It was a big rock that set off so many ripples, was how Leila Gurruwiwi from Yirrkala in NE Arnhemland put it on Radio National this morning. She was talking about the great Bark Petition to the Australian Parliament in 1963 that might be said to have kicked off the Land Rights movement and to have lead eventually to the death of the legal fiction of Terra Nullius which, until the Wik and Mabo cases, had ruled all White exploitation of the land in Australia.
Now, 50 years later, it’s at the centre of this week’s National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) celebrations.
In 1963, before the ’67 Referendum changed it, the Yolngu of Arnhemland were mere fauna in the Aussie legal landscape. Yet they’d just put a lot of effort into persuading the Church up there that they had centuries of land ownership and a complex set of relationships with that land through the pair of Church Panels painted by all the leading men of the time representing the clans that make up the two moieties that define all Yolngu relationships to people and Country “ Yirritja and Dhuwa.
Even as this was delivered locally, the NT administration was excising vast tracts of that Country to hand it over to Swiss miners Nabalco to mine bauxite. Outraged that they hadn’t even been consulted, the clan leaders, advised by Kim Beasley Snr, politely made eight points in excellent English humbly praying that the Honourable House of Representatives will appoint a Committee….to hear the views of the people of Yirrkala before permitting excision of this land; we were all born here.
At first, the relevant Minister, Paul Hasluck refused to accept the petitions (there were two “ each decorated with appropriate designs on bark frames from the two moieties). He claimed that not all clans had signed. The patient but persistent Yolngu then got all their clan leaders to press a thumbprint in ochre beside their names “ and this time it was accepted by the politicians “ and still hangs between Magna Carta and the Australian Constitution in Parliament House.
It did result in a Committee of Enquiry into the Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines “ but it brought little change to Nabalco’s power to desecrate the sacred Mt Nhulun that lay on the Ancestral path of the Creation Being, Wuyal the Sugarbag Man. Certain areas were retained for the Yolngu, but not enough to stop them trying to restrain the miners via the courts in the Gove Land Rights Case. After much secret information was passed to Judge Blackburn, he admitted, If ever a system could be called a government of laws and not of men, it is shown in the evidence before me; but Terra Nullius won the day. And the elders lead their families off to 25 homelands or outstations around Yirrkala. We want to have land to ourselves that the mining company or its workers can’t come on without our permission.
Much art is made in these outstations “ such as the forthcoming FOUND exhibition at Annandale Galleries in Sydney, featuring Gunybi Ganambarr, Djirrirra Wunungmurra & Ralwurrandji Wanambi, who use a variety of found materials, including (ironically) old rubber conveyor belts from the Nabalco mine!
And that sort of confidence extended to yet another legal action “ the Blue Mud Bay Case, which was successful this time in giving Yolngu sea rights to areas where almost as many sacred places are situated as on the land. This case was supported by the amazing Saltwater Barks collection from 1999 “ now in Sydney’s National Maritime Museum. The law, lore, ceremony and art are totally interlinked.
So there is much to celebrate this NAIDOC Week.
Artist: Gunybi Ganambarr, Djirrirra Wunungmurra, Ralwurrandji Wanambi,
Gallery: Annandale Galleries ,