Part One: 1963 to 1997: When the Queen died in September last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave her a respectful but formal eulogy, saying: “With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, an historic reign and a long life devoted to duty, family, faith and service has come to an end.” However, when the Aboriginal identity Galarrwuy Yunupingu died in April this year, Albanese could hardly contain himself. This once plain-speaking politician plunged into poetics:
Now Yunupingu is gone, but the gurtha—the great tongue of flame and truth with which he spoke to us—is still here. And it lights the path ahead for us. We will never again hear his voice anew, but his words—and his legacy—will keep speaking to us … He lifted us up and held us there so that we could see as far as he did. And what a vision he shared with us …
Yunupingu’s admirers among the Aboriginal political elite were even more complimentary. Melbourne academic Marcia Langton declared him to be “the greatest leader Australia had ever known”. This was reported by the Australian’s indigenous specialist reporter Paige Taylor the day after he died, and has not been retracted since. So this exorbitant quote was not an error. Langton thought Yunupingu not just our greatest Aboriginal leader but Australia’s greatest leader ever.
The news media worked hard to sustain this degree of adoration. The Australian devoted the entire front page of its April 3 edition to a close-up photograph of Yunupingu’s face. Most other newspapers in the capital cities did much the same.
Keith Windschuttle appears in every Quadrant.
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What did Yunupingu accomplish to deserve such acclaim? Albanese said he was the founder of the movement for Aboriginal land rights and a long-time symbol of the uncompromising persistence that was needed to win the cause. In 1978 he was made Australian of the Year for his contribution. Most news stories in April dutifully followed Albanese’s claims. He said:
He made sure with the sheer power of his advocacy for land rights. He made sure when he helped draft the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, which delivered such a powerful message that resounded within the walls of the nation’s parliament.
However, none of Albanese’s claims above were true. When broadcast at Yirrkala, they must have generated infuriated expletives among those who actually did conceive and draft the famous bark petitions. Moreover, the idea of making claims for land rights was not founded by Yunupingu and, when he did have a significant role in the movement years later, there was a stench of corruption about his distribution of the royalties, both to other clans and among his own. He attracted bad publicity in sexual politics too. In 2006, he stood in a Darwin court accused of a violent sexual assault that threatened the life of one of his four wives. To cap this list, on his watch and close within his family there was an awful killing of a woman for which the male culprit got off lightly.
Now, I’m not raising these distasteful topics just to disparage Albanese and the news media for the mythical creature they have created. Yunupingu’s career also has implications for the constitutional change these parties are now promoting. If their referendum gets up, its romantic ambition of restoring traditional Aboriginal culture will preserve the careers of indigenous men like Yunupingu. Not only will the Big Men of clans remain dominant over many communities in remote Australia but the Voice will embed new generations of these indigenous oligarchs. Their constitutional protection will make them a law unto themselves, no matter how badly they serve their dependent constituents. So let me outline here, and in our following edition, aspects of Yunupingu’s career that the mainstream media coverage of his death largely omitted or got completely wrong.
The Methodist mission and the mining company
In 1935 a Methodist mission for Aborigines was established at Yirrkala on the north-east coast of Arnhem Land. Before the white men arrived, the monsoonal deluge from November to April always made it difficult for local clans to hunt, fish and gather plant food. They were glad to come, voluntarily, to the mission to get three free meals a day and sleep in dry beds. Most who came in regularly for food eventually decided to stay. This included Yunupingu’s father, Munggurawuy Yunupingu, then the Big Man of the Gumatj clan, who brought into the mission his eleven wives and twenty-four children. The Gumatj were one of thirteen clans on the Gove Peninsula who identified as Yolngu. Galarrwuy Yunupingu was one of the sons educated at the Yirrkala mission school, where he learned to speak English.
In the Second World War the Gove Peninsula became one of the strategically important sites in the Northern Territory. As well as army roads into the peninsula, the Royal Australian Air Force constructed a runway there (on the site of the present mining town of Nhulunbuy), and built a causeway to connect Gunyangara, an island in Melville Bay, to the main peninsula, creating a base for Catalina flying boats. In short, before Yunupingu was born in 1948, the war had opened up the region to the modern world and the local Aborigines had accommodated themselves to it.
The pace of change accelerated in the 1970s when the Swiss and Australian company Nabalco gained a lease from the Commonwealth government over a swathe of land on the peninsula and began constructing an alumina mine and processing plant. It also built the township of Nhulunbuy to house three thousand employees, plus a range of modern facilities, including a hospital and three schools.
All of this took place close to Yirrkala and took up much of the peninsula’s land. Yunupingu’s father had accepted the Christian mission and the wartime industry, but he resented the transformation of the peninsula by the mine and industrial plant. In the early 1970s he decided his clan would make an exodus. He left the old mission at Yirrkala and took the clan to Gunyangara on Melville Bay, where he settled on Drimmie Head, a promontory in the bay, also known as Ski Beach. They were joined there by some of the Galpu clan. They were only thirteen kilometres west of the mining town of Nhulunbuy, which allowed them to keep in touch with the services there. The wartime causeway built by the RAAF meant Gunyangara was no longer an island, so access to the town was comparatively easy. Hence, the clan’s exodus was anything but a complete break with the white colonialists.
However, the emigration never amounted to much. After his father’s death in 1979, Yunupingu became the Big Man of the Gumatj clan and, even though he was then funded by Commonwealth and land rights money, only a small number of his people joined him. By 2011, the Australian census recorded that Gunyangara housed only 155 people. By 2021, the population had grown to just 207 persons living in twenty-seven households. At the same census, those remaining at Yirrkala, a mixture of Rirratjingu, Galpu and Gumatj clans, totalled 657 people in 187 private dwellings. In short, the Gumatj exodus could hardly be regarded as a feat of great leadership.
Most of the news stories about Yunupingu’s death repeated heroic claims about his role as a founder of the Aboriginal land rights movement. In the 1960s he was supposedly one of the originators of the symbolic Yirrkala bark petitions to Canberra. In the 1970s he purportedly launched the first legal claim for land rights at Gove against Nabalco. In the 1980s he persuaded Prime Minister Bob Hawke to agree to a treaty for Aboriginal self-determination. And over this whole period he was allegedly loved and respected by his own people while his persistence and fortitude purportedly set an example for other clans to pursue the great cause of Aboriginal rights.
The Yirrkala and Barunga bark petitions
Now, it is true that when the two Yirrkala bark petitions were presented to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1963 they had a powerful symbolic effect by telling the Australian public that Aboriginal land rights were a political demand to be reckoned with. However, any suggestion that Yunupingu was one of the petitions’ authors or creators is fanciful. In 1963, he was fifteen years old and his ambition to become a Christian missionary saw him leave Yirrkala to spend two years at the Methodist Bible College in Brisbane. Despite claims today by journalists that his artistic father produced some of the artwork on the bark petitions, there is no credible evidence that he did.
The petitions were actually conceived and drawn up by the Marika family of the Rirratjingu clan. Even though the Rirratjingu and Gumatj clans spoke similar languages and were deeply intermarried, they were long-standing bitter rivals and, at times, outright enemies. In the 1960s, and still today, Rirratjingu people were the largest clan of the community at Yirrkala. The authors of the original bark petition to Canberra were five brothers of the Rirratjingu clan: Mawalan Marika, Mathaman Marika, Milirrpum Marika, Dhunggala Marika and Dadaynga “Roy” Marika. They were the traditional occupants of the land that the Commonwealth leased to Nabalco. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra, which has published a detailed history of the bark paintings, also noted that the Marika brothers were assisted in the petition’s drafting by Wandjuk Marika (Mawalan’s son, who later became the first chairman of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board). Neither Yunupingu father or son rate a mention.
Twenty-five years later in June 1988, when Prime Minister Bob Hawke visited the Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival at Barunga, to the east of Katherine, Yunupingu presented him with a bark petition of his own. This became known as the Barunga Statement. It had artwork similar to the original Yirrkala petitions, and advocated a treaty to recognise Aboriginal “prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty” and to demand self-determination and compensation for loss of lands. On the day of the festival, Bob Hawke declared himself an enthusiastic supporter of a treaty and said he would sign one before the end of his term in office. However, when he got back to Canberra, and took advice about the full text of what Yunupingu wanted, he dropped the idea and never revived it. So the Barunga bark petition did not amount to an effective addition to the cause.
The Gove Peninsula land rights case
Much the same was true of the legal case in the Northern Territory Supreme Court in 1970–71 in which Yunupingu, then twenty-three years old, played a very minor role. The case was Milirrpum v Nabalco, which is frequently heralded today as the first land rights case in Australia. Aboriginal clans from the Gove Peninsula argued the Commonwealth government was wrong to grant mining leases to Nabalco Pty Ltd without consulting the local Aboriginal clans.
The Milirrpum in the title of the case referred to Milirrpum Marika of the Rirratjingu clan, one of the authors of the original Yirrkala bark petition. The two other plaintiffs were Galarrwuy’s father Munggurawuy Yunupingu representing the Gumatj clan and Daymbalipu representing the Djapu clan and eleven other groups. Most of the evidence about Aboriginal land was given by white people, especially local missionaries and the anthropologists Bill Stanner and Ronald Berndt. The judge of the case, Justice Richard Blackburn, also heard evidence in person from local Aborigines. Ten witnesses from eight different clans appeared before the hearing. When those who couldn’t speak English were called, Galarrwuy Yunupingu translated their words for the court. He did not give any evidence himself and his opinions were never consulted by the judge. It was obviously important for the justice of the case that people from the Gove Peninsula clans should be called to appear and have their evidence quoted. But, as is normal in court cases where translators are used, they are not treated as important members of the team. Hence, in the 294 pages of the Blackburn judgment, Yunupingu does not rate a mention.
Moreover, Paige Taylor’s claim in the Australian that he was “central to the introduction of Australia’s first land rights laws in 1976” is also mythology. It downplays the fact that the Gove case was a failure and Nabalco’s right to the land it leased was endorsed. Moreover, the case produced plenty of first-hand evidence from Aboriginal witnesses who admitted that, before the whites came, none of their clans had an exclusive identification with one particular territory. Not one of them agreed with the white anthropologists about the structure of their bands or their clan organisation, or of their notion of exclusive identification with a particular territory. Blackburn’s judgment reported:
None of the witnesses said that in the days before the Mission he lived chiefly in his clan territory … The people of each clan were deeply conscious of their clan kinship and of the spiritual significance of a particular land to their clan. On the other hand … it was of no importance whether or not the members of a band had any relationships to each other, or conducted their food-gathering and communal living upon territory linked to any particular clan.
In short, the indigenous culture of the clans of the Gove Peninsula did not have any equivalent to the British notion of land or land ownership. Blackburn found there was no native title there at all. Rather than a great leap forward for the concept of land rights, the Gove case was, in effect, a setback that adherents had to overcome.
The clans’ contest over land rights royalties
The push for land rights, however, did not stop. It continued in Canberra in the hands of white politicians and bureaucrats. Five years later, they accomplished what the Aboriginal plaintiffs could not. The Fraser government enacted the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This was a piece of legislation largely drawn up by the previous Whitlam Labor government in order to capitalise on the popularity of reforms for Aborigines. This appeal had been demonstrated by the 90 per cent Yes vote in the 1967 constitutional referendum. Whitlam was keen to claim the sentiment for Labor.
The main connection between the 1976 Act and the Gove case was that it was largely drawn up by John Woodward QC. As a barrister, Woodward had been legal counsel for the Aboriginal clans in the Gove case and Whitlam appointed him to conduct a commission of inquiry in 1973–74. Woodward brushed aside Blackburn’s judgment about the absence of Aboriginal ownership and recommended the establishment of land councils of Aboriginal people who would themselves govern land claims. Their other main role would be to distribute the funds generated by rentals and contracts from mining companies operating on Aboriginal land. Initially, two land councils were established: the Central Land Council, with an office in Alice Springs, and the Northern Land Council, with an office in Nhulunbuy.
The inaugural chairman appointed by the board of the Northern Land Council was Galarrwuy Yunupingu, then aged twenty-eight. At the time his ailing father, who died in 1979, nominated his son to take his place as head of the Gumatj clan. The available literature does not reveal how Galarrwuy won enough support from the other board members to be appointed to the chair, nor how he was able to remain in the job for as long as he did. Nonetheless, Yunupingu gained the numbers to support him as chairman for twenty-five years, from 1976 to 1980, and 1983 to 2004. This was despite the fact that for much of this period he was engaged in a bitter conflict with the Rirratjingu clan about who had what rights to which pieces of Gove land. As chairman of the land council and head of the Gumatj clan, Yunupingu had a big say about how much each clan received.
When the mining began at Gove, Nabalco paid royalties to the Commonwealth government, which transferred some of these funds to the Northern Land Council for distribution among the traditional owners. The land council itself decided what proportion of the funds each clan should receive. Almost all of it went to the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans. In the early years of royalties, the Rirratjingu did not contest the share they received because “royalty payments were relatively low then”, and the distribution of shares and how the board decided the breakdown was not known by outsiders. However, the Rirratjingu gradually regretted they did not take active steps to measure the difference. By the 1990s, royalties had grown to around $2 million a year. The Rirratjingu clan formed a corporation to investigate the accounts and found that, with Yunupingu as its chair, the land council was giving his own Gumatj clan the lion’s share of the proceeds. The Gumatj were getting more than three times the amount given to the Rirratjingu, a ratio of 76 per cent of the spoils to 24 per cent.
In 1993, complaints by Rirratjingu people and others to both the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments about the distorted distribution of royalties eventually led to an investigation by the federal auditor-general. The subsequent audit found that, under Yunupingu, the Northern Land Council’s budget had suffered serious over-runs and improper use of mining royalties. The eighty-two-page report, tabled in the Senate, recorded large cash advances taken by the chairman and repaid only belatedly. The land council’s rejoinder was that Yunupingu was not spending the money he took on himself. Rather, his position “placed extraordinary demands on him, particularly in relation to his cultural obligations”.
Conspicuous consumption and superfluous ceremony
What gave a bitter taste to these concerns was the fact that, at this time of his life, Yunupingu was displaying numerous signs of conspicuous consumption. When journalist Elizabeth Wynhausen interviewed him at home in 1995 (Weekend Australian, January 6-7, 1996) his choice of car was the Territory’s most coveted vehicle, a top-of-the-range Toyota Landcruiser, the same as those of the senior executives at the Nabalco plant. He had a boat as good as any of those anchored at the Gove Boat Club in Nhulunbuy. Wynhausen was shown around his best property, a mansion on Drimmie Head in Melville Bay, the prime location on the coast. “Like the well-to-do whites in Gove,” she wrote, “he has all the latest gadgets, from a new icemaker to the big bathroom’s spa bath, a big TV set, which covers half the wall.” Nhulunbuy locals told Wynhausen he employed white gardeners and Filipino servants.
On one issue, however, Yunupingu easily outdid all the highest paid of the white mining managers. As well as his own home and office, he had four houses for his four wives. They were at different locations on the east coast, another on the north coast of Arnhem Land, plus an apartment in Darwin. In front of the Drimmie Head property was a helicopter pad with a pilot and helicopter (hired for $1400 per hour) waiting to take him to whichever of his wives’ houses he chose to visit that night. Yunupingu told Wynhausen that the Gumatj clan had signed to buy a helicopter of its own.
The distribution of mining royalties amounted to only about half the income the clans at Gove received. The rest came from the pensions and handouts that all local Aborigines received from the Commonwealth government. They displayed no desire to work at the mine or processing plant, despite the best efforts of management to recruit them.
The Commonwealth paid pension money directly into individual Aborigines’ bank accounts. Yunupingu decided this was far too impersonal a process and no way to generate loyalty. So he decided to hand out clan royalties publicly, doling out personal gifts of cash at a public ceremony. At one of these quarterly ceremonies she attended, Wynhausen said Yunupingu looked like the lord of the manor handing out money to humble subjects. To collect their share of the takings, four or five dozen people attended from both the local Gunyangara community and clans at Yirrkala. Wynhausen writes:
Yunupingu has a lazily commanding presence that comes alive as he works the crowd that has gathered at Ski Beach for the distribution of the mining royalties … he talks and talks, repeating phrases, like a preacher, to wring a response from the crowd. The task is made easier because closest to him are several of his own sisters. Strong women in colourful print sundresses, they call out “yo, yo”, the Yolngu for “yes”.
However, at the function she saw, only a fraction of the annual royalty payment was handed out. Yunupingu took a batch of envelopes from his secretary and handed them to his older brother Joe. In turn, Joe handed out fifteen or so envelopes. Wynhausen observed: “It looks as if most contain several hundred dollars rather than the thousands the division of a little less than $500,000 might lead one to expect.” She was referring to the fact that one quarter of the annual royalties of $2 million was due to be distributed but the envelopes obviously held much less than that. “This made it very difficult,” she remarked, “for bureaucrats trying to regulate the use of public money.”
Throughout the 1990s, complaints about Yunupingu’s methods continued to mount. By 1997 they reached the point where the new Coalition government, pressed by its own constituents to modify the previous Labor government’s legislation, decided to do something about land councils. John Howard appointed a Darwin QC, John Reeves, to review both the finances and the politics of the land councils and advise what should be done to either fix the system or close it down.
Part Two of this article, on events from 1998 to 2023, will be published in a special online edition of Quadrant in August.