The Yolngu Matha text of the 1963 Yirrkala bark petitions – the 50th anniversary of which will be the focus of the 2013 NAIDOC week, reads:

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 dhunapawa.

1. Dhuwala yulnu mala galki, 500 nhina ga dhiyala wanganura. Dhuwala wanga Arnhem Land yurru djaw’yunna naburrungala.

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2. Dhuwala wanga djaw’yunna ga nhaltjana yurru yulnunundja dhiyala wanga nura nhaltjanna dhu dharrpanna yulnu walandja yakana lakarama madayangumuna.

3. Dhuwala nunhi Welfare Officers ga Government bungawa lakarama yulnuwa malanuwa nhaltjarra nhuma gana wanganaminha yaka nula napurrungu lakarama, walala yaka lakarama, walala yaka lakarama Governmentgala nunhala Canberra nhaltjanna napurru ga guyana yulnuyu 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 yulnuwalandja malawala, ga dharrpalnha dhuwala bala yulnuwuyndja nhinanharawu Melville Baythurru wanga balandayu djaw’yun nyumukunin.

6. Dhuwala yulnundja 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 wangarr’yu.*

In a  small display case in a dimly lit room in Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra – cheek by jowl with a facsimile of the Magna Carta and Australia’s Constitution – sit three panels of richly painted stringy-bark.

It is significant that these documents, all of which inform contemporary law in this country, can be found within metres of each other. The Magna Carta and The Australian Constitution are fundamental elements of European law in this country. Few Australians know of the content, importance and continuing relevance of the Magna Carta and our Constitution and even fewer know, let alone realise the significance of, these three small pieces of bark, each with ancestral images wrapped around a sheet of yellowing paper with faint text.

The first two of these petitions were presented to the Commonwealth Parliament 50 years ago in August 1963 and represent the first documents received by that parliament that recognised the existence – but not the primacy – of Aboriginal law and claims to ownership of their ancestral lands.

The petitions were unsuccessful – the first was the subject of an extraordinary technical challenge by then Territories Minister Paul Hasluck – but that did not deter the Yolngu traditional owners, who in December 1968 issued writs in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory against the Nabalco Corporation, which had secured a bauxite mining lease from the Federal Government. In that claim the Yolngu claimed unextinguished communal native title to their lands.

In 1971 Justice Blackburn dismissed the Yolngu claim but importantly did acknowledge for the first time in an Australian higher court the existence of a system of Aboriginal law. In his judgement Justice Blackburn used the following words that have rung down through the years.

If ever there was government by law rather than government by man then this is it.

By 1971 the rest of the country had taken note of the Yolngu persistence for justice and their clamour for constitutional change, which had already resulted in the amendment of the Australian Constitution in 1967 to give the Federal Government a clear mandate to implement policies to benefit Aboriginal people.

In 1976 the Commonwealth recognised Aboriginal land rights over some land the Northern Territory. Terra nullius, the odious philosophical basis of the non-Aboriginal invasion and occupation of Australia, was finally despatched to the dustbin of history by the High Court in Mabo’s Case in 1992.

But in 1963 Yirrkala and north-east Arnhem Land were in turmoil. It is important to remember – and how quickly we forget – that in 1963 the Aboriginal people of Arnhem land were subject to the provisions of the Welfare Ordinance 1953, which under Hasluck’s authorship enshrined the assimilationist and paternalistic approach that had characterised much of government approaches to Aboriginal issues for many decades.

And the typewriter?

Wandjuk Marika was the son of revered Yolngu elder Mawalan and, as reported by Edgar Wells in his “Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land 1962-1963“, Wandjuk had access to an old typewriter which he used for formal communications to Mission staff and the Australian Government.

Space prohibits a full transcript of the extracts from the remarkable collection of Wandjuk’s letters reported by Wells but what follows are excerpts that I hope give some indication of the nature of Yolngu concerns.

In February 1963 Wells received the following letter from Mawalan in response to the announcement by Prime Minister Robert Menzies of the granting of leases to mine bauxite on the Gove peninsula.

This is the word from Mawalan. Alright Mr Wells we thought Yulnu this Wana.

Yirrkala belong to Yulnu.

Right out in the bush they will have another. To think we like to be working with the M. company?

But we don’t want, because we want to get some bush yam. If you can give us some good room for the bauxite because Melville Bay is the good place.

Because we are all yindi jal and also we want part Wirrwa. Bapa Mr. Wells because there is very import place we dont to be pushing us we were keeping on stay here.

That all my words to Father Rev Wells and Brother Mr. Tiffin.

From Mawalan writing by Jalalingba

In mid-March 1963 Wells received the following note from Wandjuk.

16th March 1963
This is our countrys what we are talking about the Caledon Bay and Trial Bay. And Gindall Bay. And Bule Mud Bay.

Because we have sacred places around that places … That why Mawalan and Munguyiwand Djirriny, Birrikidji, Mataman, Muwarra, Mawa, Wandjunu, Bulambi, Manirri, Nannin, Yama, Djuwalai, and one is very good man indeed.

This is there thinking and words to you all only for the Bay and for the Mission garden we are thinking.

We are working very hard with our own hand only for this mission garden. That why all the old people put their thought on this letter. That all the end of their thought from old men to you all my friends which is the writing of —

G. Wandjuk

And.

This is our meeting from last night. We choose 4 people for the top camp is Jirriny and Narridjin. Jirrinyi is head man for the top camp and Narradjin for the people.

So all the people were very happy last night for this 4 people. You know why we put Wandjuk No. 2 for Mawalan because Wandjuk know more than others here that why we put him also you know him also?

What you think Mr Welles and Mr D. S. Tuffin.

This is the laws we put for ever.

So Wandjuk well — put up a notice near the old Church and near the beach and one Cape Arnhem and one for Melville bay and one for Bremer Island.

Wirra is good places for hunting and get some Ragai.

And that is all the words for you from

Mawalan.

Because the Mission staff – Messrs Wells and Tuffin – could not answer these questions, the Yolngu then sent a letter to Mr Giese, the boss of Welfare (and hence the man control over most aspects of the life of each Yolngu person) and to Mr. Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories and chief prosecutor of the government’s assimilation policy.

To Mr. H. E. Giese; Welfare Branch

Mr Giese who looking after for all the Aborigines in the N.T. We want to help us belong to this country Yirrkala, please Mr. Giese?

Because the Mining company will be here soon. All the Aborigines in Yirrkala are wondering about this country. What are we going to do Mr. Giese?

You think us a funny? or you think us good people.

You going to help us Mr. Giese? or no.

These maining people will chasing us to other places, we don’t like that. Please sir?

We like Yirrkala best. This is a word for all the people in Yirrkala. We want Yirrk. open country. So we may go hunting for most. We don’t like the maining company will come close to the Mission area, please Mr. Giese.

Our children are in school. They will grow up belong to this country. They may us what they were learned in school. They will help the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers or their relations about the white mans laws, the white mans ways to living, white mans ways to eat. White man way to cook and wash our plates. This time we don’t understand about the white mans ways yet.

We going to ask you for this country Yirrkala. We dont like to come near to the Mission.

If the maining people like to use this country, alright they will stay away from the Mission, Mr. Giese? This is the word from Narrijin and all the Aborigines ain Yirrkala Mission, says this.

Thank you Mr. Giese, Goodbye.

The Yolngu pleadings fell – largely – on deaf ears and blind eyes.

In August 1963, after the prompt from parliamentarian Kim Beazley Snr. following a visit to Yirrkala in May 1963 that the Yolngu should “make a bark petition“, two petitions on bark were sent to Canberra, again with text typed in Wandjuk’s old typewriter.

As Wells notes at page 81 of Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land the effect of the Petitions on arrival in Canberra was immediate and dramatic:

The petition carried with it the flame of its own success and notice was served on the Commonwealth Government and on interested political leaders that there was a serious discontent amongst the Aborigines of Australia’s Arnhem Land area concerning a lack of communication with them over the transfer of land within an Aboriginal Reserve to mining interests whose representatives had not consulted with the local Aborigines and offered no compensation for loss of land traditionally considered to be under Aboriginal control.

The English language wording of the two 1963 petitions – also written on Wandjuk’s old typewriter – is identical.

The Humble Petition of the Undersigned aboriginal people of Yirrkala, being members of the Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr people and Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, MagarrwanaImirri, 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 excised from the Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land.

2. That the procedures of the excision of this land and the fate 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.

I doubt that Wandjuk’s old typewriter has survived but if it has, it deserves its own special place in our history.

How significant are the Bark Petitions?

Northern Land Council Chairman Wali Wunungmurra, who signed the petitions as a 17 year-old, was last week asked by the ABC’s 7.30 program if land rights as we know them today would exist without the petitions.

His response points to the importance of these pieces of bark, ochre and paper.

No, I don’t think so … what had happened in 1963 was a totally different thing.

We had to change the method as to how we would approach the Commonwealth Government.

And we did it by the bark petitions.

And it was through that approach that we kept the attention of the Parliament House.

It was then … from then on, 1963, it followed on until we got the Land Rights.

* You can read the full text, in English and Yolngu Matha, of the 1963 Bark Petitions here. You can see and read the 1968 petition here.

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