The Yirrkala Bark Petitions

The original Yirrkala Bark Petitions were tabled in the House of Representatives on the 14th of August, 1963, and were presented in the form of two bark paintings (one with the petition written in Yolngu Matha and the other in English).

Although the 1963 petitions are perhaps the most well known, they were actually the first in a series of bark petitions to be presented to Australian Prime Ministers with additional petitions sent in 1968, 1988, 1998, and most recently in 2008.


The 1963 Bark Petitions

Early in 1963 the then Government announced they would grant mining leases for bauxite mining in land excised from the Arnhem Land reserve. Local Elders were concerned that not only was this done without their consultation or input, but that it could have a severe impact on access to sacred sites within affected areas. 

Opposition members who were also on the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement visited Yirrkala and recommended to the Elders that they document their concerns and call for a Committee to hear the concerns of Yirrkala residents prior to granting the leases. 

Two bark petitions were painted with important distinctions in both the text and the artwork. One was written in Yolngu Matha and the other in English, and the two distinct paintings that framed the petitions were representative of the two Yolngu moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja. 

As a result of the petition the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve, was established. It acknowledged the rights the Yolngu set out in the petitions and recommended to Parliament on 29 October 1963 that compensation for loss of livelihood be paid, that sacred sites be protected, and that an ongoing parliamentary committee continue to monitor the mining projects.

Milirrpum, a signatory on the Bark Petition, gave evidence at the hearings on Tuesday 1st October 1963.

The Chairman asked:
“Do you think it is a good idea for the mining people to come here and work on some part of the area? Do you think that this will bring advantages to your people?”

Milirrpum replied:
“We did not know what people came here.  First of all aboriginal people not get whisper nowhere. Other people really plunder this country – only take from this country. We did not know, first of all, why they came. But later on, we soon get a little bit of word. But all Aboriginal people did not get the word from mining people to mission. After that, when mission people get a little bit of word from mining people and mission tell us they went to all the marks.  After mission tell us, we were worrying a little bit about our country.  All Aboriginal people did not know anything about why they mine bauxite. That is why the people little bit worry.  They see men plunder this country. We were worrying about our children and our country. We want to hold all the country. All generations of our people here. The people here little bit worry because of all this whisper, and that is why we people come together this afternoon for this business.

If this country taken, we want something else from mining people. This Aboriginal people’s place. We want to hold this country. We do not want to lose this country. That is how the people are worrying about this country. We want to get more room for our hunting and our fishing, because later on we got more people. Our children are to come. All my children at school in this country. They want to hold this country. We fought the law for our children for all this country.  Please, we do not want to lose this country. We stand on this country. The Aboriginal people were the first Australians here. Then you people come along. Please, that is my word I am telling you.  That is my last word.  Thank you.”

Despite these actions, it was considered a failure by many Yolngu as leases were still granted to Nabalco to mine bauxite and establish a township. Yolngu leaders launched the Gove Land Rights Case in the Northern Territory Supreme Court in December 1968 which did not succeed, but in handing down his judgement, Justice Blackburn acknowledged that although Yolngu law was a legitimate system of law, "the doctrine of communal native title contended for by the natives did not form, and never had formed, part of the law of any part of Australia. Such a doctrine has no place in a settled colony except under express statutory provisions."

1963 Petition text - Yolngu Matha

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.

1963 Petition text - English

To the honourable speaker and members of the House of Representatives in Parliament assembled.

The Humble Petition of the Undersigned Aboriginal people of Yirrkala being members of the Balamumum, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr people and Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, Magarrwanalinirri, 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 exised from the Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land.
  2. That the procedures of the excision of this land and the rate 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.

1968 - The naming of Nhulunbuy

The 1968 bark painting by Dundiwuy Wanambi shows the figure of Wuyal standing on the hill he named Nhulunbuy carrying his axe and wearing a madayin object around his neck. His shovel-nosed spear and woomera are beside him. A typed petition, signed by sixteen men and one woman, was attached to the back of the bark in which they asked that the town be named Nhulunbuy, the name of a nearby sacred hill.

This petition was successful, and the township is still known as Nhulunbuy today.

1988 - The Barunga Statement

The 1988 Barunga Statement, written on bark, called for self-determination, land rights, compensation and Indigenous rights. 

It was presented to then Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the first Barunga Festival by Galarrwuy Yunipingu and Wenton Rabuntja. Mr Hawke signed the statement and promised he would pursue a treaty by 1990.

That didn't eventuate, and Yothu Yindi's song 'Treaty' documents the disappointment.

Back in 1988
All those talking politicians
But promises can disappear
Just like writing in the sand

1988 Petition text

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.

1998 - Elcho Island and Yirrkala petitions

This bark petition was handed to Prime Minister John Howard in 1998 with the aim of starting a diplomatic dialogue between political leaders of the Yolngu people and the Australian Parliament and obtain respect for customary law.

However, unlike the 1963 bark petitions, the two Elcho Island and Yirrkala 1998 petitions did not meet the requirements needed to be accepted as petitions as it was presented to the Prime Minister and not the House of representatives.

Linguist, anthropologist, and author, Richard Trudgen, said that Mr Howard did not respect the document. “It seems that John Howard did not take it seriously and it got stored away in a place where the gift collection was kept. The petition was not even tabled in Parliament. The Elders/political leaders waited for years to receive some form of response but it never came.”

1998 Petition text

Letter to the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia on traditional Yolngu Law

We, the undersigned, are dalkarra and djirrikay (the political representatives and leaders) of our sovereign clan/nations comprising all the Yolngu (Aboriginal people) within this Miwatj region of North-East Arnhem Land.

We bring to you our diplomatic request
from: the Njarra' /traditional Parliaments of our clan/nation estates
to: the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

We request that you recognise:

  1. the Dhulkmu-mulka Bathi (Title Deeds) which establish the legal tenure for each of our traditional clan estates.
    Your Westminster system calls this Native Title.
  2. the jurisdiction of our Njarra' /Traditional Parliament in the same way as we recognise your Parliament and Westminster system of Government.
  3. both formally and legally recognise our Madayin system of law.
    Within our Madayin there are three different levels of Government that provide for the peace, order and good government of the people/citizens:
    i. Open or public ceremonies where all citizens may be present.
    ii. Semi-Public chambers of law where only certain parts of the legal procedures may be conducted in public;
    iii. Closed / restricted chambers of law which may only be attended by those political leaders who represent the citizens.

The colonisation of this land and the imposition of a foreign system of law has not prevented Yolngu from holding, maintaining and continuing to assent to our traditional system of law. This is our Common Law right which the High Court of Australia has partially recognised. As citizens our rights must be protected at law.

In 1967 the Commonwealth of Australia belatedly recognised our citizenship of this land, Australia. However, we were already citizens of this land, recognised by our Madayin.

In the face of many imposed obstacles and pressures we still continue to educate our children and future leaders, manage our estates, engage in economic and diplomatic exchanges between clans/nations, discipline offenders, care for our sick and elderly and practice hospitality to foreigers who live on or visit our yirralka (estates).

There must be dialogue between the two systems of law because Yolngu law, like your law, is based on the key principles of mawaya (peace and justice), dhapirrk (consistency between different levels of law) and wana-lupthun (the assent of the rom-watanju walal/citizens, to those laws).

We extend to you, the Honourable Leaders of the Commonwealth of Australia, our invitation to come to a meeting where we can discuss these issues in much greater depth so that together we can forge a partnrship of co-operation and dialogue based on mutual trust and respect for each other's law. Without this recognition we will live in perpetual dependence in this land that is ours by birthright, silenced and oppressed by a foreign system of law.

Presented to the Prime Minister, the Hon. John Howard MHR, at Yirrkala on 27 February 1998 on behalf of the following clan/nations of the Miwatj region:

Rirratjinju, Gumatj, Galpu, Madarrpa, Djapu, Manjgalili, Marrakulu, Munyuku, Dhalamju, Dhudi-Djapu, Wangurri, Datiwuy, Njaymil, Djambarrpuymju, Warramiri, Goulumala, Ritharrmju, Marranju, Dhapuynju, Gupapuynju, Djarrwark.

2008 Petition

After the Landmark Apology to the Stolen Generations of Australia was delivered by the Australian Parliment, a bark petition was presented to the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd by Galarrwuy Yunupingu as a part of a bungul in Arnhem Land. It requested full recognition of Indigenous peoples rights in the Australian Constitution, asking to given safe and healthy lives to Indigenous Australians. It was the first time that a Prime Minister and their federal cabinet had met in an Indigenous community.

Like the 1998 petition, as it was presented to the Prime Minister as head of the Government and not to the House of Representatives, it was not presented as an official petition to the House.

2008 Petition text - English

We, the united clans of East Arnhem land, through our most senior delak, do humbly petition you, the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, in your capacity as the first amongst equals in the Australian Parliament, and as the chief adviser to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, to secure within the Australian Constitution the recognition and protection of our full and complete right to:

  • Our way of life in all its diversity;
  • Our property, being the lands and waters of East Arnhem land;
  • Economic independence, through the proper use of the riches of our land and waters in all their abundance and wealth;
  • Control of our lives and responsibility for our children's future.

These rights are self-evident.

These rights are fundamental to our place within the Australian nation.

We ask for your leadership to have the Commonwealth Parliament start the process of recognition of these rights through serious constitutional reform.

2008 Petition text - Yolngu Matha

Nhanaburru, wangkanmala bapurru dhimirrunguru, arnhemland, nganaburrungu ngurrngu delak mala, nganthun yukurra nhuna 26th Prime Minister Australia-wu. Nhukala ganydjarr'yu nhunhi nhe ngurrungu walalangu malangura nhuma walala rrambangi, Australian Parliament-ngura, ga ngurrungu Dharuk-mirri nhangu Garraywu Queen Elizabeth-gu, yurru nhandarryun-marama djinawa-lili Australian-dhu luku-wu rom-dhu yurru dharangan ga galmuma nganapurrungu dhangang ga bukmak nha-mala nhanapurrungu:

  • Nhanapurrungu walnga-mirri dhukarry ngudhudal-yana.
  • Nhanapurrungu, wanga, wanga-ngaraka ga nguy gapu, ngunhi dhimirrunguru, arnhemland.
  • Dharrima gungnharra, warkthunara, lukunydja rrupiya-yu wanga-wuy-ga gapu-wuy ga dhangangnha-yana ga lukunydjana yana.
  • Dharray walnga-wuy ga djaka yurru nhanapurrung-gala-nguwu djamarrkuli-wu yalalangu-wu.

Dhuwalanydja rom dhuwalana bilina.

Dhuwalanydja rom wawungu wanga-wuy ngandarryunmarama Australian-gala bapurrulili.

Nganapurru marrliliyama nhukula ngurru-warryun-narayngu, marr yurru Commonwealth Parliament ngurru warrwun ga dharangan dhuwala rom ga marryuwak gumana dhayutakumana lukunydja rom.