In their own words

Wali Wunungmurra, Chairman of the Northern Land Council and signatory on the Bark Petitions

Mr Wunungmurra speaks of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions of 1963 in his article  Journey Goes Full Circle from Bark Petition to Blue Mud Bay, by Wali Wunungmurra, ABC The Drum at (viewed 1 June 2013)

Kim E. Beazley, Member for Fremantle, Labor spokesman on Aboriginal Affairs, and Chairman of the Labor Party’s Committee on the Aborigines and Papuans

“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 …

It was no small matter to that community. When bauxite is mined, the whole surface of the land is cleared, leaving a moonscape behind. Sacred sites would be destroyed. Townships and ports would be developed.  The mining effluent would flow into Melville Bay with unknown consequences to the fishing.

The elders talked the situation over with the mission superintendent, the Reverend Edgar Wells, and wrote to Bryant.  Bryant asked me to come with him to Yirrkala, where we sat down with the tribal council.

The elders’ concerns had been ignored, both by the government and by the leaders of the Methodist Church in Sydney. This would never have happened had the people concerned not be Aboriginal. They were being treated as a conquered people,not as Australian citizens.  Bryant and I were determined that parliament would uphold their right to be consulted.

But how could this be done?  After breakfast the next day we went to the mission church to look at the magnificent bark paintings there.  Suddenly I had an idea. We met again with the tribal council, and I urged them to petition parliament with a bark painting.  I was sure this would catch the attention of the press. Then it could not be ignored in the way that most petitions are.”

From: Father of the House: The Memoirs of Kim E. Beazley, by Kim E. Beazley, Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2009, p. 156-157

Edgar Wells, Superintendent at Yirrkala Mission 1962-1963

Mr Beazley gave the group of Aborigines who showed the two visitors [Beazley and Bryant] around the essential preamble for the petition to Canberra so that they could match the words of the petition in their own dialect.  However the painting of the surrounds could not be done in time for the petition to be taken to Canberra by the parliamentarians; first, the work had to be organised and the essential typing completed. The petition was to be posted later; five major copies were to be completed as soon as possible. This delay was to prove unfortunate in that senior officers of the administration of both Government and Church found it hard to believe that a missionary from Yirrkala was not responsible for the quite extraordinary furore the petition created in the Australian Parliament sometime later.”

From: Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land 1962-1963, by Edgar Wells, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1982, p. 80

Milirrpum, signatory on the Bark Petition, giving evidence at the hearings of the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve, on Tuesday 1st October 1963:

The Chairman asked:
“Do you think it is a good idea for the mining people to come here and work on some part of the area? Do you think that this will bring advantages to your people?”

Milirrpum replied:
“We did not know what people came here.  First of all aboriginal people not get whisper nowhere. Other people really plunder this country – only take from this country. We did not know, first of all, why they came. But later on, we soon get a little bit of word. But all aboriginal people did not get the word from mining people to mission. After that, when mission people get a little bit of word from mining people and mission tell us they went to all the marks.  After mission tell us, we were worrying a little bit about our country.  All aboriginal people did not know anything about why they mine bauxite. That is why the people little bit worry.  They see men plunder this country. We were worrying about our children and our country. We want to hold all the country. All generations of our people here. The people here little bit worry because of all this whisper, and that is why we people come together this afternoon for this business.

If this country taken, we want something else from mining people. This aboriginal people’s place. We want to hold this country. We do not want to lose this country. That is how the people are worrying about this country. We want to get more room for our hunting and our fishing, because later on we got more people. Our children are to come. All my children at school in this country. They want to hold this country. We fought the law for our children for all this country.  Please, we do not want to lose this country. We stand on this country. The Aboriginal people were the first Australians here. Then you people come along. Please, that is my word I am telling you.  That is my last word.  Thank you.”

From: House of Representatives, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Report from the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve. Part II Minutes of Evidence, Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer, 1963, p. 29