The Yolngu people of Yirrkala had become increasingly disturbed by the activities of the mining companies. Following the excision of land from the reserve, mission superintendent Rev Edgar Wells called a public meeting at Yirrkala and explained the excision to the Aborigines.3 In August 1998 Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM, then Chairman of the Northern Land Council, whose father was one of the signatories to the bark petitions, recalled these events in the third Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture. He spoke of ‘the great pain of my father when the bauxite mine was imposed on our traditional country against the will of the Yolngu people.’
I suppose I was 16 when the news travelled urgently throughout Yirrkala that the sacred banyan tree at Nhulunbuy was going to be damaged by the mining company. There was a rippling anger that shot through the old people … It was only at that moment that we understood that in the eyes of the Balanda law we were no-one. Our ancient laws and our social systems were invisible to the legal and political system which had total power over our lives.
Yunupingu said that:
Despite the fact we were still living our traditional lives, hunting and fishing on our estates, performing the ceremonies for the land, and following the rules of kinship, we had no standing either as citizens of Australia, or as a people with our own law. We did not exist in Balanda law.4
In April 1963 the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, made a Ministerial Statement in the House on the Welfare of the Aborigines of Gove Peninsula, responding to what he said was misleading information being circulated about the effect of the granting of the mining leases. In his statement Mr Hasluck outlined the steps that had been taken to protect the interests of the Aborigines of East Arnhem Land.
He stated that in the negotiations of the leases and agreements for mining development the government had relied on the Director of Welfare and his officers in the Northern Territory to advise on what conditions should be imposed to serve the interests of the Aborigines. He said that the government had also been in close consultation with mission authorities, who had agreed to a statement of measures to safeguard the interests of the Aborigines. Notably, especially in the context of the creation of the petitions later that year, there was no direct consultation between the government and the Aborigines themselves.
In concluding his statement Mr Hasluck pointed out that the creation of an Aboriginal reserve in 1931 ‘did not create any legal title either to the land or resources of that reserve for those living on it’.5 In an unusual step, the Member for Fremantle, Kim Beazley senior, moved an amendment to Mr Hasluck’s motion that the Ministerial Statement be printed. Included in the terms of the amendment was the proposition that ‘An aboriginal title to the land of aboriginal reserves should be created in the Northern Territory’.6
Debating the motion in the House of Representatives on 23 May 1963 Mr Beazley stated that it was the view of the Opposition that there should be a ‘revolutionary approach to the position of aborigines in relation to reserves’ and that it was time that Parliament ‘faced the question of whether there was any aboriginal entitlement to land’.7 The House was dissolved for the 1963 election without the questions on the amendment and the motion being put.
Following the granting of the leases early in 1963 and the excision of part of the reserve, a group of Yolngu leaders decided to fight what they saw as the injustice of these decisions.
In July two Opposition MPs, Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley, visited Yirrkala and heard from the Yolngu of their dismay at the lack of consultation with them about the decisions in relation to the granting of mining leases and the excision of land from the reserve. In a report for the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement on their visit, Mr Bryant and Mr Beazley stated that, ‘the right of the Aborigines to some form of collective ownership is unchallengeable … this land belongs to the Aboriginal people by right of occupancy from time immemorial … The Government has acted with complete insensitivity to the economics and social structure of the community.’8
Rev Edgar Wells, the mission superintendent, later described how one morning during their visit he found the two MPs in the new mission church, admiring the freshly painted bark art boards which had been created specifically for the church. It was this that prompted Mr Beazley to advise the community to make a bark petition. He gave them the wording of the prayer required for a petition to be in order, so that it could be presented in the House. The petitions were typed on paper in English and Gumatj and glued to stringybark sheets with surrounding bark paintings of symbolic designs proclaiming Yolngu law and the relationship of the people to the land.9
In the words of Galarrwuy Yunupingu:
Think about what they did for a moment. Using traditional methods, they prepared a document which expressed the most important aspects of Yolngu law and society. The thirteen clans came together, negotiated what should be included, and set about preparing this painting which was unique and unprecedented. It could be likened to the Magna Carta of Balanda law because it was the first time Yolngu had ever set our law down for others to see.10
On 14 August two petitions were presented to the House, one by Mr Nelson, the Member for the Northern Territory, and one by Mr Wentworth, the Member for Mackellar. According to Rev Wells, five petitions were to be prepared.11 It is not clear why the other three were not presented; one is now in the possession of the National Museum of Australia and the fate of the other two is unknown. The petitions stated, in part:
[T]he land in question has been hunting and food-gathering for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial; we were all born here. [P]laces sacred to the Yirrkala people as well as vital to their livelihood are in the excised land, especially Melville Bay. [T]he 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 Larrakia tribe will overtake them.
The next day the Melbourne Age reported:
The strangest petition yet received by the House of Representatives – written in the aboriginal language on a length of stringy bark – was presented to the House today. It began – ‘Bukudjuini gonga yuru napurrunha yirrakilli’ Which means – ‘The humble petition of the undersigned people of Yirrkala’.12
According to The Age the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Mr Turner, said that it was the first time such a petition had been presented to the Parliament.
In Question Time on 20 August a government backbencher, Richard Cleaver, asked the Minister for Territories whether he had been ‘able to establish the status of the natives who appended their signature’ to the petitions presented on 14 August.13 While stating that he was ‘not questioning in any way the propriety of the presentation of this petition, nor the right of the people who signed it to do so,’ Mr Hasluck said that only six of thirteen tribal groups were represented by the signatories and that only one of them occupied a position which entitled him to speak on behalf of one of the groups. Mr Hasluck concluded that ‘one could not regard this petition as having been signed by twelve persons who were in a position to speak on behalf of the whole of the people of Yirrkala.’14
However, according to Edgar Wells, following the dedication of the new church, including the bark artwork:
As far as the local Aboriginal people understood these things, a form of religious sanction now blessed their work; that this sanction was extended to the protection of their ancestral land holdings which housed the original totemic forms and symbols of their traditional associations they had no doubt whatsoever. The young people in Aboriginal society joined hands with the traditional elders in this particular frame of reference; thus, those who were able to write their names could quite properly represent the older, non-literate sections of the community.15
In response to the Minister’s comments Mr Bryant issued a statement in which he said that the Minister had taken ‘the unprecedented step of criticising a petition presented to the Parliament on behalf of the Aboriginal people of Yirrkala … No previous petitioners of the Parliament have ever been so peremptorily rebuked.’16
When they learnt of the Minister’s comments the people of Yirrkala created two new petitions, identical in wording to those presented on 14 August. Sent with these were three sheets containing the thumbprints of 31 elders of the various clans, indicating the support of the entire Yirrkala community for the petitions. The two petitions were presented on 28 August, one by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Calwell, and one by Mr Beazley.17