Yunupingu’s hope for a Treaty: ‘Pass it on, pass it on’

In the year 1988, called by white Australians the Bicentenary, then-prime minister Bob Hawke travelled to a big Indigenous festival of dance, music and sport at a place in the bush, 80 kilometres south of Katherine in the Northern Territory, called Barunga.

And there by a campfire, seated on the ground, Hawke found himself blindsided by a powerful leader of northern Australia’s Aboriginal people, a man we call, now he is deceased, simply Yunupingu.

Yunupingu with former prime minister Bob Hawke in 2014. As chair of the Northern Land Council, Yunupingu handed the Barunga Statement to Hawke in 1988.

Peter Eve/Yothu Yindi Foundation

Leader of the Gumatj clan of Arnhem Land and at the time chairman of the Northern Land Council, Yunupingu, along with the chairman of the Central Land Council, Wenten Rubuntja, and other Indigenous leaders – all of them in full ceremonial paint that spoke of vastly more than the 200 years since the First Fleet had arrived – approached the prime minister with a bark painting that bore a written message.

It stated, in a few short paragraphs, the aspirations of “the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia”.

It called 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”.

Here then, was the Barunga Statement.

Hawke, overcome by the moment, promised Yunupingu and his fellow leaders that he would work to conclude a treaty with Aboriginal Australia by 1990.

He never managed to meet his promise.

But that moment when Yunupingu presented him the Barunga Statement haunted Hawke.

Precisely one minute before his years as prime minister ended on December 20, 1991, Hawke stood before the bark painting at Parliament House in Canberra, and declared: “The important thing is what’s in our minds and in our hearts.”

Yunupingu was invested an honorary doctor of law by the University of Melbourne in 2015.

Peter Eve/Yothu Yindi Foundation

The previous day, Paul Keating had won his second challenge to Hawke’s prime ministership. As Hawke spoke, Keating was at Government House, about to be sworn in as Australia’s 24th prime minister.

The vanquished Hawke had insisted that his final act as PM must be to keep an old promise to Yunupingu and his people and unveil the Barunga Statement in Parliament House. It was – and remains – mounted at the entrance to parliament’s Great Hall.

“Its presence here calls on those who follow me; it demands of them that they continue efforts, that they find solutions to the abundant problems that still face the Aboriginal people of this country,” said Hawke, speaking without notes.

Beside him stood Yunupingu, who had come from Arnhem Land to farewell PM Hawke and remind all the prime ministers to come to stay true to the significance of the bark painting’s message.

Yunupingu with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the Garma Festival in 2022.

Melanie Faith Dove/Yothu Yindi Foundation

And he had words of his own.

“Great leaders have to step down for other leaders,” said Yunupingu.

“The Aboriginal people have expected things like this [Hawke’s defeat] and I made a very clear statement to Bob when this Barunga Statement was handed over to him that when his time finishes he will have to pass it on, and pass it on, and pass it on.”

Now, Yunupingu, who spent much of his life in pursuit of justice and rights for his people, has passed on, too. The senior Yolngu lore man, Gumatj clan leader and the keeper of songlines died on Monday, aged 74, after a long illness.

The Barunga Statement in Parliament House, Canberra.

Andrew Taylor

But as Australia wrestles with its latest attempt to grant recognition to Indigenous Australians – a referendum asking no more than to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the constitutional right of a Voice to Parliament – it remains a fact that there have been eight Australian prime ministers since Hawke.

And not one of them has come near to meeting the request for a treaty inscribed in the Barunga Statement and handed over around a campfire by the now late Aboriginal leader, Yunupingu, to the leader of the nation of Australia in its so-called Bicentennial year, 1988.

“Pass it on, pass it on, pass it on.”

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