...the Undersigned aboriginal people of Yirrkala...
Public criticism of the proposed excision of Aboriginal land near Yirrkala mission encouraged Kim Beazley (snr) MHR to introduce a motion to the House of Representatives in March 1963 calling for Commonwealth Government recognition of Aboriginal land title. He and fellow MP Gordon Bryant visited Yirrkala in July 1963, to hear locals' grievances. Though it is not clear who first thought of sending a petition, on bark, to Parliament, Beazley certainly encouraged the idea.
The bark petition was received in the House of Representatives 14 August 1963. The Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, moved that the petition be rejected; its twelve signatories, he argued, were unrepresentative of Yolngu opinion. A second version was sent. This 'second edition' petition was on paper and marked with thumb prints (which Yolngu had recently begun to use to operate Commonwealth Savings bank accounts) rather than with clan symbols. In translation it read:
'The Humble Petition of the Undersigned aboriginal people of Yirrkala, being members of the Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr people and Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, Magarrwanalinirri, Gumaitj, Djamparrpuynu, Marrakulu, Galpu, Dhalnayu, Wangurri, Warramirri, Maymil, Rirritjinu, tribes, respectfully sheweth -
1, That nearly 500 people of the above tribes are residents of the land excised from the Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land.
2. That the procedures of the excision of this land and the fate of the people on it were never explained to them beforehand, and were kept secret from them.
3. That when Welfare Officers and Government officials came to inform them of decisions taken without them and against them, they did not undertake to convey to the Government in Canberra the views and feelings of the Yirrkala aboriginal people.
4. That the land in question has been hunting and food gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial; we were all born here.
5. That places sacred to the Yirrkala people, as well as vital to their livelihood are in the excised land, especially Melville Bay.
6. That the people of this area fear that their needs and interests will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past, and they fear that the fate which has overtaken the Larrakeah tribe will overtake them.
7. And they humbly pray that the honourable the House of Representatives will appoint a Committee, accompanied by competent interpreters, to hear the views of the Yirrkala people before permitting the excision of this land.
8. And they humbly pray that no arrangements be entered into with any company which will destroy the livelihood and independence of the Yirrkala people.
And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray God to help you and us.'
Under pressure created by the petition's favourable publicity, the Menzies Government agreed to an inquiry by a select committee into the Yirrkala Aborigines' grievances. The committee's unanimous report did not recommend any significant change in government policy, and the excision went ahead, after certain assurances of 'protection' of Aboriginal people had been negotiated between the government, the mission and the mining company. Though the inquiry had demonstrated that the Yolngu grievance lay partly in not having been included in negotiations about mining, Yolngu continued to be excluded from meetings where decisions were made about their land. Dismal as the inquiry's formal result may have been from the Yirrkala Aborigines' point of view, the experience of talking directly to the visiting parliamentarians had, in the opinion of the Reverend Edgar Wells, Yirrkala mission superintendent, 'altered for ever the balance of power in the conduct of Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory.'
Keywords: activism, Arnhem Land, bark petition, Beazley, Kim Snr., Blackburn, Justice, Bryant, Gordon, Gove, Hasluck, Paul, Kakadu National Park, Marika, Roy, resistance, Wells, Reverend Edgar, Yirrkala, Yolgnu, Yunupingu, Galarrwuy, 1963
Wells, EA 1982, 'Reward and punishment in Arnhem Land 1962-3', Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, p 96. Still: Bark Petition. Courtesy of AIATSIS.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor