On 15 August 1963 the Age reported under the headline 'House hears plea in strange tongue':
The strangest petition yet received by the House of Representatives — 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.
Blackburn judgement, 1971:
The Aborigines belong to the land, but the land does not belong to the Aborigines.
Throughout the 1950s the eyes of pastoral and mining developers were trained on Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. It was a place that was seen as likely to offer lucrative rewards to the developer.
The Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve occupied much of this area, providing an impediment, but not an insurmountable one, to development.
In 1952 Cabinet authorised the Northern Territory Legislative Council to amend the Mining Ordinance to permit the Administrator of the Northern Territory, through the Native Affairs Branch, to grant mining rights on Aboriginal reserves.
In February 1963, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced a further change to the Arnhem Land Reserve. The federal government approved Gove Bauxite Corporation's plans to mine in the vicinity of the Yirrkala Methodist Mission.
The Methodist mission
Discussions had been taking place between the General Secretary of the Methodist Overseas Mission, Cecil Gribble, and the government.
The Commonwealth government signed a lease with Gove Bauxite Corporation, a subsidiary of Pechiney Aluminium, a French company. One hundred and forty square miles were to be excised from the Arnhem Land reserve.
Reverend Edgar Wells, the superintendent at Yirrkala since 1962, had come from the Wessel Islands where he had witnessed the effects of mining on the community. He was not party to the discussions leading up to the signing of the lease.
The residents had seen prospectors in the vicinity of the mission but were not told that a mining company was being given permission to mine in Arnhem Land. Wells broke with protocol and sent telegrams to newspaper editors and activists telling them what had happened:
583 semi-nomads now squeezed by the bauxite land grab into half a square mile. Original holding 200 square miles. Impossible to house population in approved homes within area. Loss of cultivated and grazing lands means we must eat the cattle before miners arrive and import basic food crops afterwards.
At the 1963 Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) annual conference, General Secretary Stan Davey read Edgar Wells' telegram to the 120 people gathered in Canberra.
Intense discussions and expressions of outrage resulted in a course of action. Delegates asked the vice-president, Labor Member for Wills, Gordon Bryant, to go to Yirrkala to find out the residents' views concerning the proposed mining.
Edgar Wells, Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, 1982, p. 42.
Cecil Holmes, editor of The Territorian, also wrote to Barry Christophers with information about what was happening at Yirrkala, 27 February 1963, Barry Christophers Papers MS 7992/16, National Library of Australia.
Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories, argued in the federal parliament that the development would be for the good of the people living at Yirrkala.
By contrast, Kim Beazley senior, Member for Fremantle, presented a case for the creation of an Aboriginal land title. This was the first time that the concept of an Aboriginal title to land had been raised in the Parliament.
Beazley argued that the proclamation of large reserves for Aboriginal use meant nothing if 'systematically, when anything of any value is discovered in them, areas become excised from the Aboriginal reserves'.
This speech became more widely publicised when reproduced in On Aboriginal Affairs, a periodical widely circulated by a small group in Melbourne called Aboriginal Affairs, committed to providing information and viewpoints concerning Aboriginal Australians.
In July 1963, Gordon Bryant, Member for Wills, and his parliamentary colleague, Kim Beazley senior, Member for Fremantle, went to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory to meet with mission residents. At this time there were approximately 500 people in 17 different tribal groupings living on the Gove Peninsula.
In discussions with the two parliamentarians, spokesmen asked for help 'to get back our country of Yirrkala and Melville Bay'. It was Kim Beazley who suggested that the people petition the Australian Government. He reasoned that they were citizens and as such they had a right to petition the Parliament.
Kim Beazley and Gordon Bryant reported on their visit to Yirrkala. They observed that unlike other Australian citizens, for example those occupying a country town of equivalent size, the Yirrkala residents had none of the services one would expect in a country town - no post office and a doctor only called for a few hours once a month.
They reported that the people regard the land as theirs and could point out their traditional boundaries. Beazley and Bryant were highly critical of the Commonwealth government, accusing it of 'complete insensitivity to the economics and the social structure of the community'.
Kim Beazley suggested that the form of the petition should express the people's own culture. The people were taken with this idea and, with the support of Edgar Wells, his wife Ann and Doug Tuffin (another Yirrkala missionary), they set to work.
In August 1963 two petitions were tabled in the House of Representatives. These petitions, written in Gupapungu, were pasted onto bark and surrounded by beautifully crafted traditional designs. They set out the people's complaints at not having been consulted.
Jock Nelson, Member for the Northern Territory, presented the petition on 14 August 1963. A similar petition was presented by William Wentworth, Member for Mackellar. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), House of Representatives, 14 August 1963, p. 81.
In response to the petitions, parliament set up a Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines. Committee members travelled to Arnhem Land to take evidence from residents, missionaries and a mining representative.
The committee report made a number of recommendations, one of which was that 'compensation for loss of traditional occupancy be made by way of a land grant'.
Yirrkala became the focus of a struggle for land in other parts of the country as well, such as Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station in south-western Victoria.
Spokesmen and leaders from some religious organisations played key roles in developing and disseminating arguments for an Aboriginal right to land.
Arthur Ellemor, Ron Croxford and John Jago from the Methodist Commission on Aboriginal Affairs, Barrie Pittock from the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Frank Engel from the National Missionary Council (and later the Australian Council of Churches), were the main contributors throughout the 1960s to the development of a case for Aboriginal land tenure.
Frank Engel, Turning Land into Hope, address to the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) annual conference, 1968.
Barrie Pittock, Towards A Multi-Racial Society, James Backhouse lecture, 1969.
The Spectator, National Missionary Council periodical, 1963.
The Reverend Ron Croxford and Rev. Arthur Ellemor of the Methodist Commission on Aboriginal Affairs began exploring legal opinions regarding land rights for Aborigines in the Arnhem Land Reserve.
By mid-1968, John Little, a young lawyer; Ted Woodward, a Queen's Counsel; and Frank Purcell, a member of the legal firm representing the Methodist Church, were working together to develop the grounds for a case.
In December 1968 the Yirrkala tribes launched a legal challenge against the Gove bauxite alumina project.
The following year, the Northern Territory Supreme Court began hearing the case brought by Mungurraway Mathaman and others, representing the clans of Yirrkala, against Nabalco and the Commonwealth government.
They sought injunctions, damages and declarations relating to the use and occupation of certain areas of the Arnhem Land Aboriginal reserve. A public appeal for money to help fight the case was launched.
Despite his position as chairman of the Commonwealth Council for Aboriginal Affairs, Dr HC Coombs criticised the Commonwealth government for its dishonesty and the mining venture for its haste.
In March 1970 the substantive case — Milirrpum and Others v Nabalco Pty Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia — began in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. Plaintiff Milirrpum (head of the Rirratjingu clan), plaintiff Munggurrawuy (head of the Gumatj clan) and plaintiff Daymbalipu (head of the Djapu clan) brought the action on behalf of their clans.
As well as representing the Djapu clan, Daymbalipu also represented the Marrakuli, Galpu, Munyuku, Ngamil, Wangurri, Djambarrpuyngu, Manggalili, Warramirri and Mardarrpa clans.
The plaintiffs' action was against Nabalco which had secured a 12-year mining lease from the federal government.
They argued that each clan held a proprietary interest in their communal lands. They asserted that their laws and customs gave them the right to occupy these lands, to exclude others from them, and to live off the plant and animal life of the lands.
On 27 April 1971 Mr Justice Blackburn ruled against the Yirrkala claimants. He held that any rights which they may have had before colonisation had been invalidated by the Crown.
The rights of the mining company were upheld and Nabalco was allowed to proceed with their mining operation unencumbered by the concerns of the Yirrkala people. Frank Purcell for the plaintiffs believed, however, that 'we have won half the case'.
See later section, Aboriginal Embassy, for a continuation of this narrative.
The Yirrkala people did eventually receive title to their land in 1978 under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. However, the mining leases to which they had objected, were specifically excluded from the provisions of this Act.
The years between the court case and the return of the land to the Yirrkala people saw the arrival of 4000 white Australian mining employees and their families. Their services, such as a supermarket and a hotel, created huge challenges to the culture and lifestyle of the Yirrkala people.