In 1963, 9 Yolngu men and 3 Yolngu women signed the Yirrkala Bark Petitions and sent them to Parliament in Canberra. The signatories represented the local clans of both the Dhuwa and Yirritja moeties, whose country surrounded the proposed Nabalco bauxite mine.
The petitions are the first formal assertation of Indigenous land rights (National Museum Australia, 'Yirrkala Bark Petitions'). They are also the first traditional documents recognised by the Commonwealth Parliament, meaning the first recognition of Indigenous people in Australian Law (Museum of Australian Democracy, 'Yirkala bark petitions 1963 (cth)').
The Yirkala Bark Petitions
Yolngu made 4 copies of the Petitions. Two were sent to the House of Representatives, one to Stan Davey (lifelong land rights activist) and one to Gordon Bryant (ALP Politician and supporter of land rights) (National Museum Australia, 'Yirrkala Bark Petitions'). The text was in both English and Gupapuyngu/Gumatj, printed on paper and glued to bark. The bark painting, contributed to by both signatories and other Yolngu leaders and artists, reflects Yolngu relation to their land and law (Museum of Australian Democracy, 'Yirkala bark petitions 1963 (cth)'). Yolngu believed that “[t]he only way we can express ourselves and our feelings was through this bark painting” (Tetlow, 2013).
It is significant that the signatories were all relatively young, ranging from 17 and 34 years old. The Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, used this point to reject the authority of the Petitions because “only one of the signatories occupies any sort of position which might entitle him to speak on behalf of one of the tribal groups” (Cth House of Representatives Hansard, 1963). To Yolngu, however, the youth of the signatories symbolised a “new generation” where Aboriginal rights are recognised (Tetlow, 2013).
The signatories (in order of signing) are:
Milirrpum (Milirrpum Marika; 1923-1983)
Milirrpum is the third oldest brother of the five Marika brothers from the Rirratjingu tribe. The other brothers (oldest to youngest) were Mawalan 1, Mathaman, Milirrpum, ‘Roy’ Dadaynga, and Wandjuk Djuwakan. These brothers lead the 13 clans in creating the Yirrkala Bark Petitions (Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations).
When the Bark Petitions failed, Milirrpum brought the question to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141 (the Gove Land Rights Case). The case failed because the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ prevented Justice Blackburn from recognising traditional rights (Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations).
Milirrpum was also a talented artist, although not as prolific as Malawan 1 or Mathaman. His work is represented in several Australian public collections. Milirrpum was also an important ceremonial and community member in Yirrkala (National Museum Australia, 'The Marika family').
Djalalingba (Djalalingba Yunupingu, aka Jalalingba; 1936)
Djalalingba was a Gumatj man. He published several academic works, including ‘Ganbulapula: the story of the land around the old Dhupuma College’ and ‘Indigenous initiatives for co-management of Miyapunu/Sea Turtle’. He was active in voicing Yolngu concerns by writing to Edgar Wells, Superintendent of Yirrkala at the time (Edgar Wells, 1982).
Daymbalipu (Daymbalipu Mununggurr; 1934-1996)
Daymbalipu was a leader of the Djapu clan. He was an outstanding teacher and advocate of bilingual education (Austlit, 'Daymbalipu Mununggurr'). A long-time member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies (AIATSIS), he was “the first Yolngu teacher to have his own classroom, and a major figure in the development of bilingual education in Australia” (AIATSIS, 'Media Release'). In the 1970s, Daymbalipu contributed to the recording and preservation of Yolngu ceremonies. He was also among the plaintiffs in the Gove Land Rights Case (AIATSIS, 'Media Release').
Daymbalipu’s father was Wonggu Mununggurr. With the help of Donald Thompson (anthropologist), Wonggu organised the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit of the Australian Army, which consisted of 50 Yolngu men ready to resist imminent Japanese Invasion. Wonggu was a senior elder at the time of the Caledon Bay crisis between 1932-1934 (Stubs, 2016).
Dhayila (Dhayila Mununggurr, aka Djayila; 1934-unknown)
Dhayila was a Djapu man (Eggerking, 2013).
Dundiwuy (Dundiwuy Wanambi; 1936-1996)
Dundiwuy was a Marrakulu man. He was a renowned artist and the subject of the 1995 documentary ‘Conversations with Dandiwuy Wanambi’ (Dunlop, 1995). Dundiwuy painted the major ancestral spirit Wuyal on the Petitions, asking that the government retain the original name of Nhumbuluy for the mining town of Gove (Austlit, 'Dundiwuy Wanambi).
Dhuygala (Dhuygala Mununggurr aka Dhunggala; 1940-unkown)
Dhuygala was a Djapu man. He was present when Kevin Rudd spoke at the 50th anniversary of the Petitions along with Wali Wunungmurra and Manunu Wunungmurra (Rudd, 2013).
Raiyin was a Gumatj man (Eggerking, 2013).
Manunu (Manunu Mununggurr; 1942-unknown)
Manunu was a Dhalwangu woman. She was a health care worker in the Yirrkala Health Centre and visited Melbourne in 1978 for two weeks to learn at the invitation of Sr Cynthia Green: “it was very, very cold” (Mununggurr, 2019).
She was also a member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and addressed the government on the 1976 Reeves report on the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 1999).
Larrakan (Larrakan Mununggirritj; 1939-unknown)
Larrakan was a Gumatj woman (Austlit, 'Larrakan Mununggirritj').
Wulanybuma (Wally Wulanybuma; 1945-unknown)
Wulanybuma was a Dhalwangu man (Eggerking, 2013). He played a part in the Living Knowledge Project, a three year Australian Research Council project to find the most effective ways of incorporating Indigenous knowledge in the NSW secondary school science curricula. He was also involved in the Yirrkala Community Education Centre (Living Knowledge, 'About').
In 1971, Wulanybuma , together with Daymbalipu Mununggurr and Roy Dadaynga Marika, travelled to Canberra to present Prime Minister William McMahon with a Statement in Gupapunyngu Language arguing that the result of the Gove Land Rights Case was wrong, and that “the law must be changed” (National Museum of Australia, '1971 Statement in Gupapunyngu Language').
Wawunymarra (aka Wali Wunnunmurra; 1945-2015)
Wawunymarra was a senior elder from the Dhalwangu Clan of Northeast Arnhem Land. Born and educated in Yirrkala, he studied briefly in Brisbane before returning home (Tetlow, 2013). Wawunymarra played a pivotal role in the Gove Land Rights Case as an interpreter (Rapana, 2015).
He was the youngest signatory at the age of 17, and poignantly retold in an interview how he had felt pressure from the old people to sign because they saw him as an “up and coming leader for the people” (Tetlow, 2013).
Wawunymarra believed that land and culture underpinned the existence and survival of Aboriginal people. He hoped to see recognition of Aboriginal people and their rights in Australia’s constitution (Rapana, 2015).
Nyabilingu (Nyabilingu Maymuru; 1937-unknown)
Nyabilingu was a Manggalili woman (Austlit, 'Nyabilingu Maymuru').