The Yirrkala Bark Petitions
I would like to acknowledge the Darug people whose land I write on, particularly the Wattamattagal clan whose knowledge and care extend over Ryde and Hunters Hill area. I also pay my respects to all my fellow First Nations people reading this piece.
Our Songlines would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land we work and live. We acknowledge their ongoing spiritual connection to the land, water, skies and culture. We acknowledge their ongoing fight and resistance, and we pay our respects to all Elders past, present and emerging.
Did you know: Australia remains the only Commonwealth nation without a treaty with its First Nations peoples.
On the 14th of August 1963, the revolution towards national recognition of Indigenous land rights and human rights took centre stage in Australian politics when the Yirrkala Bark Petitions were presented to the Australian Parliament’s House of Representatives. The petitions were the first formal assertion of Indigenous native title, marking the start of the still ongoing battle for Indigenous people and our land. Sent by the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land from the Northern Territory, these bark petitions were the first traditional documents prepared by Indigenous Australians that were recognised by the Australian Parliament; an incredibly significant milestone given Indigenous people at the time were not recognised as citizens under the Constitution. There had been countless petitions from Indigenous people to the Australian government prior to the bark petitions, but what makes these petitions particularly unique is that they were the first to use traditional forms and combine bark painting with text typed onto paper. Yolngu law was proclaimed through the painted designs on the bark, depicting traditional relations to the land alongside typed text in both English and Gumatj languages.
Yirrkala Land and the Yolngu People
The Yolngu people are the traditional custodians of the beautiful Yirrkala land in Eastern Arnhem Land. Arnhem Land has a rich and vibrant history as Indigenous Australians have been protecting the land since millennia. The area holds deep significance for all Indigenous Australians being one of the largest Aboriginal owned reserves in Australia and unlike many other Indigenous sites, has been for the majority left untouched. Established in 1931, the Arnhem Land Reserve was created to protect the Yolngu people and the sacred ecosystem in which they lived and maintained. The reserve, like many others, were not managed by the Australian government, essentially giving semi-autonomy to Indigenous people. However, on the 13th of March 1963, the Government had removed more than 300 square kilometres from the reserve so bauxite could be mined.
Bauxite ore is a naturally occurring material that is highly valuable due to it being the world’s main source of aluminium and in 1952, large deposits of the ore were found in Melville Bay and the Gove Peninsula, just north of Yirrkala, by the Australian Aluminium Production Commission. The discovery prompted the Australian Government to give permission for changes to be made to the Mining Ordinance 1939-1960 by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. This had an incredibly significant flow-on effect for Indigenous people in the area, mostly because under the new changes, the Administrator of the Northern Territory was now able to grant mining rights to companies on Aboriginal reserves.
The discovery of the high quantity of bauxite and the new mining grants attracted international interest and in February of 1962, a Swiss company called Pechiney were granted authority to mine the bauxite. A year later Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that his government had approved plans for a mine to be built next to Yirrkala with a lease signed with the Gove Bauxite Corporation, a subsidiary of Pechiney. This lease removed 36,260 hectares of land from the Arnhem Land Reserve and granted it to the mine. Despite the reserve existing to protect Indigenous people and their ecosystems in the area, the Yolngu people were unaware of the development plans or even that the government had made it legal for their land to be removed from the reserve for it to be mined. In July 1963, as the work began without discussions with the Yolngu people, two Labour parliamentarians Kim Beazley (senior) and Gordon Bryant visited Reverend Edgar Wells, who was the Superintendent of the Yirrkala Methodist church mission. During this visit, Yolngu Elders and leaders expressed their disapproval of the lack of consultation with them about the mine and the secrecy of the Government’s dealings, making sure the parliamentarians heard their concerns about the impact mining would have on their land. Beazley suggested that the Yolngu people send a petition to parliament and that it should reflect the Yolngu culture getting Reverend Wells and his wife, Ann, to help draft it.
After the petition was created, four copies were sent out to various parties with the intent of getting as much support and awareness as possible. Two of the copies were sent to the House of Representatives, one to Gordon Bryant, and one to Stan Davey who was a well-known campaigner for Indigenous rights at the time. The petitions, written in two languages, English and Gumatj (a dialect under the Dhuwal language of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land), was printed on paper and glued to a piece of bark that depicted painted totems according to Yolngu tradition.
Nine men and three women signed the petition stating that approximately 500 people were residents of the land that was being removed from the reserve to be mined, which had been kept a secret from them. Not only did the petitions state the grave concerns the Yolngu people had about the implications mining has on the land but also declaring that the sacred sites in the area, including Melville Bay, were a vital part of their livelihoods and have used the area for hunting and gathering for thousands of years. The Yolngu people, like all Indigenous Australians, have an inextricable bond to their land since the dreaming and to be forcibly removed from that land just for it to be mined is deeply distressing. The petition asked the Federal Government to appoint a committee to ensure that the Yolngu peoples voices were heard and that no arrangements should be entered with any corporation that seeks to decimate their sacred land, their livelihoods and with it, their culture.
The two petitions that were sent to the House of Representatives requesting an inquiry were presented by Jock Nelson, Member for the Northern Territory, on the 14th of August 1963 and then again on the 28th of August by Arthur Calwell, the leader of the Opposition. Following the presentation of the petitions to parliament the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aboriginies (sic), Arnhem Land Reserve was established. The committee would travel to Darwin in the Northern Territory and Yirrkala to hear testimonies and evidence from both Territory officials and the Yolngu people themselves. The report that was published by the committee following their visit recommended that the sacred sites of the Yirrkala area be protected with compensation for the loss of livelihood be paid. Whilst the report did not mention shutting down the mine and giving the land back to the rightful custodians, it recommended that another ongoing committee monitor the mining project.
The Supreme Court Case
Despite the Committee recognising the rights of the Yolngu people and the ramifications of mining their land, the appeals from the Yolngu to cease mining operations were ignored by the government. In fact, not only did not cease mining, but they also increased it. In 1964 Swiss Aluminium and CSR Limited formed a joint mining company called Nabalco who, four years later in 1968, was granted permission to build a bauxite mine and treatment plant. Growing tiresome of the repetitive setbacks and ignored appeals from the government, the Yolngu people decided to launch legal action against the Nabalco mining operation in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in 1968. The case, Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd was the first-ever native title litigation in Australian history, illustrating the lengths Indigenous people will fight to protect their land.
In 1971, Justice Richard Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants, recognising that they had indeed been living on the land for tens of thousands of years but any rights they had before colonisation had been rendered invalid by the Crown. A major part of this was the fact that the entire Australian legal system had been built around the concept of terra nullius; the land belonging to no one. To Justice Blackburn, to refute the concept is to refute the entire Australian legal system. As a result, Nabalco continued its operations despite the concerns of the wellbeing and livelihoods of the Yolngu.
One positive outcome from this case was that now the claims of the Yolngu and the issues that Indigenous people face throughout Australia was now widely known across the country. The apparent inability of the law to find justice for the Yolngu people who had now been turned away from both the Parliament and the courts sparked a national protest.
The Legacy of the Bark Petitions
The Yirrkala Bark Petitions are extremely significant as they form a key part of the persistent claim for constitutional change and recognition which led to the amendment of the Australian Constitution (S.51, S.127) in 1967, the statutory acknowledgement of Indigenous land rights by the Commonwealth in 1976, and the overturning of the concept of terra nullius by the High Court in 1992 in the Mabo Case. The Yolngu people did eventually receive Native Title to their land in 1978 under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, where it was established that 50 per cent of land in the Territory will be transferred to Indigenous ownership. Despite this being a massive win for the Yolngu people, and all Indigenous people in the territory, mining leases were excluded from the provisions of the Act and form the Yolngu native title claim.
Whilst the petitioners failed to achieve the change they sought after; they undeniably paved a way for the eventual recognition of Indigenous rights under the Commonwealth law. Without the persistence of the Yolngu people and their Bark petitions, cases like Wik and Mabo would not have been as successful.
The 1963 bark petitions were not the only bark petitions given to the government. The Yirrkala petitions inspired a plethora of other Indigenous people to use the bark petitions as a way to connect the Indigenous laws and customs with the federal law. Similar bark petitions have since been handed to Prime Minister John Howard in 1998 to start a diplomatic dialogue between leaders of the Yolngu people and the Parliament, which failed to meet the requirements needed to be accepted as petitions. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was also presented with a bark petition by the Bungul people in Arnhem Land after the Landmark Apology to the Stolen Generations of Australia asking for full recognition of Indigenous peoples rights in the Australian Constitution. This was the first time a Prime Minister and their federal cabinet met in an Indigenous community. This petition, like 1998, was not presented as an official petition to the House of Representatives and thus, invalid.
The Yirrkala Bark Petitions are a remarkable feat as a small group of Indigenous people from a remote area in North-Eastern Arnhem Land were able to fight against the government and help create long-lasting change. The law was and still is largely inaccessible to Indigenous people, so the strength and determination of these people to fight for their rights and their culture is to be celebrated. Without them opening up a space for us to fight, we would face a lot more challenges today.