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Bark petitions: Indigenous art and reform for the rights of Indigenous Australians

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

In August 1963 a petition presented as a pair of bark paintings was sent to the Australian Parliament, signed by 131 clan leaders of the Yolngu region (Gove Peninsula) of the Northern territory. There had been many earlier petitions from Aboriginal people to Australian parliaments. The bark petitions were the first to use traditional forms and combine bark painting with text typed on paper.

Presented to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Yirrkala, Northern Territory, 23 July, 2008.

Petition to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd by Galarrwuy Yunupingu from Yirrkala, Northern Territory, 23 July, 2008. Image courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection.

The 1963 petition was the first in a series of bark petitions that have been presented to Australian prime ministers and the Commonwealth parliament over the years: in 1968, 1988, 1998, and 2008. The 1963 bark petitions—the only ones to have been formally recognised—are exhibited in Parliament House in a ceremonial hall that also houses the Magna Carta and the Australian Constitution.

The bark petitions are considered 'founding documents' of our democracy and were a catalyst for a long process of legislative and constitutional reform to recognise the rights of Indigenous Australians. Earlier petitions seeking recognition of rights that were submitted to Queen Victoria and the colonial governments include: Batman's Treaty of Melbourne in 1835, the Wybalenna petition presented to Queen Victoria in 1847, and the Coranderrk letter in 1882.

In 1935 and 1937, petitions were presented to the Commonwealth government seeking representation in the Parliament and the establishment of a national department of native affairs and state advisory councils. The lack of a response by 1938 saw Aborigines from around Australia establish a National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). NADOC later became NAIDOC to recognise Torres Strait Islanders.

The process, together with the 1966 Gurindji strike for equal pay, led to constitutional change with the 1967 Referendum and federal recognition of Aboriginal land rights in 1976 with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT). 'In 1992, a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia in the Mabo case determined that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' rights to their country could be recognised under Australian law'. (Australasian Legal Information Institute, Understanding native title rights).

Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a highly respected Indigenous leader, Australian of the Year (1978) and Member of the Order of Australia (1985) is a key figure in most of the petitions discussed in this story - petitions that have succeeded in gradually altering the Australian view of the significance of traditional culture and law and progressed the move towards reconciliation. Galarrwuy Yunupingu translated for his father Mungurrawuy in the Gove Land Rights Case, one of the painters and signatories of the 1963 petition. In July 2008, Yunupingu presented Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with another petition by various Yirrkala artists, requesting 'full recognition of Indigenous rights in the Australian Constitution.'

What prompted the 1963 petition? - bauxite mining and protection of sacred sites

In February 1963 Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that the government would grant leases to mine bauxite (used for the production of aluminium) in land excised from the Arnhem Land reserve. It was later revealed that the Methodist Overseas Mission (the organisation then responsible for the management of Yirrkala) had supported the excision without consultation with any Aboriginal leaders.

Mathaman Marika wearing traditional body paint and carrying

The Herald & Weekly Times Limited, Mathaman Marika wearing traditional body paint and carrying 'timing stick', leading protest dance against bauxite mining in the Northern territory c1969, gelatin silver photograph. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: hp002005.

Elders from the region, notably Mawalan Marika and Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, were incensed that they had not been consulted. They were concerned that the mining would disturb, and restrict their access to, sacred sites.

The Opposition was also concerned about this issue, and in July, Kim Beasley (Snr) MP and Gordon Bryant MP of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement visited Yirrkala. They suggested that the clan leaders send a petition to state their grievances and to request 'a Committee, accompanied by competent interpreters, to hear the views of the people of Yirrkala before permitting the excision of this land'. (Both the original and the transcribed texts of the 1963 petition text can be read here.)

The 1963 pair of barks were tabled separately in the House of Representatives, firstly on 14 August by Jock Nelson, Member for the Northern Territory, and then on 28 August by Arthur Caldwell, Leader of the Opposition. One panel is Dhuwa and the other is Yirritja and they represent each Yolngu moiety, as explained by Wundjuk Marika in Wandjuk Marika Life Story :

There is land—that land is one, it look the same—but the land is divided up to two group. Yirritja and Dhuwa. Doesn't matter if the country look the same, but there is a name and tribe living in two different area of the land—two landowners—the Yirritja on their land—and Dhuwa, we learn on our land.

A little-known third petition, known as the 'Thumbprints Petition', was sent to Parliament on 23 August 1963 as reinforcement because, as Reverend Wells is quoted as saying, 'signatures on the petition of 14 August were discounted by a member of the House of Representatives'.

As a consequence of the petition a seven-member, bipartisan Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry was established. Its report

acknowledged the rights the Yolngu set out in the petitions and recommended to Parliament on 29 October 1963 that compensation for loss of livelihood be paid, that sacred sites be protected and that an ongoing parliamentary committee monitor the mining project.

Petitions, legal action and court decisions

While the petitions had very little immediate effect, they were a 'significant step by the Yirrkala groups for their claim for land rights'.

Yolngu leaders at Parliament House in 1977

Yolngu leaders Gallarwuy Yunupingu (left) and Silas Roberts at Parliament House in 1977 with Jeremy Long and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ian Viner (right), looking at the two bark petitions presented to the House of Representatives in 1963. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A8739, A11/3/77/3.

In 1968, after their petitions to Parliament failed to gain recognition of their rights to land, Yolngu people from Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land took their case to the Northern Territory Supreme Court ... After the failure of the Gove Land Rights Case in 1971, public attention to the legal problems of Indigenous people increased and so did campaigns for change to the law... On Australia Day 1972 Aboriginal people set up a tent embassy on the lawns in front of Parliament House... Aboriginal people and supporters demonstrated at Parliament House in 1974... The embassy was removed by police and re-established several times until February 1975, when it closed. The following year Parliament passed the first Commonwealth law on land rights.
National Archives of Australia, Documenting Democracy .

As Wandjuk Marika records: 'first time we lose [the Gove Land Rights caseMilirrpum and Others vs Nabalco Pty Ltd lost in 1971], second time we lose [the 1973 Woodward Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights], third time we win [the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 ]'.

Misunderstood: not just decorated texts

The shock of the 1963 petition was that the format of the petition as a bark painting was so foreign and unfamiliar, 'yet, ironically, it was presented from within Australia, by indigenous Australians'. (Julie Fenwick, Worrying about our land Conceptualising Land Rights 19631971 , Monash Publications in History: 36, 2001)

The Minister for National Development, Senator W H Spooner, being presented with a bark painting at Yirrkala Methodist Mission, on the north-east tip of Arnhem Land, NT, where the Commonwealth Aluminium Corporation is carrying out survey work. Yirrkala, 1958.

W Pedersen, The Minister for National Development, Senator W H Spooner, being presented with a bark painting at Yirrkala Methodist Mission, on the north-east tip of Arnhem Land, NT, where the Commonwealth Aluminium Corporation is carrying out survey work. Yirrkala, 1958. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A1200, L26797.

At the same time, Indigenous art, including art from Arnhem Land has been offered as an exchange to non-Aboriginal people for a long time. From early contact with missionaries to government officials, barks by Yolngu artists from Arnhem Land were presented with much ceremony to visitors. This simple gesture is shown in an exchange in 1958 when Senator W. H. Spooner visited the area while the Commonwealth Aluminium Corporation was conducting survey work.

Each time the bark paintings were made and given, the painters were articulating their claim as the original owners of the land. Only months prior to the 1963 bark petitions, the clans of the Gove Peninsula had recorded their title to lands in paintings on two great panels for the Yirrkala Methodist Mission church. (Margie West, Yalangbara: art of the Djang'kawa, catalogue, exhibition at the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, 2009).

'Yolngu have used art for hundreds of years as a means of asserting their rights and engaging outsiderstheir art is an expression of a way of life and of a view of the world: it is a gift of immense valueIt is offered in exchange'.
Howard Morphy in The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art .

But the lack of a response to the gifts of bark paintings was baffling for Yolngu people. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu recounts in his recollection of another such occasion in the 1950s:

The vehicles came to a rest, the dignitaries got out, they received their flowers, they smiled, then they left and that was that. The clan leaders stood there expecting something that would acknowledge them and respect them, an exchange or a gift in return—but they received nothing.
Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow, The Monthly, Dec 2008- Jan 2009 .

The 1963 petition - a bridge between two traditions of law

The 1963 petition was preceded by correspondence that recorded the community's concern for their land. On 16 March 1963 Narritjin Maymuru, Wandjuk Marika, Mawalan Marika, Jurriny and Munggarawuy Yunupingu wrote to Superintendent Rev. Wells

collectively stating that all balanda were 'to keep out of Melville Bay, Cape Arnhem, Caledon Bay and Bremer Island' and that 'Notices will be placed at all those places proclaiming the areas as belonging to Aboriginal people'. 2

Petition presented to the House of Representatives by the Member for the Northern Territory (Mr Nelson) on 14 August 1963.

Various Yirrkala artists: possibly Watjung Marika, Yama Marika, and Munggarawuy Yunupingu, Yirrkala bark petition (Dhuwa), presented to the House of Representatives by the Member for the Northern Territory (Mr Nelson) on 14 August 1963, 1963, natural ochres on bark, ink on paper. Image courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra: REPS02/0020.001.

The 1963 Bark Petition is significant because while it did not conform with departmental procedure their acceptance marked 'a bridge between two traditions of lawThese petitions are the first to use traditional forms and combine bark painting with text typed on paper.' They did not create a precedence however, and subsequent petitions presented in the same format have not been formally accepted, as we shall see.

It is also clear that the House of Representatives privileged the contents of the typed petition over the bark painting, which was seen only as a decorative border, in much the same way that medieval illustrated manuscripts combined text and image.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu notes that the petition contained 'the clan designs of all the areas that were threatened by mining[it was] not just a series of pictures but represented the title to our country under law'. This would also explain why there are two panels, as the threatened area crossed the boundaries of two moieties, the Dhuwa and the Yirritja.

The iconography on the Dhuwa panel depicts bandicoot (nyik-nyik), snakes (gunudar), goannas (djarrawuyuy), yam plants (yukuwa). The scallop design represents the sand dunes at Yalangbara (Port Bradshaw) a site significant to the thunderman (Jambawal).

Petition presented to the House of Representatives by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Calwell) on 28 August 1963.

Various Yirrkala artists: possibly Narritjin Maymuru, Wandjuk Marika, Mawalan Marika, Jurriny, and Munggarawuy Yunupingu, Yirrkala bark petition (Yirritja), presented to the House of Representatives by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Calwell) on 28 August 1963, 1963, natural ochres on bark, ink on paper. Image courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra: REPS02/0020.002.

The iconography on the Yirritja panel show wet season snakes (gunudar), possums (wangurra), night birds (guwar), fish (guyiwa) turtles (guwaritji) and dugong (djunungguyangu), as well as sand dunes and clouds.

Both panels record not only evidence of Yolngu spirituality, as in the animal motifs listed above, but as Schwarz discerns, 'key aspects of Yolngu material culture (pigment and bark)and law (as defined in the figurative, abstract field of the paintings).'

The next two objects sent from Yirrkala to the Australian Parliament were prompted by particular events. Wandjuk Marika explains:

Then we had a big meeting because they knock a special tree at Wallaby Beach, a big banyan. They knock one special tree, the Wuyal's tree. Everybody was unhappy, because that's the tree, most important one...and also at Mt Saunders, Nhulunbuy, they destroy the hill, the spirit home of Wuyal, a sugarbag man, to make the water tank for the township.

The 1968 petition and the naming of the town Nhulunbuy

The 1968 bark painting by Dundiwuy Wanambi shows the figure of Wuyal standing on the hill he named Nhulunbuy carrying his axe and wearing a madayin object around his neck. His shovel-nosed spear and woomerah are beside him. A typed petition, signed by sixteen men and one woman, was attached to the back of the bark in which they asked that the town be named Nhulunbuy. Both the original and the transcribed texts of the 1968 petition text can be read here.

In 1976 a sacred mawalan (ceremonial spear) decorated with lindirritj feathers was sent to Canberra during the historic Rirratjingu Land Rights struggle. Wandjuk Marika recalls that 'when he saw that [in Canberra] I was crying, made by father Mawalan Marika'. The lindirritj (rainbow lorikeet) is the most important bird for the Rirratjingu, and is used in sacred objects such as the mawalan, bathi (dilly bags) for ceremony.

Such objects are filled with ritual purpose and meaning. The same kind of 'timing stick' can be seen in a 1969 photograph of Mathaman Marika leading a protest dance against bauxite mining in the Northern Territory.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu presents a bark painting to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, June 1988.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu presents a bark painting to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, June 1988. Image courtesy of The Age: 4826480.

The 1988 petition and promise of a treaty

The Barunga Statement [Art and Life] called for 'full civil, economic, social and cultural rights'. At the time the prime minister responded saying he 'wished to conclude a treaty between Aboriginal and other Australians by 1990' but, as Yunupingu laments, he lost office before he could fulfil his promise. Both the original and transcribed texts of the Barunga Statement can be read here.

Galarrawuy Yunupingu, then Chair of the Northern Land Council, recalled that in the bicentennial year 1988 he was

with another new prime minister, Bob Hawke, at Barunga. Many clans, connected by distant but powerful songlines, have performed ceremony for this prime ministerAt Barunga he is emotional and I am emotional as we embrace on the ceremonial groundA few years later I travel to Canberra to hang a painting that was dreamed on that day: the Barunga Statement. I think I am in Canberra for a celebration but it is a funeral–it is Bob's last day as prime minister
Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow, The Monthly, Dec 2008- Jan 2009

The 1998 petitions and respect for customary law

Another 10 years passed, and at the invitation of ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, established by an Act in 1989 by the Commonwealth Government led by Bob Hawke and abolished by the Commonwealth Government led by John Howard in 2005), Prime Minister John Howard visited Elcho Island and Yirrkala in February 1998.

Prime Minister John Howard emerges from a secret men, 27 February 1998. Image courtesy of: Fairfax Photos: 6697944.

Two petitions were presented to the Prime Minister, one by Richard Gandhuwuy on Elcho Island and one by Galarrwuy Yunupingu at Yirrkala. Both the transcribed 1998 text can be read here. The petitions, made in the same format as the 1963 bark petition, asked the government to respect customary law. However, they were not tabled in parliament as in 1963, although Yunupingu wrote that:

I think he [the Prime Minister] accepted and understood our request. He replied he would take it with him and let his government know they are the wishes of the people of North East Arnhem Land.

The 2008 petition and request for Indigenous rights in the Australian Constitution

In July 2008, after the landmark Apology to the Stolen Generations, (which was made under the motion of Apology to Australia's Indigenous People, for the past mistreatment, and particularly for the past mistreatment of the Stolen Generations), Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Cabinet visited Yirrkala. Yunupingu presented him with another petition by various Yirrkala artists.

The 2008 petition requested 'full recognition of Indigenous rights in the Australian Constitution.' Both the original and the transcribed texts of the 2008 petition text can be read here. Galarrwuy, wrote that he still hoped for 'a bill that will transform the wisdom and wishes of the three paintings [the 2008 Yirrkala Petition, the 1988 Barunga Statement and the 1963 bark Petition] and turn them into law' ( The Monthly , January 2009).

It is Galarrwuy Yunupingu's hope that one day all the petitions will all be hung together:

The invitation will be to join with him [Kevin Rudd] to hang the 2008 Yirrkala Petition on the wall of Parliament House, side by side with the 1988 Barunga Statement and the 1963 Bark Petition.
Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow, The Monthly, Dec 2008- Jan 2009

After accepting the petition, Mr Rudd pledged that he would 'give attention to detailed, sensitive consultation with indigenous communities about the most appropriate form and timing of constitutional change'.

Petition transcripts

Useful links

Study Guides and resources

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Footnotes

  1. The number of signatures vary in some accounts: they are very faint on the original document. One appears to be obscured by the certification stamp. The document states that the signatories represent the 'Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, Magarrwanalinirri, Djambarrpuynu, Gumaitj, Marrakulu, Galpu, Dhaluangu, Wangurri, Warramirri, Naymil, Rirritjingu tribes': i.e.13. Accounts that claim 17 signatures perhaps misunderstood the preamble and included the 'Balamumum, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr people' as more signatories, but these are naming broader groups that encompass the tribes named. The bark petitions on display have facsimile sheets attached, and the fragile originals are housed safely elsewhere.
  2. This correspondence making clear the intentions of the petitions and identifying the principle leaders involved, was quoted in J. Schwarz for her unpublished PhD thesis Beyond familiar territory: de-centering the Centre (an analysis of visual strategies in the art of Robert Smithson, Alfredo Jarr and the Bark petitions), ANU, 1999.
    Schwarz concludes that the 1963 bark panels were painted by these same five senior clan leaders because ' the places they mention in the letter to Wells may also be referred to in the motifs on the Petitions'.

Last updated: 30th June 2009
Creators: Merryn Gates Services for Arts, et al.

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