Yirrkala Bark Petition returning to country

The ‘missing’ Yirrkala Bark Petition – one of four sent by the Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1963 – will be repatriated to country in a community ceremony (buŋgul) on Thursday 7 December 2023.

The petitions – the first to be written in both an Australian language and in English – called for consultation with the local Yolŋu clans before any mining proceeded. The petitions were signed by nine men and three women representing the clans.

The petitions are typed on paper and framed by traditional bark paintings.

Two of the historic Bark Petitions, which protested against the Menzies government decision to excise land from the Arnhem Land Reserve for the granting of bauxite mining leases, were presented in the House of Representatives in August 1963.

Those two petitions are on display in Parliament House in Canberra. A third is in the Historical Collection at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Ms Yananymul Mununggurr, daughter of the sole surviving signatory of the Bark Petitions, Dhuŋgala Mununggurr, called the fourth petition ‘our lost treasure’.

“My dad always told me there were more petitions than the ones people knew about'” Ms Mununggurr said. “In 1963, four Bark Petitions were sent from Yirrkala for Canberra. Sixty years later, the fourth petition is coming home to us.”

Rirratjingu Elder Mr Witiyana Marika, who is descended from Milirrpum, the lead signatory of the petition, said, “We looking forward to the repatriation of one of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions back to country (Yirrkala) where it all started. It is a testament to the elders their wisdom and insights into Yolngu affairs and we are very happy that one of the Bark Petitions is coming back home.”

Historian Clare Wright, Professor of History at La Trobe University who has been researching the history of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions for a decade, tracked down the fourth and final petition to a private owner in Derby, Western Australia and facilitated its handover to descendants of the original creators in November 2022.

“It is not often that scholarly archival research leads directly to such significant real-world outcomes and impact”, Professor Wright said. “The repatriation of the fourth Bark Petition to country offers an avenue for truth-telling, celebration and healing. The work of the old people in leading the land rights movement in Australia is being remembered in a very tangible way.”

The fourth petition was given to Stan Davey, Secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (later FCAATSI), in 1963. It has since been in the possession of his first wife, Joan McKie, who moved to Western Australia in the 1980s.

“My daughters, Carolyn and Elinor Davey and I are very pleased that the 4th Yirrkala Bark Petition is returning to the place where it was created”, Joan McKie said. “In 1963, it was given to Stan Davey for the part he played in this amazing achievement by the Yolngu people. “

Since the handover ceremony at Joan McKie’s home in Derby in November 2022, the fourth Bark Petition has been housed at ArtLab in Adelaide where it has been stabilised and conserved.

“Artlab Australia is especially honoured to be involved in the return of a Yirrkala Bark Petition to its Community of origin”, said Sophie Parker, senior conservator on the project.

“It is a powerful document that has become structurally very fragile with time. Conservators at Artlab have stabilised the Petition as much as possible and placed it within a custom-designed framed case to preserve the Bark Petition for display at Yirrkala.”

Following the repatriation ceremony, the Bark Petition will be on permanent display at the Buku-Larnŋgay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala.

“We are so grateful to have one of the original Bark Petitions returned to the safe keeping of the Yirrkala community”, said Will Stubbs, Centre co-ordinator.

“It is a living reminder of the courage, strength and integrity of our elders. They had their land stolen and their society disregarded but resisted this dispossession with dignity and grace. We are so happy that young Yolngu people can see the evidence of this struggle which continues.”

As part of her research, Professor Wright also tracked down Jim Wells, the son of Reverend Edgar Wells, Superintendent of the Yirrkala Methodist Mission in 1963, and his wife, author Ann E. Wells. It was Ann who typed up the paper component of the petition on her Remington typewriter.

Jim Wells is donating his mother’s typewriter to the Yirrkala Arts Centre and Museum, for display alongside the returned Bark Petition.

“My parents, the Rev Edgar Wells and Ann Wells strongly believed in the right of the traditional owners of the land to be consulted as to the use of their traditional country and to be compensated appropriately for its use. Ann Wells volunteered to type the petition to parliament to gain this control. Ann typed the petition documents on this typewriter, which I am pleased to donate to the Arts Centre at Yirrkala”, Jim Wells said.

The repatriation event – including customary ceremonial buŋgul – will be attended by descendants of the original artists and signatories of the Bark Petitions, members of the Yolŋu community, homelands school students and teachers, as well as descendants of missionaries, activists, politicians and other allies from the turbulent days of 1960s civil rights activism.

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