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