THE HON. WARREN SNOWDON MP
Federal Member for Lingiari
Wednesday 10 July 2013
Warren Snowdon – These events effectively a precursor to the land rights debate and ultimately the development of the Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, firstly by the Whitlam Government and then passed by the Fraser Government in 1976.
They drew their strength from a series of Church Panels which were painted by clan leaders in North-East Arnhem Land, representing the two moiety; Duwah and Yirritja. Telling the stories about of their country, as a result of a proposal by Nabalco to mine land which had been put aside as a part of Arnhem Land reserve.
The church here at the time which was responsible for the administration agreed to give the land as part of a mining lease to Nabalco. That infuriated people here and what they decided to do was to tell their story on these magnificent church panels, which will today be opened up for public viewing.
What then happened, was two politicians Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley Senior came up here as part of an investigation into this issue around mining on the Gove peninsula. What they did was to sit down in front of these bark panels and took inspiration and said ‘what you need to do really is give us a petition which represents the essence of these panels’. The Bark Petition is what happened as a result.
This Bark Petition tells the story of the country by the clan leaders and it has their signatures on it. One such signature on it is that of
The Bark Petitions were presented to the Federal Parliament. The people of North-East Arnhem Land then took Nabalco to court in Milirrpum and Nabalco, unfortunately they lost that case.
There was a Parliamentary Inquiry which was built on this journey by the two Labor members of Parliament and then the Bark Petition. This enquiry recommended compensation, but there was no compensation forthcoming.
The land rights case failed in 1971-72 and then ultimately with the election of the Whitlam Government, concurrently with matters which had occurred in western Northern Territory, in Wattie Creek and the walk-off at Wattie Creek lead by Vincent Lingiari and a range of other people, land rights was firmly on the agenda.
But it was driven initially by this Gove land rights case and this Bark Petition. It culminated in the passage of the Land Rights Act in 1976.
There was no recognition of the sovereign rights of Aboriginal people claiming to their country and that is what this Bark Petition did. It laid out very graphically the claims of Aboriginal people in North-East Arnhem Land, the Yolngu people of North-East Arnhem Land, of their claims to their country. It was a very expressive document, built on these church panels.
As a result of course, we’ve had a consistency of advocacy to issues of land rights and Native Title, ultimately, around economic development, social improvement, education, employment. Central to this advocacy have been the people of North-East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
It has been a very consistent message, they’ve traditionally had very strong leaders. They had come together at the right time, even though obviously over history there have been a lot of differences between different clan groups. But the two moiety came together, Duwah and Yirritja moieties, came together behind their clan leaders around this Bark Petition at a time when their rights were not even recognised.
What we need to comprehend here is, and I’m sure a lot of Australians would like to know this is the culture of Aboriginal people here in North-East Arnhem Land, the stories are really central to their being. What they’ve done is be able to bring in from the rest of Australia, what they believe they need and that is what was so important about the recent ceremony to commemorate the death of Dr Yunupingu from Yothu Yindi.
His message was about two ways, learning in two ways, education. Two-Way Learning, us learning from you, you learning from us.
This is very much part of what happens here on a day to day basis, so people have a really strong traditional belief, really strong spiritual belief in their traditional stories and at the same time are able to adapt and bring in what is important in terms of the Western culture and the Australian mainstream.
They very much engage in that mainstream, in terms of economic development, education system, the health system, the development of outstations which are designed to actually maintain the cultural integrity and the attachment to country. All of these things are here now, it’s a very lively place.
It is a real tribute to the strength of leadership in these communities in North-East Arnhem Land over thousands of years, hundreds of thousands of years in a sense, well certainly tens of thousands of years in terms of the strength of the culture and strength of leadership and the ability to be able to articulate it. Articulate it in a graphical form in the Bark Petition, articulate it in song in the works of Yothu Yindi and articulate it terms of their political direction in terms of the current leadership exemplified in
What I think is happening here, by having the ceremony we’re having here today and by having the celebration that will happen as a direct result, reminds us all that we have this story and the journey has not finished. The journey has a long way to go and part of that journey will be recognition in the Australian Constitution.
There will be a meeting with the clan leaders by the Prime Minister and no doubt issues such as constitutional recognition will be discussed. These people are very strong communities. Kevin Rudd, when he was first Prime Minister, came up here and help a community cabinet meeting at Yirrkala, there was a similar meeting at that time to discuss issues of importance.
It is very, very important that we recognise the status of these men and women, they might not have high university degrees, but in terms of traditional knowledge and culture they have knowledge far in advance of me or you, the Prime Minister or anyone else and it is important that when we sit down with them we treat them as equals.
– Thanks very much mate, it is a great honour and a privilege to be here today. – Indeed it is. Warren Snowdon, thank you for your time coming to us from Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land. Thank you very much. – There will be a ceremony involving the Prime Minister and others, including myself, but obviously clearly the Traditional Owners and the clan leaders of Arnhem Land. – Obviously some significant events today in Yirrkala to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Bark Petition, I know the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be in attendance. – I think they are very important and Bakamumu is 100 per cent correct. There is an absolute desire here and across the country to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians recognised in the constitution. That should happen, it’s way overdue. – Warren Snowdon, I want to read you a quote from Bakamumu Marika, the son of one of the original signatories. He said this morning ‘we must take this legacy and move with it further and see if Australia can recognise the Indigenous in the Australian Constitution’. Obviously that is the next step. How important are these milestones in trying to create awareness about the importance of constitutional recognition? – What is significant about this place here is the coming together, the sea and the land, freshwater and saltwater, the whole business of two worlds coming together. – You’re speaking to us from Nhulunbuy at the tip of the Gove Peninsula, the very Northern end of Arnhem Land, you are talking there about the significance of the Bark Petition. The modern identity of those communities on Arnhem Land it is obviously something which remains important to their modern identity in Australia as Australians. – That’s exactly right, they weren’t counted as Australians, and when we think about our history and contemplate what happened in the Northern Territory and elsewhere across this country, in terms of people looking after Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, quite frankly they weren’t being properly looked after. – It’s quite an achievement when you look at the era in which these Bark Petitions were written, and the remote community and the fact that these people weren’t even on the census in 1963. Wali Wunungmurra the head of the Northern Land Council, one of the other signatories was the father of Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who was the long-time chairman of the Northern Land Council. Wali Wunungmurra, who is the chair of the Northern Land Council.