Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1963 - The Yirrkala Bark Petitions
by Clare Wright
Silas Roberts (left) and Dr G. Yunupingu with two of the Yirrkala bark petitions at Parliament House, Canberra, 1976 (National Museum of Australia).

T he frontier came late to north-east Arnhem Land. In 1931 the Federal government set aside 31,200 square miles (80,800 km2) as the Arnhem Land Reserve. Guided by the policy of protectionism, the reserve was designed to keep the Yolngu people of the region away from Darwin and white mercenaries away from an indigenous population whose traditional cultures had not been disturbed by 150 years of colonisation.

Centuries of negotiating peaceful trade agreements with Makassan fishermen from Sulawesi underscored the Yolngu people’s belief that they owned their land, sea, and sky Country, according to their own codes of legal property and cosmological propriety.

A Methodist mission was established at Yirrkala in 1935, welcomed by local clan leaders such as Mungurruway (Yunupingu), Mawalan (Marika), and Wonggu (Mununggurr) as a place of sanctuary from inter–tribal violence. All lay and ordinated members of the Methodist Overseas Mission working in Arnhem Land were required to learn to speak Yolngu Matha (language). A population of five hundred Yolngu people from thirteen different clan groups soon made their home at Yirrkala.

When bauxite was discovered on the Gove Peninsula in 1958, the Menzies government issued prospecting licences and by April 1963, a swathe of land had been excised from the reserve and mining leases were signed. When the superintendent of Yirrkala, Rev. Edgar Wells, learnt of the subterfuge in February 1963, he tapped out a frantic telegram alerting press and groups interested in Aboriginal rights to the ‘land grab.’

Two of the Yirrkala petitions.
Yirrkala artists, Dhuwa moiety, 14 August 1963.
Yirrkala artists, Yirritja moiety, 28 August 1963 (Parliament of Australia).
In July, Labor members of parliament Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley senior, sponsored by the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, travelled to Yirrkala to investigate the concerns of the Yolngu people that they had not been consulted in the appropriation of their land.

While visiting the newly consecrated church in Yirrkala, admiring the panels that had been painted by the clans’ most senior artists, Beazley conceived of the idea of a petition to parliament delivered as a bark painting. He provided the wording required of any petition to parliament. Daymbalipu (Mununggurr) worked with Margaret Croxford, the wife of a missionary, to translate the parliamentary language and a list of the Yolngu people’s fears for their Country and livelihoods. They did not protest against mining so much as the lack of consultation and compensation for the use of their land.

The petition was written in both English and the standardised Yolngu script developed by the missionary Beulah Lowe, and twelve copies were typed by the superintendent’s wife, Anne E. Wells. Twelve literate members of the community were selected by clan leaders to sign the petitions on behalf of the Yirrkala community. Four of the copies were glued to four bark paintings that provided a pictorial frame to the written petition. The paintings depicted plants, animals, and spirit ancestors from Yolngu clans; they were gifts as well as entreaties, a sharing of knowledge about the land and its ownership by and value to Yolngu people. The artists were Rrikin, Mutjipuy, Yangarriny, and Narritjin. Anne Wells wrapped the four ‘bark petitions’ and addressed them to the offices of four politicians: Prime Minister Robert Menzies, Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell, Gordon Bryant, and Kim Beazley.

On 14 August, one of the petitions was presented to the House of Representatives by Labor member for the Northern Territory, Jock Nelson. A few days later, Paul Hasluck, the minister for territories, rejected the authority of the petition on the basis that the signatories included young people and three women. He implied that they were acting as the puppets of radicals from the southern states. In Yirrkala, Wandjuk (Marika) responded by organising a series of ‘thumbprint petitions’, including the marks of clan leaders and other senior men and women. This was sent to Canberra, and on 28 August, Arthur Calwell presented the second of the four bark petitions along with the thumb-printed testimonials. The petition was formally received (though not the thumbprints) and Beazley moved a motion to set up an inquiry into concerns raised by Yirrkala people.

The bark petitions were thus the first petition ever received by the Australian Federal parliament in an Australian language, and also the first to lead directly to a parliamentary inquiry.

Despite a select parliamentary committee finding that the Yolgnu had not been adequately consulted and should be compensated, bauxite mining proceeded on the Gove Peninsula; an aluminium refinery was built and the white township of Nhulunbuy was established.

The bark petitions created a pan-Yolngu identity and galvanised the Aboriginal civil and land rights movement. They also led to the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, the first legislation that enabled First Nations people to claim ownership of their land.

The two bark petitions presented to parliament are now on permanent public display. A third is in the Historical Research Collection of the National Museum of Australia. The fourth is currently in the process of being repatriated to Yirrkala.


left arrow 1957: Petition to Change the Australian Constitution
1967: The Referendum right arrow