On 14 August 1963 the Yirrkala bark petitions were presented to the Australian Parliament’s House of Representatives. They were the first formal assertion of Indigenous native title.
Kim Beazley, Member for Fremantle, Opposition spokesman on Aboriginal Affairs, 2009:
In February 1962 the government gave authority to a Swiss company, Pechiney, to mine bauxite there, and an area of 140 square miles was excised from the Aboriginal reserve around Yirrkala. The Aboriginal Community knew nothing of this until they heard it announced in the ABC news.
Indigenous Australians have been living in Arnhem Land for thousands of years. The people from north-east Arnhem Land are known as the Yolngu. They mainly live in the settlement of Yirrkala.
The Arnhem Land Reserve was established in 1931. Its purpose was to protect the Yolngu people and the delicate ecosystem with which they lived — and continue to live — in harmony. Reserves were not managed by the government, and so they gave Indigenous peoples semi-autonomy over their lives.
Discovery of bauxite
In 1952 large deposits of bauxite were found by the Australian Aluminium Production Commission in Melville Bay, north of Yirrkala. Bauxite is very valuable as it has a high aluminium content. Geologists also discovered deposits of bauxite in the Gove Peninsula, just north of Yirrkala.
After this discovery the federal government gave permission for the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly to change the Mining Ordinance 1939–1960. The change allowed the Administrator of the Northern Territory to grant mining rights to companies on Aboriginal reserves.
Owing to the amount of bauxite in the area, there was high interest from mining companies. In 1961 Duval Holdings was granted prospecting rights on perimeter leases in the area. Two years later a French mining company, Pechiney, began work on developing the prospected area into a mining town.
In February 1963 Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that the federal government had approved plans for a mine to be built in north-east Arnhem Land, next to Yirrkala. A lease was signed with the Gove Bauxite Corporation, a subsidiary of Pechiney.
The lease was for 140 square miles (36,260 hectares), which would be removed from the Arnhem Land reserve. Up until this point the Yolngu people were unaware of the development plans, or that the government had made it legal for the land to be removed from the reserve for mining.
Parliamentarians visit Arnhem Land
In July 1963 two Labor members of parliament travelled to Arnhem Land — Kim Beazley and Gordon Bryant, who was also senior vice-president of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. The purpose of the trip was to gather information from the residents of the Yirrkala mission and from the Reverend Edgar Wells, superintendent of the mission.
The residents told the parliamentarians that they had not been informed about the federal government’s plans and that they needed help getting their land back.
Beazley suggested that the Yolngu send a petition to parliament. It was decided that the petition should reflect the Yolngu culture. Reverend Wells and his wife, Ann, helped to draft it.
Four copies of the petition were made. Two were sent to the House of Representatives, one to Stan Davey, a well-known campaigner for Indigenous rights, and the last to Gordon Bryant. The text of the petition was in two languages, English and Gupapuyngu. It was printed on paper then glued to a piece of bark that had been painted traditionally.
The petition, signed by nine men and three women, stated that 500 people were residents of the land that was being removed, and that the whole deal had been kept secret from them.
It also declared that sacred sites in the area, such as Melville Bay, were vital to their livelihoods, and that the area had been used for hunting and food-gathering since time immemorial.
In conclusion, the petition asked parliament to appoint a committee to hear the views of the Yolngu. They also asked that no arrangements be entered into with any company which would destroy their livelihoods and independence.
After the petitions were presented to parliament on 14 August 1963, the federal government established the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve. The committee travelled to Darwin and Yirrkala to hear evidence from Territory officials and the Yolngu.
The committee published a report with its findings, recommending that sacred sites be protected, that compensation for loss of livelihood be paid and that another ongoing committee monitor the mining project.
The requests from the Yolngu were ignored. In 1964 Swiss Aluminium and CSR Limited formed a mining company called Nabalco. They began a feasibility study of the lease the same year.
Four years later, in 1968, the federal government granted permission for Nabalco to build a bauxite mine and treatment plant.
In 1968, tired of having their appeals to parliament ignored, the Yolngu decided to launch legal action against the Nabalco mining operation in the Northern Territory Supreme Court. Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd was the first native title litigation in Australian history.
Justice Richard Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants in 1971. He recognised that they had been living on the land for thousands of years, but found that any rights they had before colonisation had been invalidated by the Crown. The Australian legal system had been built around the concept of terra nullius, meaning ‘land belonging to no one’.
Nabalco was allowed to continue with its operation despite the concerns of the Yolngu.
The Yolngu eventually received native title to their land in 1978, under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, which established a procedure for transferring 50 per cent of land in the Territory to Aboriginal ownership. The mining leases, which they had objected to since 1963, were excluded from the provisions of the Act, and also from the Yolngu native title claim.
The Yirrkala bark petitions were the first example of a native title litigation in Australia. They paved the way for the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
In 1992 the concept of terra nullius, which had been used in the Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd judgement, was challenged by the High Court of Australia. Mabo v Queensland recognised the people of Murray Island as native titleholders to their land.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart was presented to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in 2017. It called for an Indigenous voice to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney-General George Brandis and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion all rejected the statement.
Australia remains the only Commonwealth nation without a treaty with its first peoples.
In our collection
Ronald M Berndt and Catherine H Berndt, Arnhem Land: Its History and Its People, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1954.
Alec H Chisholm (ed.), The Australian Encyclopaedia, vol. 1: Abbott to Birch, Grolier Society of Australia, Sydney, 1963.