NAIDOC Week 2013
On the start of NAIDOC Week 2013 Reconciliation Australia today paid respect to the creators of the Yirrkala bark petition as pioneers in the struggle to have Aboriginal rights recognised by the Australian Parliament and broader community.
Co-Chair Dr Tom Calma AO said that fifty years ago the Yolngu Elders of North Eastern Arnhem Land created their famous bark petition and set in train the long process of social, legal and legislative change towards recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights which continues today.
“All Australians are indebted to the courage and creativity of the Yolngu who fought to defend their homelands in the face of Government and mining industry refusal to recognise their rights,” said Dr Calma. “Their sophisticated strategy which included both a legal case before the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and a direct bark petition appeal to the Australian Parliament, although immediately unsuccessful, was the fore-runner for the Mabo High Court decision three decades later which finally overturned the doctrine of terra nullius.”
“Faced with the imminent loss of large tracts of their land to bauxite miner Nabalco the Yolngu stood by their own law and established an important precedence when their petition, in the form of bark paintings, became the first traditional documents recognised by the Australian Parliament.
“Also significant in the Yolgnu’s defence of their country was Justice Blackburn’s acknowledgement for the first time in an Australian higher court the existence of a system of Aboriginal law.
“It is not surprising that Yolngu descendants of the bark petitioners are today still in the forefront of national efforts to secure constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Australians,” said Dr Calma. “The late Dr Yunupingu, a strong advocate for constitutional change, was the son of one of the Yirrkala petitioners.”
Dr Calma pointed to the significant advancement in the relationship between Australian mining companies and First Peoples over the past fifty years as another legacy of the Yolgnu’s Yirrkala petition.
“The Yolngu bark petition was sparked by a mining company intrusion onto their country while today some of Australia’s biggest miners are partners with Aboriginal land owners in a way that was almost unimaginable back then,” he said. “Miners are the biggest private sector employers of Aboriginal people and mining has provided valuable economic development opportunities to our communities across Australia.”
Dr Calma said that while Australia has come a long way in the past 50 years the continuing lack of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was a reminder that the reconciliation journey still had some way to travel.
“A strong Yes-vote for recognition in a future referendum will be the greatest mark of respect we can pay the memory of these pioneers,” said Dr Calma.