Yirrkala Bark Petitions

The Yirrkala bark petitions 1963 are historic Australian documents that were the first traditional documents prepared by Indigenous Australians that were recognised by the Australian Parliament, and are thus the first documentary recognition of Indigenous people in Australian law.

Wali Wunungmurra, one of the 12 signatories to the petition, describes the background to the petition as follows:

"In the late 1950s Yolngu became aware of people prospecting for minerals in the area of the Gove Peninsula, and shortly after, discovered that mining leases had been taken out over a considerable area of our traditional land. Our response, in 1963, was to send a petition framed by painted bark to the Commonwealth Government demanding that our rights be recognised."

The Yolngu people of Yirrkala sent the bark petitions to the Australian House of Representatives. The petition asserted that the Yolngu people owned that land and protested the Commonwealth's granting of mining rights to Nabalco of land excised from Arnhem Land reserve. The result was a parliamentary inquiry which recommended that compensation was owed to the Yolngu. Thus, the petition was the first recognition of native title.

The Yolngu then took their grievances to the courts when it became obvious the politicians in Canberra were not going to recognise their ownership of the land. The case moved to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in 1968 as Milurrpum v Nabalco; the Gove land rights case. In 1971 it was ruled that the Yolgnu people were not able to establish their native title at common law. Justice Richard Blackburn used the notion of terra nullius to justify this.

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