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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1988 - The Barunga Statement
by Mark McKenna and James Holman
The Barunga Statement (Parliament of Australia).

O n 12 June 1988, as part of the Bicentennial celebrations, Prime Minister Bob Hawke attended the Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory. There, on behalf of the Northern and Central Land councils, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Yolngu-Gumatj clan, presented Hawke with the Barunga Statement.

Yunupingu told the crowd that the Barunga Statement would serve as a reminder to Hawke and any other government in the future that intended to change the Constitution that ‘Aboriginal people will always be in front of their policy-making and decision-making.’ ‘We are people prior to this country,’ he said forcefully.

The Barunga Statement—created by Galarrwuy Yunupingu as chair of the Northern Land Council, and Arrente elder Wenten Rubuntja as chair of the Central Land Council, with the support of Pat Dodson—was gifted to the Commonwealth by the elders of central and northern Australia. The English text is effectively a translation of the striking images that surround the statement, painted by nine artists from both regions. The text and images ‘cannot be differentiated’ because the paintings are not ornamental: they are existential, they are the signature of the ancestors, they are Country, they are the Barunga Statement.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke receives the Barunga statement from Galarrwuy Yunupingu in 1988 (Sydney Morning Herald).
The Barunga Statement seemed to speak for all Aboriginal people. It demanded ‘self-determination’, as well as ‘compensation’ for loss of lands, recognition of ‘customary laws,’ the return of ancestral remains, and the protection of sacred sites and cultural knowledge. It also called on the Commonwealth parliament to pass legislation that would provide for a ‘national elected Aboriginal and Islander organisation to oversee Aboriginal and Islander affairs’ and ‘a national system of land rights.’ Its final demand—a treaty or ‘compact’ that would recognise the ‘prior ownership, continued occupation, [and] sovereignty’ of Indigenous Australians—would become etched in popular memory.

Hawke vowed that his government would deliver a treaty within two years, but his promise proved to be empty. On 20 December 1991, only hours before Paul Keating replaced him as prime minister, Hawke presided over the hanging of the Barunga Statement in Parliament House, where it remains today, a constant reminder of unfinished business.

On 14 July 2023, Djambawa Marawili, one of the artists who contributed to the Barunga Statement, reflected on its national significance.

I was involved in the Barunga Statement from when I first became leader of my clan—Yolngu Yithuwa Madarrpa. So too were my family. I was young. I travelled along the north coast and to the offshore islands. I met Aboriginal people, each with their own songlines, law, and culture, living on their own countries. These travels opened my eyes. I saw the need for self-management and self-sufficiency in our homelands; the need to determine our communities’ affairs.

Barunga was to be given to the Federal government. We knew we wanted to take the message to the parliament in Canberra; not only for Yolngu, but for all the people in Arnhem Land, and along the coast and on the islands, and for Aboriginal people everywhere.

The Barunga Statement is important because it was the first communication between Indigenous people and Balanda (white people). We’re all living together in Australia. Barunga was a call for Yolngu voices to be heard and the need to reconcile with Balanda.

The statement was written to be heard for generations to come. It was meant for everybody, for Aboriginal communities, and the entire nation—black and white. And it’s still there today, on the wall in Parliament House. I’ve seen it there. I wonder what the parliament think today. How do they see it? It’s meaningful to me. The stories are there to see. But do the politicians and the people understand what the Barunga Statement was calling for?

Today, I’m not comfortable unless we reflect on the Barunga Statement and learn from it. I think about it all the time. We need to go back and understand the journey of the Barunga Statement, and the long history of our struggle.

We knew where we were going. We were making a pathway for all Australians to walk together for generations to come—to open our minds, our blood, and our soul. But the treaty didn’t happen. Now, we’re trying again in a different way.

Recognising Aboriginal people in Australia’s Constitution, and enshrining a Voice to parliament, will not only benefit Aboriginal people. It will benefit all Australians.

*Djambawa Marawili is the leader of the Yolngu Yithuwa Madarrpa clan in Bäniyala, a Yolngu homeland at Blue Mud Bay, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, East Arnhem Land.


left arrow 1988: Bicentenary Protest
1992: Mabo v. Queensland right arrow