In 2013 NAIDOC week celebrates the 50th anniversary of the presentation of two bark petitions to the Australian Parliament in August 1963.

Earlier that year the Methodist Church at the small north-east Arnhem Land town of Yirrkala hung two large paintings, one each from the moieties that provide the central structures to Yolngu society, in recognition of the importance and centrality of Yolngu religion and law.

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

Those paintings are now seen as the title deeds for the local clan estates.

The material in this post has been supplied by staff of the Buku Larrŋgay Mulka Centre at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land.

The Church Panels painted with the sacred designs belonging to the clans of the Yirrkala region in 1962-63 are located in the Mulka Museum at Buku Larrŋgay Mulka Centre.

Each panel is on masonite sheeting twelve feet tall and four feet wide. Yolngu society is divided into two moieties—Dhuwa and Yirritja—and so too are the Church Panels.

Eight artists from the Dhuwa moiety painted one and eight from the Yirritja moiety the other, documenting the creation stories of the Yolngu country.

The stories depicted in the panels do not cover the entire Yolngu area, but the sub-region associated with the eastern and southern clans including the two clans that had not moved to Yirrkala mission.

Thus paintings belonging to the Munyuku and Madarrpa clans, residing in mission settlements to the south, were produced by secondary rights-holders with the permission of those clan leaders. They are documented in This Their Dreaming: legends of the panels of Aboriginal art in the Yirrkala Church, by Ann E. Wells and E. James Wells (University of Queensland Press, 1971).

While the forms of the Church Panels reflected traditional Yolngu clan designs, the grand scale and composite structure of the paintings reflect the development by Yirrkala artists of a form of episodic narrative paintings that traced the journeys of ancestral beings across Yolngu land.

Yolngu artists decided how they would use their art in communicating with outsiders and how their sacred law could be presented in public contexts. The Yolngu had many motivations: two core reasons were a political assertion of Yolngu religion when it came time for the Methodist mission to build a new church, it was also the moment to introduce Yolngu religious iconography into a Christian context to demonstrate that Yolngu had their own sacred heritage; and a political assertion of Yolngu sovereignty in the Yirrkala area to emphasise Yolngu connection to land and land ownership. Yolngu were by then aware there was an interest in the bauxite reserves of the Gove Peninsula. Visitors to the church would be able to see the ways in which paintings mapped Yolngu rights in land and also apprehend the sense in which land was a sacred endowment.

The painting of the panels was the first significant “land rights” statement documenting Aboriginal custodianship of their country.

The Dhuwa and Yirritja panels were placed on either side of the church altar. In this way, fundamental features of the structure of Yolngu society were incorporated in the design of the church.

The placing in the context of the church also made the paintings public and was a step towards creating a public regional identity that reflected the underlying structure of the Yolngu polity. On February 18, 1963 Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that the government would grant leases to mine bauxite in land excised from the Arnhem Land reserve.

Yolngu at Yirrkala were unaware of any of the machinations that had gone on before-hand. It was later revealed that the Methodist Overseas Mission (the organisation then responsible for the management of Yirrkala) had supported the excision without consultation with any Yolngu leaders.

On March 13, 1963 the Government excised over 300 square kilometres of land from the Arnhem Land reserve for the bauxite mining lease. On May 9 1963, Reverend Edgar Wells, Superintendent Minister of the Yirrkala Methodist church mission held a public meeting, read and explained the Proclamation by the Governor-General excising land from the Arnhem Reserve for the mining lease and certain adjacent areas.

Elders from the region, notably Muŋgurrawuy Yunupingu (Gumatj Leader) and Mawalan Marika (Rirratjingu Leader) were incensed that they had not been consulted and were concerned that the mining would disturb, and restrict their access to, sacred sites.


June 23 1963: Opening and dedication of the Methodist church at Yirrkala.

July 16 1963: Labor parliamentarians Gordon Bryant and Kym Beazley Snr of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement visit Yirrkala (refer The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement Report Yirrkala and Bauxite Deposit). During that visit, Yolŋu leaders made plain their objection to the lack of consultation and secrecy of the Government’s agreement with Nabalco, and their concern about the impact of mining on the land unless their voices were heard.
After viewing the church panels in the then new church, Beazley was inspired to recommend to the Yolngu clan leaders to make a bark petition to state their grievances and to request “a Committee, accompanied by competent interpreters, to hear the views of the people of Yirrkala before permitting the excision of this land“.
Thus the Church panels were the forerunners of the famous Yirrkala Bark Petition sent to Canberra in 1963, and a prelude to Milirrpum vs. Nabalco, in which the Yolngu sued to forestall the mining.

The painting of the panels was the first significant “land rights” statement documenting Aboriginal custodianship of their country. When the panels were installed and unveiled in March, 1963, members of Parliament were present, having just concluded a series of hearings at Yirrkala on Yolŋu sentiments regarding the proposed mine.

Aside from local Yolngu leaders and members of the Yolngu community there was a range of important support provided at Yirrkala for the Yirrkala Bark Petition including by Ron Croxford Principal of Yirrkala School, his wife Margaret a teacher at Yirrkala School, Edgar Wells and MPs Bryant and Beazley.

August 14 1963: the first copy of Bark Petition was presented to the House of Representatives by Jock Nelson, Labor MHR for the Northern Territory. Paul Hasluck moved for rejection of the Petition.

August 28 1963: the second copy of the Bark Petition presented to House of Representatives by Arthur Calwell, Leader of the Opposition. The Federal Parliament established a Select Committee to follow-up etc.(accompanied by an additional three page document–a set of thumbprints from elders accompanied by their witnessed mark–known as ‘the Thumbprint Petition’).

October 29th 1963: report from the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve recommends protection of sacred sites, compensation and land grants. 1968: Petition to establish use of Yolngu name of the mining town Nhulunbuy of Gove was successful. 1971: Milurrpum vs. Nabalco (Gove Land Rights case)(NT Supreme Court) fails in seeking recognition of Yolngu land ownership.

Justice Blackburn finds “If ever there was government by law rather than government by man then this is it.”

c.1974: The removal of the Church Panels from behind the altar and stored without protection under the eaves of the church by the Methodist Minister.

1976: Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) enacted by Fraser Government.

1978: Church Panels rescued by Buku-Larrŋgay Arts.

1988: Gough Whitlam opens Mulka (museum within the art centre) and the community views the Church Panels for first time in over a decade.

1988: Barunga Statement created by Central Australian and Yolngu artists.

1991: Church Panels move into purpose built space at Mulka.

1992: Mabo decision overturns terra nullius.

1998: John Howard opens the Church Panels Annexe within the Mulka.

27 February 1998: The Church Panels were unveiled by Prime Minister The Hon. John Howard MHR. They were expressed by Yolŋu leaders as being “Title Deeds which establish the legal tenure for each of our traditional clan estates.

1998: Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre exhibits the Saltwater Collection of 80 bark paintings proving Yolngu sea ownership.

2008: Gawirrin Gumana vs NT Government (Blue Mud Bay case) recognises Yolngu sea rights.

Information sourced from:

Leon White OAM

Larrpan Ga Buduyurr – The Spear and the Cloud by Bernie Clark

Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land by Edgar Wells

Buku Larrŋgay Mulka Centre website

This post at Will Owen’s Aboriginal Art and Culture: An American Eye titled The Yirrkala Church Panels: Kinship, Country, and Numbers

The National Museum of Australia’s exhibition Yalangbara: Art of the Djang’kawu Art and Indigenous rights

The bite in the bark” article by Dr Howard Morphy

The home page of Lirrwi Tourism

The Australian Government page Bark petitions: Indigenous art and reform for the rights of Indigenous Australians

Documenting Democracy: Yirrkala Bark Petitions

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%