In his early years Galarrwuy Yunupingu attended Mission School at Yirrkala and for a two year period he moved to Brisbane to study at the Methodist Bible College, before returning to Gove in 1967. Yunupingu entered the struggle for land rights in the early 1960's with his father Mungurrawuy, who as Gumatj clan leader, fought and lost the battle to stop a bauxite mine operating on his land. Yunupingu was his father's interpreter throughout the historic Gove land rights case in 1971.
After his father's death in 1979, Yunupingu, a well-respected member of the wider community, became a very prominent leader and strong voice on behalf of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and Australia. He was Chairman of the Northern Land Council from 1977-2004 and in 2001 elected as co-chair of the Aboriginal Development Consultative Forum in Darwin.