AustLit logo


The material on this page is available to AustLit subscribers. If you are a subscriber or are from a subscribing organisation, please log in to gain full access. To explore options for subscribing to this unique teaching, research, and publishing resource for Australian culture and storytelling, please contact us or find out more.

AbstractHistoryArchive Description

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions (1963) were presented to the Australian House of Representatives, Commonwealth Parliament in August 1963, and are historic Australian documents. The petitions from the Yolngu people of Yirrkala were the first traditional documents recognised by the Commonwealth Parliament, and thus the first documentary recognition of Indigenous people in Australian law. The acceptance of these petitions also marked a bridge between two traditions of law.

During the late 1950s the Yolngu became aware of prospecting activities in the area of the Gove Peninsula in Arnhem Land, and the subsequent granting of mining leases over a considerable area of Yolngu traditional land. The Yolngu responded by sending a petition framed by painted bark to the Commonwealth Government demanding recognition of their rights. Although the petitioners were unsuccessful in gaining the Commonwealth Parliament’s recognition of rights to their traditional lands on the Gove Peninsula, the documents formed the foundation of the eventual recognition of Indigenous rights in Commonwealth Law.

The idea for the petition was inspired by two visiting politicians, Kim Beazley (Senior) and Gordon Bryant, the first petition dated 14 August 1963, the second dated 28 August 1963, were presented to the House of Representatives in August by the member for the Northern Territory, Mr Jock Nelson. The petitions was signed by twelve Yolngu men and women (aged between 18 to 36), who were members of local clans from both the Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties.

In 1968, a third petition was presented to Parliament, comprising a painted bark panel with text on the reverse side. This petition was painted by Dundiwuy Wanambi, and signed by: Mungurrawuy, Dundiwuy, Birrikitj, Mau, Matjid, Munyu, Nanyin, Wandjuk, Djalingpa, Gawirrin, Mr J.G. Yunupingu, Yinitjin, Mathaman, Djiriny, Guyuyuma, Djayila, and Roy Dadynga Marika.

The Yirrala petitions have played a ‘key part of the persistent claim for constitutional change which achieved the amendment of the Australian Constitution in 1967, the statutory acknowledgment of Aboriginal land rights by the Commonwealth in 1976, and the overturning of the obstacle of the concept of terra nullis by the High Court in the Mabo Case in 1992.'

(Source: AIATSIS; Museum of Australian Democracy website:; Wikipedia; 'Journey Goes Full Circle from Bark Petition to Blue Mud Bay'.)

Further reading:

– Read story by Wali Wunungumma Journey goes full circle from Bark Petition to Blue Mud Bay

Bark petitions: Indigenous art and reform for the rights of Indigenous Australians

– 2013 National Naidoc Week Theme

Yirrkala Bark Petitions 1963

Online Exhibition

1962-63 The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. House of Representatives. Report from the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve.

– Solomon, David Harris. The People's Palace: Parliament in Modern Australia. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1986.

– Morphy, Howard. Art and Politics: The Bark Petition and the Barunga Statement. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000.

– Towner, Joanne 'Copyright issues relating to Yirrkala 'Bark' petitions'. Table. 69 2001. 26-28.

– Schwarz, Janien and Canberra School of Art Beyond familiar territory: De-centering the Centre : an analysis of visual strategies in the art of Robert Smithson, Alfredo Jaar and the Bark petitions of Yirrkala, 1999.

– Langton, Marcia and Australian Broadcasting Corporation The quiet revolution : Indigenous People and the Resources Boom. Sydney NSW HarperCollins Publishers Australia, 2013.


Publication Details of Only Known VersionEarliest 2 Known Versions of

Note: Digital image of the petition and history of its creation available.
Language: Aboriginal Gumatj , English
Text in English and Gumatj languages.
      Yirrkala, Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land, Arnhem Land, Top End, Northern Territory,: 1963 .
      Link: 6121637Web Resource Sighted: 08/07/2013
      (Manuscript) assertion
First known date: 1963
  • Appears in:
    y separately published work icon Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land 1962-1963 Edgar Wells , Canberra : Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies , 1982 Z1402260 1982 single work prose Canberra : Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies , 1982 pg. 127-8
  • Appears in:
    y separately published work icon North of the Ten Commandments : A Collection of Northern Territory Literature David Headon (editor), Rydalmere : Hodder and Stoughton , 1991 Z54431 1991 anthology poetry short story prose correspondence extract

    'The writers and story-tellers included in this collection relate an important, even epic tale. They tell a story which in 1988 (white Australia's bicentennial year) rarely received attention because, while it tells of courage and love, it also focuses on killing and conquest, eccentricity and madness, and a land as hostile and murderous as it could be gentle and caring...' (Source: Preface)

    Rydalmere : Hodder and Stoughton , 1991
    pg. 116-117
  • Appears in:
    y separately published work icon Voices of Aboriginal Australia : Past, Present, Future Irene Moores , Springwood : Butterfly Books , 1995 Z174399 1995 anthology life story poetry extract prose biography autobiography interview

    Voices of Aboriginal Australia is a collection of essays, speeches, poetry, articles, interviews etc. mainly by Aborigines, on topics of racism, discrimination, justice & the law, social conditions, land rights etc. for Aboriginal people.

    Springwood : Butterfly Books , 1996
    pg. 70-71
  • Appears in:
    y separately published work icon Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature Nicholas Jose (editor), Kerryn Goldsworthy (editor), Anita Heiss (editor), David McCooey (editor), Peter Minter (editor), Nicole Moore (editor), Elizabeth Webby (editor), Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2009 Z1590615 2009 anthology correspondence diary drama essay extract poetry prose short story (taught in 23 units)

    'Some of the best, most significant writing produced in Australia over more than two centuries is gathered in this landmark anthology. Covering all genres - from fiction, poetry and drama to diaries, letters, essays and speeches - the anthology maps the development of one of the great literatures in English in all its energy and variety.

    'The writing reflects the diverse experiences of Australians in their encounter with their extraordinary environment and with themselves. This is literature of struggle, conflict and creative survival. It is literature of lives lived at the extremes, of frontiers between cultures, of new dimensions of experience, where imagination expands.

    'This rich, informative and entertaining collection charts the formation of an Australian voice that draws inventively on Indigenous words, migrant speech and slang, with a cheeky, subversive humour always to the fore. For the first time, Aboriginal writings are interleaved with other English-language writings throughout - from Bennelong's 1796 letter to the contemporary flowering of Indigenous fiction and poetry - setting up an exchange that reveals Australian history in stark new ways.

    'From vivid settler accounts to haunting gothic tales, from raw protest to feisty urban satire and playful literary experiment, from passionate love poetry to moving memoir, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature reflects the creative eloquence of a society.

    'Chosen by a team of expert editors, who have provided illuminating essays about their selections, and with more than 500 works from over 300 authors, it is an authoritative survey and a rich world of reading to be enjoyed.' (Publisher's blurb)

    Allen and Unwin have a YouTube channel with a number of useful videos on the Anthology.

    Crows Nest : Allen and Unwin , 2009
    pg. 613-614

Works about this Work

y separately published work icon Naku Dharuk The Bark Petitions Naku Dharuk The Bark Petitions: The Extraordinary Story of How the People of Yirrkala Changed the Course of Australian Democracy Clare Wright , Melbourne : Text Publishing , 2024 28370027 2024 multi chapter work criticism

'In 1963—a year of race riots in the United States and explosive agitation for civil rights worldwide—the Indigenous people of the Northern Territory were yet to be recognised as full adults. Almost to a person, they were classed as wards of the state, unacknowledged as having any ownership over the land on which they had lived for tens of thousands of years.

'In 1975 Gough Whitlam poured a handful of sand into the palm of Gurindji Elder Vincent Lingiari to symbolise the granting of deeds to his ancestral country—and the land rights movement was unstoppable. That journey towards legal recognition of native title started in 1963 with the Yirrkala Bark Petitions: Naku Dharuk.

'The background was a four-cornered contest for mastery of the land and its resources between the Menzies government, the mining industry, the Methodist Church and the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land, under whose country was discovered a blanket of bauxite.

'Throughout the tumultuous year of 1963, leaders of the Yolngu clans worked with white allies on the unprecedented political strategy that culminated in the presentation of four Bark Petitions to Federal Parliament. It was a key moment in the formation of a uniquely Indigenous engagement with Australian politics.

This is the story of a founding document in Australian democracy and the people who made it. It paints a vibrant picture of the profound and ancient culture of Australia’s first peoples, in all its continuing vigour.

'Clare Wright’s groundbreaking Democracy Trilogy began with The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (workers’ rights) and continued with You Daughters of Freedom (women’s rights). After a decade of research and community consultation, it concludes, fittingly, with a fascinating and compulsively readable account of a momentous but little-known episode in our shared political history.' (Publication summary) 

The Temporality of Community Sentiment on the Australian Continent: Mineral Extraction, Waste Storage and Indigenous Protest Writing James Gourley , 2024 single work criticism
— Appears in: Continuum : Journal of Media and Cultural Studies , vol. 38 no. 1 2024; (p. 49-67)
y separately published work icon Yunupingu's Song Desmond Manderson , 2023 26915805 2023 single work podcast

'In this week’s ABR Podcast, Desmond Manderson takes us back sixty years to the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petition drafted by Yolngu leader Yunupingu. The Yirrkala petition called for constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights and can be seen as an antecedent to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Desmond Manderson is Director of the Centre for Law, Arts and Humanities at the Australian National University. Here he is with ‘Yunupingu’s song: Constitutions as acts of vision, not of division’, published in the September issue of ABR.' (Production summary)

Yunupingu's Song : Constitutions as Acts of Vision, Not of Division Desmond Manderson , 2023 single work essay
— Appears in: Australian Book Review , September no. 457 2023; (p. 24-26)

'From the age of fifteen until his recent death at the age of seventy-four, the great Yolngu leader Yunupingu (1948–2023) was at the forefront of the struggle to change the Australian legal system in unprecedented ways. In 1963, with his father, Mungurrawuy, he drafted the Yirrkala Bark Petition, which presented to Parliament an eloquent claim for the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Arnhem Land before their country was, without their consent, turned into a bauxite mine. The Bark Petition was no ordinary document. On the one hand, it uses the antiquated language of a traditional ‘humble petition’ to Parliament, concluding in forms of speech that have hardly changed since the seventeenth century: ‘And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray.’' (Introduction)

Friday Essay: 60 Years Old, the Yirrkala Bark Petitions Are One of Our Founding Documents – So Why Don’t We Know More about Them? Clare Wright , 2023 single work essay
— Appears in: The Conversation , 11 August 2023;
We Know These Things to Be True : The Third Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture 20 August 1998 Yunupingu , 1998 single work prose
— Appears in: Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues , December vol. 1 no. 4 1998; (p. 4-17)
Prints that Started Land Rights Debate Revealed Lucy Carroll , 2013 single work column
— Appears in: Sydney Morning Herald , 9 July 2013; (p. 6-7)
Tribute Celebrates Bark Petitions Dan Harrison , 2013 single work column
— Appears in: The Sydney Morning Herald , 11 July 2013; (p. 9) The Age , 11 July 2013; (p. 4)
'Anniversary praise for clan leaders who sent historic message'
Elder Wants Bark to Have More Bite Amos Aikman , 2013 single work column
— Appears in: The Australian , 11 July 2013; (p. 1, 4)
Thumbprint Petitions Have a Place in History Lucy Carroll , 2013 single work column
— Appears in: The Canberra Times , 9 July 2013; (p. 2)
Last amended 10 May 2017 12:44:05
  • Yirrkala, Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land, Arnhem Land, Top End, Northern Territory,
    Powered by Trove