Land rights are empty, Yolngu elder tells Rudd on bark petition anniversary

Yirrkala bark petition - NAIDOC week theeme 2013
This petition, signed by the tribal groups who lived on the Gove Peninsula west of Darwin, objected to a large mine that the federal government had approved.

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Oliver Laughland The Guardian 10 July 2013

Galarrwuy Yunupingu throws down gauntlet to PM over 'economic side of land rights' at Yirrkala commemoration

The prime minister, Kevin Rudd, sits with Yirrkala Indigenous leaders during the 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala bark petitions in Nhullunbuy in Northern Territory.

Fifty years ago the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in remote east Arnhem Land changed history, but to this day respected leaders of the community say not enough is being done for Indigenous land rights.

The Yirrkala bark petitions, signed in 1963 to protest against the federal government's approval of a bauxite mine on their reserve, were the spark for a land rights movement that engaged much of Indigenous Australia and resulted in the first formal acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in law.

The two petitions, signed by 12 Yolngu clan heads, called on the House of Representatives to reconsider the mine approval and resulted in a parliamentary inquiry which concluded that the Yolngu should receive compensation for their lost land. The 1967 referendum, which recognised Indigenous Australians to be recognised in the census, followed, and then the landmark 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory.

At a commemorative ceremony in Yirrkala on Wednesday, the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, hailed the documents, which are the theme of this year's Naidoc (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) week, as the "Magna Carta for the Indigenous peoples of this land", adding: "These bark petitions present a bridge between two ancient and noble traditions."

Before Rudd took to the stage at Rika Park, the respected Yolngu elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu frankly threw down a gauntlet to the prime minister. Addressing Rudd directly, he said: "This land right is empty. It's full of everything, but it's full of nothing ... when you have a look at it, closely, there's nothing that gives to individuals."

The crowd applauded and Yunupingu continued: "We have looked forward to the land rights giving us something, at least they gave us something in its name. The land rights is for Aboriginal people but the land ownership and use of land ownership is not for Aboriginal people, it's for mining companies. For white fellas."

The crowds applauded again.

"This time it is [for the] economic side of the land rights, [for] the money that comes into the hands of the Aboriginal people through their own country and not to the mining company or contractors," he said. "We want to develop our country and we want to develop our own soil."

Rudd responded by pledging his support for a referendum on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within two years of the next election. He urged the opposition leader to work with him.
He said to Yunupingu: "It should not be for white fellas to tell you how to use your land."

Around Australia, events for Naidoc week and the commemoration of the bark petitions continue. In Sydney, the New South Wales Arts Council held a seminar examining the significance of the petitions for the south-east of the country.

Dr Heidi Norman, a specialist in Aboriginal history and politics at the University of Technology, Sydney delivered the keynote speech on new research which examines the link between the Yirrkala bark petitions and the Indigenous activist movements in NSW in the early 1970s.

"The land rights push that came from Yirrkala was the impetus for the many young activists who were agitating around land. The Yirrkala people's actions really inspired them to take land rights in NSW, a very settled part of the country, to a new level," she told Guardian Australia before the seminar.

Norman added: "What land rights really engineered was a political structure. An organisation [land councils] that could facilitate the interface between Aboriginal citizens and wider forms of institutional power."
Naidoc events continue throughout the week, culminating in the Naidoc awards ceremony in Perth on Friday.

Yirrkala remembers bark petitions

Dan Harrison The Age 11 July 2013

Half a century ago, the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land took the bark from the trees and the ochre from the earth and built a bridge between two worlds.

On Wednesday the leaders of those two worlds came together in the community of Yirrkala to remember the 12 clan leaders who in 1963 sent two bark petitions to federal parliament.

The petitions called on parliament to reconsider its decision to excise 300 square kilometres of Arnhem Land for bauxite mining and to send a committee to speak to elders. The hopes of the petitioners were not realised. The excision was upheld and the mine went ahead. But the petitions would be seen as a pivotal moment in the struggle for land rights, starting a chain of events that would culminate three decades later in the Mabo judgment, which overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius, that the land was owned by noone.

One of the few surviving signatories, Wali Wunungmurra, paid tribute to the old people who were not alive to celebrate.

"It's been hard going," he reflected. "It's a very important occasion for us to remember the hard battle that they went through."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the petitions, the first traditional indigenous documents to be recognised by the Australian parliament, as "two of Australia's most important founding documents."
"These bark petitions are the Magna Carta for the indigenous peoples of this land," Mr Rudd said.

Earlier, indigenous leader Gallarrwuy Yunupingu appealed to Mr Rudd to "meaningfully dig into the hearts of your government" and help Aboriginal people claim "the economic side of the land rights."
"We want to develop our country, and we want to get money out of our own soil," Mr Yunupingu said.

Later, departing from his prepared speech, Mr Rudd said he wanted to engage with elders on the issue.

"It should not be for whitefellas around the country to tell you how you use your land," he said. "It should be for you, the indigenous peoples of Australia to determine how your land is used."

Five years ago in the same place, during Mr Rudd's first Prime Ministership, Mr Yunupingu had presented Mr Rudd with another bark petition urging the parliament to consider recognising indigenous people in the constitution.
On Wednesday, Mr Rudd said he wished to hold a referendum on the issue within two years of the election.

He invited opposition leader Tony Abbott to "join that journey with me," but Mr Abbott urged Mr Rudd not to politicise the issue, restating his earlier pledge that a coalition government would release a draft proposal for constitutional change within 12 months of taking office.

Mr Rudd ended on a note of optimism, saying the 50-year-old petitions showed "that no bridge between too traditions is too hard to build."

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