News of the passing of Gumatj leader Yunupingu has left the reconciliation movement grieving.
A member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation from 1991 until 1996, Yunupingu was a truly monumental leader of his Yolŋu people and a tireless advocate for reconciliation and mutual respect.
Reconciliation Australia enjoyed a warm and long-standing relationship with Yunupingu through our involvement in the Garma Festival and the Yothu Yindi Foundation.
His enormous contribution to Australian public life was strengthened by his ability to operate with great skill and confidence in both the Yolŋu and Australian legal, cultural and political systems.
He continuously reminded Australians of the complexity of his people’s culture and the unyielded sovereignty they hold over their Country.
His experience, as a sixteen-year-old, witnessing Yolŋu people’s wishes and laws arrogantly overridden when the Australian Government granted mining leases to the Nabalco corporation, shaped his life and leadership.
Decades later, in his Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, he said that this experience proved that the Yolŋu had “no standing either as citizens of Australia, or as a people with our own law. We did not exist in Balanda law. The Commonwealth Government, the missionaries, the mining company, all had power. We, the people of the land, had none.”
It was this story which saw Yunupingu start his life-long fight for land rights.
Yunupingu helped draw up the Yirrkala bark petitions of which his father was a signatory. In one of the key milestones of the Aboriginal Land Rights movement the petitions were sent by the Yolŋu Nation to the Australian Parliament asserting sovereignty over their land and rejecting the federal government’s rights to grant mining leases.
In 1971 Yunupingu recorded a single, Gurindji Blues, with a spoken introduction from Vincent Lingiari, highlighting the struggle of the Gurindji people to win back their lands from English pastoral giant Vestey Brothers.
In 1978 he became the third Aboriginal person to win Australian of the Year and the first to do so for achievements outside of the sporting arena. When his brother, leader of the world-famous band, Yothu Yindi, was awarded the same honour in 1992, they became the only brothers to win Australia’s highest award.
In the Australia Day Honours in 1985, Yunupingu was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to the Aboriginal community.
His life of enormous achievement was further recognised when in 2013 he was awarded a NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2015 he received the award of the Doctor of Laws honoris causa from the University of Melbourne. During the awarding ceremony Professor Ian Anderson spoke of “the fire he has lit that will blaze ever brighter until Indigenous people secure their self-evident rights to property, their own way of life, economic independence and control over their lives and the future of their children.”
Yunupingu understood the critical importance of economic independence for the Yolŋu people through employment in a variety of businesses including a sawmill and workshop, mechanic, cattle farm and abattoir, grounds keeping, waste management and a community shop, café, and nursery.
His hospitality on his ancestral lands was legendary. As one of the hosts of the Garma Festival he welcomed visitors and willingly shared Yolŋu culture and knowledge to many thousands of non-Indigenous visitors.
With great patience and hope he argued throughout his life that respect for First Nations laws and cultures by mainstream Australian people and institutions would result in an improved country.
Today is a sad day for the First Nations peoples of this continent and for all Australians. On behalf of the Board and staff of Reconciliation Australia, I send my deepest respect and condolences to Yunupingu’s family, to the Yolŋu people and to all those whose lives were changed by this great man.
Karen Mundine – CEO, Reconciliation Australia