• Members of the Gumatj clan perform bunggul (ceremonial dancing) at the Garma Festival in northeast Arnhem Land. Pics: Melanie Faith Dove/Yothu Yindi Foundation (Yothu Yindi Foundation)Source: Yothu Yindi Foundation
Senior Yolngu leaders say they've grown old waiting for the original sovereign leaders of the country to be recognised.
4 Aug 2018 - 5:23 PM  UPDATED 4 Aug 2018 - 5:25 PM

Djawa Yunupingu isn't afraid to speak hard truths with the conviction and authority that comes with wisdom.

As the Elder took the podium to deliver his words to the 20th Garma Festival, the crowd grew silent, sitting up straight in their chairs, displaying the respect his presence commanded. 

“We represent the ancient sovereignty that has been here in this country since time began,” he said.  

“Yet this sovereignty remains neglected by the sovereignty of a British King who simply flew a flag and claimed this land, our land, and claimed it for the British people.”

As a senior Gumatj clan leader and Deputy Chair of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, Mr Yunupingu has – in his time – grown weary waiting for governments to recognise he and his people’s rights.

“How long do we have to wait to get this right?,” he questioned.

“Another Committee? Another Hearing? Another Meeting? Another Prime Minister? Galarrwuy has dealt with eight prime ministers, if you can believe it.”

The decades of tireless work is clearly evident on his face, and in his words, as he speaks of his clan’s leader, Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

Yesterday, the clan leader told the federal government it must face up to the fact the colonisation of Australia was wrong and illegal. He also demanded more land be handed back to Traditional Owners.

"We are in the mood for asking the government these questions: do they really own the dugongs? Do they really own the turtles? Do they really own the birds?"

“These were terrible things that happened.”

Djawa Yunupingu said his brother, Galarrwuy, cried when he heard the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a signed declaration of hundreds of First Nations people, which called for a constitionally-enshrined voice to parliament, was rejected by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last year.

"So can we blame him for crying when the Uluru Statement is read to him and he knows it has been rejected?" Djawa Yunupingu said.

“This man has led us and kept us strong and safe and proud and done this not just for us, but for the nation,” he says.  

What is ‘truth-telling’ and why does it matter to Indigenous Australians?
How do you hold a commission into telling the truth?

Djawa says for too long Australia has not been united as a nation and that non-Indigenous people have enjoyed its ‘second sovereignty,’ at the expense of the Aboriginal people.  

“The truth is that many of you have lived your lives enjoying this second sovereignty while we, the First People, from all points of the southern sky, have suffered,” he says.

“This sovereignty was not enjoyed by my people and it was put upon us by force and by fear of the superior power of the British people.”

'How long do we have to wait to get this right?', powerful words at Garma key forum
The Garma 2018 Key Forum heard a powerful speech from Yothu Yindi Foundation Deputy chair, Djawa Yunupingu.

Opening the key forum, Djawa’s words spoke to the festival’s theme of ‘truth-telling’. He asked the crowd to think of First Nations peoples "who’ve had so much taken away from them".

“Please think about those people who for no fault of their own, but by the hands of the nation that has been built on their soil, find themselves without land, without language and without ceremony.”

During his address, Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership founder, Noel Pearson, echoed these sentiments.

Indigenous voice ‘a life and death matter’

A recognisable Garma keynote speaker, Mr Pearson opened a truth-telling panel saying spiritual Indigenous sovereignty is the "link through the soil to our ancestors" and "our ancestral bones to the land".

As one of the architects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, he said a constitutionally-enshrined voice to parliament is a "life or death matter".

“This is about existence of people in the future. This is about self determination – not of the individual but of the tribe,” he said.

Mr Pearson said Mr Turnbull’s decision to reject the calls for an Indigenous voice to parliament in the Constitution had "destroyed" people.

"We can't take the word of an ordinary person, we can't be intimidated, can't be told that the Australian people are so racist or redneck or opposed [to a referendum]," Mr Pearson said.

“We can’t be that weak, we can’t be intimidated.”  

However, Mr Pearson said the work of the Joint Select Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Recognition,  is promising.

Co-chaired by Liberal MP Julian Leeser and Labor Senator Pat Dodson, the committee has released an interim report which found support for an Indigenous voice to parliament.

'Overwhelming' support for Indigenous voice to parliament
The Joint Select Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Recognition has presented its interim report to the Parliament with a large majority of submissions supporting an Indigenous Voice to Parliament

Mr Pearson says the findings had  taken them "from a situation of desperate disappointment" to "a position of a real chance and real hope that we might get to the destination that we seek”.

“It’s not really a question anymore over 'whether' but 'how' [a voice to parliament will work.]," he said.

“I’ve always believed the Australian people will go with us once the question is put to them. The real uncertainty lay in whether the parliament and the political parties would allow the question to be put.”  

Mr Pearson said the Treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia was long overdue.

“At every important milestone in the last 200 plus years, we declined to treat with one another about the fundamental question of how ancient Australia survives within the new Australia.

“Will we be able to do it or at least commence the process in 2020? —The 250th anniversary of that troubling sea voyage up the east coast of Australia.”