Ruth Bray

In the 1960s, my husband Malcolm and I were living on the Aboriginal mission at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. I was a nurse, and Malcolm a mechanic. We learned the language and were embedded in the culture of the local Yolŋu people. So we were very excited to receive an invitation several weeks ago, to attend a very special ceremony to celebrate the repatriation of the fourth Bark Petition to Yirrkala, 60 years later.

In 1963, concerned at the activities of mining companies on tribal land, the elders of thirteen Yirrkala clans presented a petition, fixed to bark paintings, to the Federal Parliament, claiming land rights. My husband Malcolm, remembers the night the old men painted the bark for the Petition. He said, “There was a lot of talking amongst the men. They drank a lot of tea, and smoked their long Macassan Pipes as they painted.

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions are considered a significant turning point in the recognition of Indigenous Rights and are important documents in Australian History. This was the first formal petition presented to the Australian Parliament on Land Rights and as a result a Select Committee on Grievances of the Yirrkala Aborigines, Arnhem Land Reserve, was established. Later came the 1976 Land Rights Act, and eventually the Mabo Decision.

Two copies, representing the two moieties of the Yirrkala people, are on display in Parliament House. Another copy is in the National Museum in Canberra and the fourth copy, which was thought to be lost, was recently discovered in Derby, Western Australia, by Professor Clare Wright of Latrobe University.

As Malcolm was unable to travel at this time, I went back to Yirrkala with our grandson Keaton. At Yirrkala we met Sophie Parker, Senior Objects Conservator at Artlab South Australia who was responsible for the care, conservation and transport of the document. Sophie accompanied the petition to Yirrkala. While the bark and the painting was still in good condition, the paper on which the petition had been typed, the Elders thumb-printed, and the witnesses signed, was not as good.

To prepare it for safe travel, special foam preventing it from moving costing $3000 was obtained. Sophie even requested the pilot make as gentle a landing as possible. At Gove airport, she arrived at the plane’s open hold, in time to supervise it being transferred into the terminal. She treated the Bark Petition in much the same way as she would a Picasso, or a Rembrandt.

The next day Keaton and I were present as Sophie unpacked the Petition. She spoke to us about the choice of materials used, including the Tasmanian Oak for the frame, the special Perspex, and acid free paper, all helping to preserve and protect the petition. On the back of the frame is a keyed fixture locking it to the wall to prevent theft.

On Thursday, December 8, it was exciting to watch as a replica Bark Petition accompanied by group of women dressed in red, singing and dancing approached the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre. There were speeches by the different clans and then the replica was danced into the gallery surrounded by the men. We joined them. The sounds of clap sticks and singing went on and on until the replica disappeared and the fourth Bark Petition, already hanging on the wall, was unveiled. It meant so much to them to have this Petition returned to Country.

Ruth Bray is a long term Hepburn resident.