Barunga Stories

Once again a work of Aboriginal art is at the center of a controversy involving culture, politics, and history.

In the week following Australia Day articles have appeared in the press, including The Age and the National Indigenous Times, detailing Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s call for the Federal government to return the painting known as the Barunga Statement. He proposes to take the painting back to Barunga and bury it in a larrakitj, the traditional log coffin, in a symbolic act that proclaims the failure to achieve the goals set forth in the Statement’s text, and to symbolically bury the hopes of achieving a treaty between the government and its indigenous citizens.

Serendipitously, I was finishing up Andrew McMillan’s An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2001) this week, which tells part of the story of the Barunga panel’s painting that I had not heard before. The coincidence prompts me to assemble the story here.

Like so much in the recent history of relations between the Aboriginal people and the Australian government, the roots of the Barunga Statement lie in the closing days of the Whitlam government in 1975. At that time the Senate passed a resolution calling for recognition of the prior ownership of the continent by the indigenous population and legislation that would compensate them for the loss of their country. The Aboriginal Treaty Committee, chaired by Nugget Coombs, was established in 1979 and tried unsuccessfully to promote such legislation. In 1983 the Committee was disbanded; in their final statements they asserted their progress in influencing public opinion to support greater recognition of the importance of addressing issues relating to indigenous peoples and perhaps eliminating the need for the Treaty. 

The shot to the heart, however, was the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs’ rejection of the Treaty on the grounds that the Aboriginal people were not a sovereign entity, and therefore could not be party to a treaty with the Commonwealth. And there it lay, in shades of Justice Blackburn’s reasoning in his decision onMilirrpum v Nabalco (that Australian constitutional law did not recognize indigenous customary law), until the run up to the Bicentennial celebrations, when Prime Minister Bob Hawke once again raised the issue of negotiating a treaty.

After the bicentennial celebrations of January 1988 and the protests that accompanied them in Sydney, there were politics aplenty in the air across the country and in the Northern Territory in particular. In June, the various threads came together at the Barunga Sports and Culture Festival. Barunga, which lies southwest of Katherine, was known as the one festival among many where Aboriginal culture received more than a perfunctory nod amidst footy competitions and other sports events. 

So it was perhaps most appropriate that a group of men gathered together there to address issues of Aboriginal culture and politics. Among the leaders present were Galarrwuy Yunupingu, then chairman of the North Land Council, Mr Rubuntja (who passed away in 2005), his opposite number in the Central Land Council, Prime Minister Hawke, and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gerry Hand.

The Barunga Statement itself (see the full text below) was the product of several years of negotiations between Galarrwuy and other indigenous leaders across Australia. Taking inspiration from the Yirrkala Bark Petition created twenty years earlier, the Statement took the form of a typed set of demands surrounded by painted designs and affixed to a large (120 by 80 cm) piece of hardboard. It called for compensation for lands that had been lost forever to Aboriginal people coupled with a national framework for asserting and insuring Land Rights, the fulfillment of the promise of self-determination, and full participation for the indigenous population in the civic life of Australia, including economic, social, and cultural rights. 


The painting combined several clan designs from Yolngu country in northeastern Arnhem Land on the left with a large design featuring traditional Central Desert iconography on the right. As such it visually affirmed the unified demands of the indigenous people of the Northern Territory and the Land Councils that represented the interests of those who had already attained the first measure of self-management promised by the Land Rights Act (NT) 1976.

The Barunga Statement was signed by the several representatives present, although, despite Hawke’s signature, it did not represent a legally binding document on the Federal Government. There is a sad irony to that fact once again, as happened with the Yirrkala Bark Petition, the concepts of the white man’s law were used to invalidate the demands that black man’s law be honored in Australia. It is sadder still in that one of the points in the Statement calls for a “justice system which recognises our customary laws.”

What happened next, ironically, was the eruption of a dispute about land rights—not between the indigenous population and the government in Canberra, but in an intramural conflict that led to dire predictions of “war” in Arnhem Land.

One section of the Yolngu portion of the painting on the Barunga panel had been executed, apparently under Galarrwuy’s direction, by a Munyuku man named Dhula Ngurruwuthun. The design depicted Barnggitj, or bush honey, at a site sacred to the ancestor Wuyal. This land was the traditional territory of the Manatja clan, which by 1988 was nearly extinct, with only two elderly women representing the end of the lineage.

When such a situation occurs in Yolngu country, responsibility for the land of the extinct clan is typically taken over by another clan that stands in the proper relation to the dying clan to have the requisite knowledge of the songs and designs of the country to continue to perform the ceremonies of the country. By painting the design in such a public manner, Dhula was in effect asserting the claim of the Munyuku to the country.

This action angered Gawirrin Gumana, leader of the Dhalwangu clan, which is based at Gangan in Yirritja country. Gangan is a site of almost supreme importance for the Yirritja moiety, for it is from there that the creator ancestor Barama sent his emissaries out across Yolngu country to instruct the Yirritja people in the true Law. Gawirrin asserted his rights to the Barnggitj design; Dhula’s appropriation of it in such a public fashion was an insult of the highest order.

Gawirrin expressed his outrage by claiming that the particular depiction of the Barnggitj design was an inside or sacred one, and that exposing it publicly in this fashion threatened women and uninitiated men with the gravest dangers. Furthermore, since Galarrwuy had sanctioned it use, and since Galarrwuy further had been representing the Yolngu in his role as President of the Northern Land Council, it was Galarrwuy and not the artist who bore ultimate responsibility for the transgression.

Under traditional Law, the penalty for such a transgression was death, and with feelings in the Yolngu community running high, by the end of September 1988 Galarrwuy had retreated to his island home of Butjumurru, where McMillan says that he was protected by a spear-carrying guard of men standing watch on the causeway that linked the island with the mainland.

To make matters worse, the NT News got into the act. As President of the Northern Land Council, Galarrwuy was a natural target for those in the Territory who were angered by what they perceived as a wholesale giveaway of the Territory’s land to Aboriginal people. When they heard that death threats were circulating, they made no attempt to conceal their delight, and splashed the news in bold headlines across the front pages of the paper. This led to further distress among the Yolngu, and prompted intervention by Roy Marika. Roy was head of the Rirratjingu clan and the man who, through his leadership in the Gove Land Dispute and the lawsuit against Nabalco that followed on the federal government’s failure to respond to the Yirrkala Bark Petition, was widely regarded among the Yolngu as the father of land rights in the Territory. In Darwin, he made a public appeal to the media to stop discussing what was, after all, a proper Yolngu matter and rightly no concern of theirs. It should come as no surprise that this call went unheeded as well.

On September 24,YothuYindi, performing in concert at the Festival of Aboriginal Rock Music in Darwin, dedicated their songs to Galarrwuy, who had founded and directed the band. Three days later a council of elders met at Galiwin’ku to discuss the dispute and decide Galarrwuy’s fate. Perhaps recognizing that the internal disagreement among the Yolngu threatened the broader issues of indigenous self-determination in the North, the council exonerated Galarrwuy, a decision that was announced with much excitement on ABC’s 7.30 Report.

This was not the end of the matter, however, and over a year later, Gawirrin was still claiming that sacred inside designs were being publicly displayed, with the Barunga Statement now in the collection of Parliament House in Canberra. To quell this protest, Dhula Ngurruwuthun flew to Canberra and painted over the offending design with another version of the story that was appropriate for display to “outside” audiences. (From my reading of the description of the original, it appears that the controversial section of the painting occupies the middle of the left-hand side of the panel.) Doing so seems to have settled the dispute in favor of the Dhalwangu. 

Hawke, to his credit, and perhaps acutely aware of the 1983 failure to realize the treaty, nonetheless decided to pursue the goals put forth in the Barunga Statement. By early 1991 the legal wrangling over the concept of a “treaty” was laid aside with the introduction of the concept of an “instrument of reconciliation.” Perhaps taking their cue from the Aboriginal Treaty Committee’s recognition that changes in attitudes were of primary importance to the goals of social justice, the then incumbent Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Robert Tickner, noted that “the process of reconciliation may be as important as the final outcome and the initial focus would be on the process rather than on the document.” (The full text of Walking Together: the first steps is available online.)

Now in 2006, the promise of Barunga remains unfulfilled. The National Indigenous Times quotes Galarrwuy Yunupingu as saying, “Sovereignty became treaty, treaty became reconciliation and reconciliation became nothing. … We will dig a hole and bury it. It will be a protest but I also hope that it can represent a new start for Aboriginal people.” The focus of the government seems to have reverted to the documents rather than the process, and legalisms, “practical reconciliation,” and empty words have won the day again.NIT reports that the Howard government has not responded to Galarrwuy’s request, although they quote Amanda Vanstone (at that moment still occupying the post of Indigenous Affairs Minister) declining to comment: “We’re not aware of any formal request besides what has been made in the media, therefore there is no comment I can make.” 

It this context it is worthwhile considering Hawke’s remarks as he finally hung the Barunga Statement in the new Parliament House as his last official act, ten minutes before handing over the government to Paul Keating. 

When the Barunga Statement was presented to me in 1988 by [Rubuntja] and Galarrwuy I said something then that in retrospect seems a little prophetic. I said, my friends, that I would display the Barunga Statement in Parliament House and I quote myself – it’s not something you should do too often but I do it on this occasion – “that for whoever is Prime Minister of this country, not only to see, but to understand and also to honour”.

So it is indeed, I think, very, very fitting indeed that my last official act as Prime Minister is to hang the Statement in Parliament House.

This is no ordinary ceremony because what we are about is symbolising the commitment of my Government – and I have got ten minutes in which I can use that phrase. It symbolises the commitment of the Hawke Government to the indigenous people of Australia and its presence here calls on those, and let me emphasise this as strongly as I can, its presence here calls upon those who follow me, it demands of them that they continue efforts to find solutions to the problems, the abundant problems which still face the Aboriginal people of this country.

…And what we’ve got to understand is that, if you’re really serious in this country as you come to the end of this century, the first century of our existence as a nation, and you want proudly to take Australia into the 21st Century there is no chance that you’re going to be able to do that unless you do have a reconciliation.

…We’ve got from 1991 through to the end of this century. We have very good people amongst the Aboriginal people and amongst the non-Aboriginal Australian community who’ve said that they will commit themselves to the task of educating us all so that we will, on the part of the non-Aboriginal people without being silly about it – just simply accept the accumulated guilt that we must all bear for what has happened in the past but in having said that say, that is the basis upon which together we’ll go forward. And on the part of the Aboriginal people that will mean, because there are obligations on both sides, it will mean on the part of the Aboriginal people saying, yes we accept that you understand that we are truly a part of the total Australian nation and we accept your commitment to address the accumulated wrongs of the past. Now that’s all that’s involved. It’s not very difficult for decent people to do that. And there is, in my judgement, nothing more important than that should be done.

Vanstone’s refusal to acknowledge the demand for the return of the Barunga Statement, in one of her last acts as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, speaks to what the Howard government has chosen “to understand and also to honour.”

Text of the Barunga Statement

We, the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia, call on the Australian Government and people to recognise our rights:

• to self-determination and self-management, including the freedom to pursue our own economic, social, religious and cultural development;

• to permanent control and enjoyment of our ancestral lands;

• to compensation for the loss of use of our lands, there having been no extinction of original title;

• to protection of and control of access to our sacred sites, sacred objects, artefacts, designs, knowledge and works of art;

• to the return of the remains of our ancestors for burial in accordance with our traditions;

• to respect for and promotion of our Aboriginal identity, including the cultural, linguistic, religious and historical aspects, and including the right to be educated in our own languages and in our own culture and history;

• in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, rights to life, liberty, security of person, food, clothing, housing, medical care, education and employment opportunities, necessary social services and other basic rights.

We call on the Commonwealth to pass laws providing:

• A national elected Aboriginal and Islander organisation to oversee Aboriginal and Islander affairs;

• A national system of land rights;

• A police and justice system which recognises our customary laws and frees us from discrimination and any activity which may threaten our identity or security, interfere with our freedom of expression or association, or otherwise prevent our full enjoyment and exercise of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.

We call on the Australian Government to support Aborigines in the development of an international declaration of principles for indigenous rights, leading to an international covenant.

And we call on the Commonwealth Parliament to negotiate with us a Treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom.

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