• Yothu Yindi Foundation chairman and Gumatj clan leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu. (AAP)Source: AAP
In a remarkable essay, former Australian of the Year Galarrwuy Yunupingu says it is time for a different approach to reconciliation
Ross Turner

30 Jun 2016 - 12:52 PM  UPDATED 30 Jun 2016 - 12:53 PM
  • Call to be left to  live by an old law
  • Prime ministers keep breaking promises
  • Government control out of hand
  • Importance of song cycles

Trying to change Indigenous people will not work and they must be left to live by “a law of another kind and that law is lasting and alive, the law of the land, rom watangu – my backbone”.

So says land rights campaigner and elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu in a remarkable and personal essay in the July issue of The Monthlyin which he traces a difficult and often trying life’s journey as an Indigenous man through the ever changing political landscape of Australia.

Yunupingu - whose name means “the rock that stands against time” - writes in the full knowledge that his time as a guardian of his culture is running out. He says it is time for a different approach to reconciliation.

“There is always something wanted by someone who knows nothing of our land or its people. There is always someone who wants us to be like them, to give up our knowledge and our laws, or our land,” he writes.

“There is always someone who wants to take something from us. I disapprove of that person, whoever he or she is. There is no other way for us.

Trying to change us cannot work

“Our laws tell us how to live and lead in the proper way. Others will always seek to interrupt my thinking, but I will tell the difference between their ways and my laws, which are the only ones to live by. I am mindful of the continuing attempts to change all that is in us, and I know that it is not workable at all. It cannot work.”

Yunupingu writes of a time where Yolngu law was closely followed, to a time that has seen politicians come and go with an ever increasing hand of governmental control creeping further into the lives of Indigenous people.

He writes of what has been, what has come and what can be and, intermingled throughout the article, is a lyrical mixture of culture, heritage and the importance of songlines.

‘Amazing’ piece of writing

Nick Feik, editor of ‘The Monthly’, said the essay was “one of the most amazing pieces of writing I have ever seen”.

“It was such a momentous piece of writing, we wanted to dedicate an entire issue to it. I think this is something that will be being read for decades. We wanted to set an agenda; to allow people to see what reconciliation looks like from Galarrwuy’s perspective, and the depth of connection that you get with culture. And it’s clear to see that that connection with reconciliation is lined with broken promises.”

Mr Yunupingu realises that Australian politics is a very tricky game, and one where a realistic response can sometimes be hard to pin down, and that now more than ever, Australian politics is self-serving.

But he asks: “Why do they not provide the simple basics in the ways that work for us? Why not? There has never been an honest answer to this.”

He says he onced believed that governments existed to meet the needs of the people they served.

Politics runs hot and cold

But now “I live in the total knowledge that politics is a business that runs hot and cold every time a new office holder comes to Canberra and they have to find some answers to what they can do in their time. Three years is such a short time, and politicians are under pressure to do something instead of biting their fingernails and having no solutions.”

“Aboriginal people need to understand that the government of the day will always seek to justify itself, protect itself and get its reputation straight… when the voters do talk to their politicians they may want something from us or have some problem with us, because we are not like them. And this adds to the worry of politicians who are most of all concerned about whether they will be re-elected. That’s their first commitment. That’s the real situation”, says Mr Yunupingu.

Galarrwuy hasn’t been quick to judge Australia’s leaders. He has met them on his land at Gulkula. He’s met Kevin Rudd and lived and worked with Tony Abbott as he led the country for six days as part of his commitment to run the government from Arnhem land for a week each year.

“All the prime ministers I have known have been friendly to me, but I mark them all hard. None of them has done what I asked, or delivered what they promised. I asked each one to be truthful and to honestly recognise the truth of history, and to reconcile that truth in a way that finds unity in the future. But they are who they are and they were not able or not permitted to complete their task, for a prime minister is beholden to his party and to the parliament, which in turn is held by the Australian people. “

Broken promises

So with this in mind NITV put Galarrwuy’s comments of broken promises to the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and to the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and asked them what they are willing to commit to as a promise to First Nations peoples of Australia should they be elected this weekend.

Prime Minister Turnbull was unavailable to comment, but Mr Shorten was quick to respond saying:

“The continuing disadvantage dealt to the first Australians is our oldest national shame. The unavoidable truth is we are, in so many ways, two Australias, divided by inequalities in life expectancy, incarceration, education, employment, health and housing. A Shorten Labor Government has made Closing the Gap a policy priority in this campaign. [But] Closing the Gap is not a task that will be fulfilled by a single Prime Minister, or a single Government. It is an intergenerational responsibility. We cannot rest until our two Australia’s are one.”

Justin Mohamed, CEO of Reconciliation Australia, agrees that closing the gap is of the highest importance saying: “If government investment is to deliver positive outcomes, a change in approach is necessary. Adequate funding, renewing and expanding Closing the Gap commitments and genuine consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are key to achieving better outcomes.

“To make significant progress towards a reconciled Australia, we must address past wrongs, and the continued disadvantage faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. Until we achieve reconciliation, we will continue to fall short of our potential as a nation.”


Galarrwuy’s essay posed this important question for the future; how can Australia reconcile?"

Reconciliation requires more than words

Yet Galarrwuy’s essay also posed important questions for the future, how can Australia reconcile? How can this be possible when there are so many wrongs to be made right, especially as he reflects: “The Australian people know that their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own, which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines – and people – now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.”

“The task remains to reconcile with the truth, to find the unity and achieve the settlement. A prime minister must lead it and complete it. The leader of the nation should accept his or her commission and simply say what he or she thinks is right, and put that forward for the nation to correct, or to accept, or to reject. Let us have an honest answer from the Australian people to an honest question.”

But in the midst of all this is it possible for the government to relax its grip of government control on indigenous people and allow them to return to more traditional forms of governance?

Murrumu Walubara Yidindji, of the Yidindji Government in Northern Queensland believes this is possible.

“Yes it’s very possible. It’s good that people want to govern themselves, but it's not for me or any government to say how people should.”

Traditional law works better

Never-the-less Mr Yunupingu believes that traditional law will always work better and, as he looks to the future and his eventual passing, he acknowledges: “As a man reaches the final points in his journey it is then for others to do the singing. Others must take the lead, acknowledge him and guide him. If there is unfinished business it is no longer for that man to carry that business; others who have taken responsibility and who have taken leadership must then bear the burden of creation. The future is theirs.”

And the future is paved in tradition, as he explains at the outset of his essay.

Song cycles keep us in balance

“Our song cycles have the greatest importance in the lives of my people. They guide and inform our lives.

“A song cycle tells a person’s life: it relates to the past, to the present and to the future. Yolngu balance our lives through the song cycles that are laid out on the ceremony grounds. These are the universities of our people, where we hone and perfect our knowledge.

“It is through the song cycles that we acknowledge our allegiance to the land, to our laws, to our life, to our ancestors and to each other. We work from the new moon to the full moon – travelling these song cycles as a guide to life and the essence of our people: keeping it all in balance so that wealth and prosperity might flow. This is the cycle of events that is in us and gives us the energy for life, the full energy that we require. Without this, we are nobody and we can achieve nothing.”