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Yunupingu, a giant of Aboriginal land rights and justice, passes away

Giovanni Torre -

Yunupingu's last name and image used in accordance with his family's wishes.

Yunupingu, a Yolngu man of the Gumatj clan and lifelong warrior for the rights of Aboriginal people, has passed away at 74.

He first came to national attention in the late 1960s for his role in the landmark Gove Land Rights Case.

For many years, Yunupingu held an executive position on the Northern Land Council where he worked to help Aboriginal people take back control of their land.

He was a lifelong advocate for self-determination and economic development among his people.

Leader of the Gumatj Clan since 1979, Yunupingu honoured as Australian of the Year, Member of the Order of Australia, and was named as one of Australia's National Living Treasures.

His life and work has served as an inspiration to countless people.

Yunupingu's father, Gumatj clan leader Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, urged him to pursue "western" education while also staying strong in Yolngu culture and tradition.

At Yirrkala community, where Yunupingu was raised, missionaries saw his leadership potential at a young age and he was sent to Brisbane to study at Buble college.

After returning to Arnhem Land he focussed his drive and his skills on defending Country.

He had mastered Yolngu Matha traditional languages as well as English, and knew "both worlds" well, making him a formidable young leader.

He acted as a translator for Elders in the Gove land rights court case against mining company Nabalco. The case, Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, was lost in 1971, as the colonial state's law was stacked against Traditional Owners.

Shortly after the case Yunupingu recorded and released a single, Gurindji Blues, a song written by Ted Egan about the struggle of the Northern Territory land rights movement.

Later that decade Yunupingu became chairman of the Northern Land Council (NLC) a role in which he served with great distinction for well over 20 years.

In 1978 he was named Australian of the Year after playing a leading role in the battle over uranium mining in Kakadu National Park.

He played a key role in the creation of the Barunga Statement, which was handed to Prime Minister Bob Hawke in June, 1988. In many ways a blueprint for Treaty, the statement was a product of decades of engagement between Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory and the Australian Government.

As chair of the NLC, Yunupingu was instrumental in the planning and painting of the Barunga Statement.

At the time, he said:

"It will be something to remind any government who will run in its power to change policies and Constitution, that Aboriginal people will always be in front of their policy making and decision making… The notice that we will present to the prime minister now will remind not only Bob Hawke but the next one after him, and the next one after him, and the next one after him, and the next one after him, and we can count that for another 200 years."

Yunupingu presents the Barunga petition to prime minister Bob Hawke in 1988. Photo credit: Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Hawke was certainly not the last Prime Minister to meet with Yunupingu. A number sat down and spoke with him over the decades, including Anthony Albanese, who met with him at Garma festival in 2022.

In a joint statement from Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, NT Senator and Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians Malarndirri McCarthy and Member for Lingiari Marion Scrymgour, the political leaders said Yunupingu "worked with more than 10 Prime Ministers of Australia on the struggle for Indigenous recognition, and lived through the many disappointments".

"Australia has lost a giant," they said.

Yunupingu's cultural influence was immense.

His work and the long struggle for land rights and treaty inspired his younger brother, Mandawuy Yunupingu, the lead singer of Yothu Yindi, to write "Treaty".

The 1990 hit sent shockwaves across the country. Yothu Yindi won ARIA Awards and took the national conversation to a new level.

While Hawke's promise of a national treaty was, and remains, unrealised, Yunupingu's work over many many years was critical to ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices across the country could not be dismissed to readily as had been the case for far too long.

Yunupingu later chaired the Gumatj Corporation, which received mining royalties from Rio Tinto for its use of Yolngu land which he saw not as an end in itself but as an instrument to build economic empowerment and independence in the long term.

Gumatj Corporation established infrastructure including a cattle farm, bauxite mine and timber mill to create jobs and prosperity for Gumatj people.

Yunupingu was also a member of the Referendum Working Group and part of the Indigenous Voice co-design Advisory Group set up by former Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.

Yunupingu is survived by his 12 children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Yunupingu's great strength, his ability to walk tall in both worlds, was replicated in his ability to focus on both the urgent matters at hand and the shining light in the future, the ultimate goals that are closer today because of his lifetime of work and leadership.

In 2008 he wrote:

"I am trying to light the fire in our young men and women…We are setting fires to our own lives as we really should, and the flame will burn and intensify … and remind people that we, the Gumatj people, are the people of the fire."


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