On August 15, 1963, the Melbourne Age newspaper reported under the headline "House Hears Plea in Strange Tongue": "The strangest petition yet received by the [Australian] House of Representatives [in Canberra] - written in the Aboriginal language on a length of stringy bark - was presented to the House today. It began - 'Bukudjuini gonga yuru napurrunha yirrakilli ...' Which means - 'The humble petition of the undersigned people of Yirrkala'. This petition, signed by representatives of the tribal groups who lived on the Gove Peninsula west of Darwin, objected to a large mining venture which the Federal Government had approved without bothering to consult with the people whose families had lived there for many, many generations."
The two petitions, containing the same message in English and the Aboriginal language, were enclosed in bark surrounds which contained traditional drawings of animals, birds and fish. They were both typewritten.
Australian electronic magazine Crikey today published an article by Darwin-based lawyer and writer Bob Gosford titled, "The Yirrkala Bark Petitions. How an old typewriter helped change the course of Australian history".
National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week is marking the 50th anniversary of the Yolngu Matha text of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions.
Gosford (above) writes that "when the focus is on the impact of the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petitions to the Australian Parliament, it is timely to reflect how an old typewriter helped change the course of Australian history."
"In a small display case in a dimly lit room in Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra – cheek by jowl with a facsimile of the Magna Carta and Australia’s Constitution – sit three panels of richly painted stringy-bark. It is significant that these documents, all of which inform contemporary law in this country, can be found within metres of each other.
"The Magna Carta and the Australian Constitution are fundamental elements of European law in this country. Few Australians know of the content, importance and continuing relevance of the Magna Carta and our Constitution and even fewer know, let alone realise, the significance of these three small pieces of bark, each with ancestral images wrapped around a sheet of yellowing paper with faint text.
"The first two of these petitions were presented to the Commonwealth Parliament 50 years ago, in August 1963, and represent the first documents received by that parliament that recognised the existence – but not the primacy – of Aboriginal law and claims to ownership of their ancestral lands."
Silas Roberts, chairman of the Northern Lands Council, and Galarrwuy Yunapingu, manager of the Northern Lands Council, with the Yirrkala Bark Petitions.
"And the typewriter?
Mawalan Marika (c 1908-1967)
"Wandjuk Marika was the son of revered Yolngu elder Mawalan and, as reported by Edgar Wells in his Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land 1962-1963 [Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1982], Wandjuk had access to an old typewriter which he used for formal communications to Mission staff and the Australian Government."
Wandjuk Djuwakan Marika OBE (1929-1987)
In February 1963 Wells received the first of a series of letters from Wandjuk in response to an announcement by Prime Minister Robert Menzies of the granting of leases to mine bauxite on the Gove peninsula. The pleadings of the Yolngu people were ignored. " ... after the prompt from parliamentarian Kim Beazley Snr, following a visit to Yirrkala in May 1963, [it was decided] that the Yolngu should 'make a bark petition' [and] two petitions on bark were sent to Canberra, again with text typed on Wandjuk’s old typewriter.
"As Wells notes ... the effect of the Petitions on arrival in Canberra was immediate and dramatic: 'The petition carried with it the flame of its own success and notice was served on the Commonwealth Government and on interested political leaders that there was a serious discontent amongst the Aborigines of Australia’s Arnhem Land area concerning a lack of communication with them over the transfer of land within an Aboriginal Reserve to mining interests whose representatives had not consulted with the local Aborigines and offered no compensation for loss of land traditionally considered to be under Aboriginal control.'
"The English language wording of the two 1963 petitions – also typed on Wandjuk’s old typewriter – is identical."
Gosford adds, "I doubt that Wandjuk’s old typewriter has survived but if it has, it deserves its own special place in our history.
"How significant are the Bark Petitions? Northern Land Council chairman Wali Wunungmurra [above], who signed the petitions as a 17 year-old, was last week asked by the ABC’s 7.30 program if land rights as we know them today would exist without the petitions. His response points to the importance of these pieces of bark, ochre and paper. 'No, I don’t think so … what had happened in 1963 was a totally different thing. We had to change the method as to how we would approach the Commonwealth Government. And we did it by the bark petitions. And it was through that approach that we kept the attention of the Parliament House. It was then … from then on, 1963, it followed on until we got the Land Rights."
See Wikipedia on this issue.