consultation with any Yolngu leaders.

On March 13, 1963 the Government excised over 300 square kilometres of land from the Arnhem Land reserve for the bauxite mining lease. On May 9 1963, Reverend Edgar Wells, Superintendent Minister of the Yirrkala Methodist church mission held a public meeting, read and explained the Proclamation by the Governor-General excising land from the Arnhem Reserve for the mining lease and certain adjacent areas.

Elders from the region, notably Muŋgurrawuy Yunupingu (Gumatj Leader) and Mawalan Marika (Rirratjingu Leader) were incensed that they had not been consulted and were concerned that the mining would disturb, and restrict their access to, sacred sites.

Taken from my earlier post, this timeline provides a brief chronological background to the development of the Bark Petitions.

Timeline

June 23 1963: Opening and dedication of the Methodist church at Yirrkala.

July 16 1963: Labor parliamentarians Gordon Bryant and Kym Beazley Snr of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement visit Yirrkala (refer The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement Report Yirrkala and Bauxite Deposit). During that visit, Yolngu leaders made plain their objection to the lack of consultation and secrecy of the Government’s agreement with Nabalco, and their concern about the impact of mining on the land unless their voices were heard.

After viewing the church panels in the then new church, Beazley was inspired to recommend to the Yolngu clan leaders to make a bark petition to state their grievances and to request “a Committee, accompanied by competent interpreters, to hear the views of the people of Yirrkala before permitting the excision of this land“.
Thus the Church panels were the forerunners of the famous Yirrkala Bark Petition sent to Canberra in 1963, and a prelude to Milirrpum v Nabalco, in which the Yolngu sued to forestall the mining.

The painting of the panels was the first significant “land rights” statement documenting Aboriginal custodianship of their country. When the panels were installed and unveiled in March, 1963, members of Parliament were present, having just concluded a series of hearings at Yirrkala on Yolngu sentiments regarding the proposed mine.

Aside from local Yolngu leaders and members of the Yolngu community there was a range of important support provided at Yirrkala for the Yirrkala Bark Petition including by Ron Croxford, Principal of Yirrkala School, his wife Margaret a teacher at Yirrkala School, Edgar Wells and MPs Bryant and Beazley.

August 14 1963: the first copy of Bark Petition was presented to the House of Representatives by Jock Nelson, Labor MHR for the Northern Territory. Paul Hasluck moved for rejection of the Petition.

August 28 1963: the second copy of the Bark Petition presented to House of Representatives by Arthur Calwell, Leader of the Opposition. The Federal Parliament established a Select Committee to follow-up etc.(accompanied by an additional three page document–a set of thumbprints from elders accompanied by their witnessed mark–known as ‘the Thumbprint Petition’).

October 29th 1963: report from the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve recommends protection of sacred sites, compensation and land grants.

1968: Petition to establish use of Yolngu name of the mining town Nhulunbuy of Gove was successful.

1971: Milurrpum v Nabalco (Gove Land Rights case)(NT Supreme Court) fails in seeking recognition of Yolngu land ownership. Justice Blackburn finds “If ever there was government by law rather than government by man then this is it.”

Yulngu Matha text of the 14 August 1963 petition

Bukudjulni gonga’yurri napurrunha Yirrkalalili yulnunha malanha Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr, nanapurru dhuwala mala, ga Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, Magarrwanalmirri, Djambarrpuynu, Marrkulu, Gumaitj, Galpu, Dhaluangu, Wangurri, Warramirri, Naymil, Riritjingu malamanapanmirri djal dhunapa.

1. Dhuwala yolnu mala galki, 500 nhina ga dhiyala wanganura. Dhuwala wanga Arnhem Land yurru djaw’yunna naburrungala.
2. Dhuwala wanga djaw’yunna ga nhaltjana yurru yolnunundja dhiyala wanga nura nhaltjanna dhu dharrpanna yolnu walandja yakana lakarama madayangumuna.
3. Dhuwala nunhi Welfare Officers ga Government bungawa lakarama yolnuwa malanuwa nhaltjarra nhuma gana wanganaminha yaka nula napurrungu lakarama, walala yaka lakarama, walala yaka lakarama Governmentgala nunhala Canberra nhaltjanna napurru ga guyana yolnuyu Yirrkala.
4. Dhuwala wanga napurrunyu balanu larrunarawu napurrungu nathawu, guyawu, miyapunuwu, maypalwu nunhi napurru gana nhinana bitjarrayi nathilimirri, napurru
dhawalguyanana dhiyala wanganura.
5. Dhuwala wanga yurru dharrpalnha yurru yolnuwalandja malawala, ga dharrpalnha dhuwala bala yolnuwuyndja nhinanharawu Melville Baythurru wanga balandayu
djaw’yun nyumukunin.
6. Dhuwala yolnundja mala yurru nhamana balandawunu nha mulkurru nhama yurru moma ga daranun yalalanumirrinha nhaltjanna dhu napurru bitjarra nhakuna Larrakeahyu momara walalanguwuy wanga.
7. Nuli dhu bungawayu House of Representatives djaw’yun yulnuwala nathili yurru nha dhu lakarama interpreteryu bungawawala yolnu matha, yurru nha dhu djaw’yun wangandja.
8. Nunhiyina dhu marrlayun marrama’ndja nhinanharawu yolnuwu marrnamathinyarawu.

Dhuwala napurru yolnu mala yurru liyamirriyama bitjan bili marr yurru napurru nha gonga’yunna wagarr’yu.
(Australian matha.)

I certify that this Petition is in conformity with the Standing Orders of the House
14/8/63 Clerk of the House

[Signatures]
Milirrpum
Djalalingba Manunu
Daymbalipu Larrakan
Dhayila Wulanybuma
Dundiwuy Wawunymarra
Dhuygala Nyabilingu
Raiyin
[STAMP]

English text of the 14 August 1963 petition

The Humble Petition of the Undersigned aboriginal people of Yirrkala, being members of the Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr people and Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, MagarrwanaImirri, Djambarrpuynu, Gumaitj, Marrakulu, Galpu, Dhaluangu, Wangurri,
Warramirri, Naymil, Riritjingu, tribes respectfully showeth.

1. That nearly 500 people of the above tribes are residents of the land excised from the Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land.
2. That the procedures of the excision of this land and the fate of the people on it were never explained to them beforehand, and were kept secret from them.
3. That when Welfare Officers and Government officials came to inform them of decisions taken without them and against them, they did not undertake to convey to the Government in Canberra the views and feelings of the Yirrkala aboriginal people.
4. That the land in question has been hunting and food gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial: we were all born here.
5. That places sacred to the Yirrkala people, as well as vital to their livelihood are in the excised land, especially Melville Bay.
6. That the people of this area fear that their needs and interests will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past, and they fear that the fate which has overtaken the Larrakeah tribe will overtake them.
7. And they humbly pray that the Honourable the House of Representatives will appoint a Committee, accompanied by competent interpreters, to hear the views of the people of Yirrkala before permitting the excision of this land.
8. They humbly pray that no arrangements be entered into with any company which will destroy the livelihood and independence of the Yirrkala people.

And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray God to help you and us.
(English language translation.)
================================================

Yulngu Matha text of the 28 August 1963 petition

Bukudjulni gonga’yurri napurrunha Yirrkalalili yulnunha malanha Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr, nanapurru dhuwala mala, ga Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, Magarrwanalmirri, Djambarrpuynu, Marrkulu, Gumaitj, Galpu, Dhaluangu, Wangurri, Warramirri, Naymil, Riritjingu malamanapanmirri djal dhunapawa.

1. Dhuwala yulnu mala galki, 500 nhina ga dhiyala wanganura. Dhuwala wanga Arnhem Land yurru djaw’yunna naburrungala.
2. Dhuwala wanga djaw’yunna ga nhaltjana yurru yulnunundja dhiyala wanga nura nhaltjanna dhu dharrpanna yulnu walandja yakana lakarama madayangumuna.
3. Dhuwala nunhi Welfare Officers ga Government bungawa lakarama yulnuwa malanuwa nhaltjarra nhuma gana wanganaminha yaka nula napurrungu lakarama, walala yaka lakarama, walala yaka lakarama Governmentgala nunhala Canberra nhaltjanna napurru ga guyana yulnuyu Yirrkala.
4. Dhuwala wanga napurrunyu balanu larrunarawu napurrungu nathawu, guyawu, miyapunuwu, maypalwu nunhi napurru gana nhinana bitjarrayi nathilimirri, napurru dhawalguyanana dhiyala wanganura.
5. Dhuwala wanga yurru dharrpalnha yurru yulnuwalandja malawala, ga dharrpalnha dhuwala bala yulnuwuyndja nhinanharawu Melville Baythurru wanga balandayu djaw’yun nyumukunin.
6. Dhuwala yulnundja mala yurru nhamana balandawunu nha mulkurru nhama yurru moma ga daranun yalalanumirrinha nhaltjanna dhu napurru bitjarra nhakuna Larrakeahyu momara walalanguwuy wanga.
7. Nuli dhu bungawayu House of Representatives djaw’yun yulnuwala nathili yurru nha dhu lakarama interpreteryu bungawawala yolnu matha, yurru nha dhu djaw’yun wangandja.
8. Nunhiyina dhu marrlayun marrama’ndja nhinanharawu yolnuwu marrnamathinyarawu. Dhuwala napurru yolnu mala yurru liyamirriyama bitjan bili marr yurru napurru nha gonga’yunna wangarr’yu.

[Signatures]
Milirrpum
Djalalingba Manunu
Daymbalipu Larrakan
Dhayila Wulanybuma
Dundiwuy Wawunymarra
Dhuygala Nyabilingu
Raiyin

English text of the 28 August 1963 petition

The Humble Petition of the Undersigned aboriginal people of Yirrkala, being members of the Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr people and Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, MagarrwanaImirri, Djambarrpuynu, Gumaitj, Marrakulu, Galpu, Dhaluangu, Wangurri, Warramirri, Naymil, Rirritjingu, tribes respectfully showeth.

1. That nearly 500 people of the above tribes are residents of the land excised from the Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land.
2. That the procedures of the excision of this land and the fate of the people on it were never
explained to them beforehand, and were kept secret from them.
3. That when Welfare Officers and Government officials came to inform them of decisions
taken without them and against them, they did not undertake to convey to the
Government in Canberra the views and feelings of the Yirrkala aboriginal people.
4. That the land in question has been hunting and food gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes
from time immemorial: we were all born here.
5. That places sacred to the Yirrkala people, as well as vital to their livelihood are in the
excised land, especially Melville Bay.
6. That the people of this area fear that their needs and interests will be completely ignored
as they have been ignored in the past, and they fear that the fate which has overtaken the
Larrakeah tribe will overtake them.
7. And they humbly pray that the Honourable the House of Representatives will appoint a
Committee, accompanied by competent interpreters, to hear the views of the people of
Yirrkala before permitting the excision of this land.
8. They humbly pray that no arrangements be entered into with any company which will
destroy the livelihood and independence of the Yirrkala people.

And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray God to help you and us

================================================

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

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