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Yunupiŋu was a great clan leader, a great family man and much loved. I wish Australian political leaders had learned more from him


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names and images of deceased individuals. Yunupiŋu’s family has given permission for his name and images to be used.

Dr. Yunupiŋu was a magnificent person and a magnificent leader. Most people in Australia who know him know him as a ceremonial leader due to his towering presence leading ceremonies at the Garma Festival for so many years and, more importantly, at events he curated himself to present to Prime Ministers and Ministers of Australian Governments .

Throughout his life he has spoken and protested to every Prime Minister of his adulthood.

He was a great clan leader, a great family man and much loved by so many Australians who came into contact with him through his Garma Festival and so many other good works.

Yunupiŋu received an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Melbourne.
Peter Eve/Yothu Yindi Foundation

He was also an intellectual. He published some wonderful works, esp Tradition, Truth and Tomorrow.

He was a musician, one of the most important traditional singers from Northeast Arnhemland. Indeed, one could hear his beautiful voice on the Tribal voice album, which made his late younger brother Yothu Yindi’s band famous.

So many people will mourn him. He has touched so many people with his gracious leadership and kindness.

It’s really such a shame he didn’t live to see better results.

Read more: Legendary band Yothu Yindi and their groundbreaking call for a treaty

Working for land rights

Constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians was his idea. I was with him in Arnhem Land and he said to me: “I want to see Noel Pearson”. They had never met and he told me to find Noel and have him come and talk to him.

So during that time I had to drive around and find a Telstra hotspot.

I found Noel. Noel immediately jumped on a plane and they met, Yunupiŋu proposing constitutional recognition to him as a matter of paramount importance. Because, as Yunupiŋu explains in his writings, he felt the existential threat to his clan and other indigenous peoples.

He was the interpreter for the clan leaders in the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, appointed by Gough Whitlam to determine how land rights should be recognised. He had been appointed by his father to become a clan leader and to endure the many years of learning.

By interpreting for all clan leaders and their evidence, he became extremely knowledgeable. He also interpreted in court in Canberra in the Milirrpum case. Later, of course, when the Land Rights Act was passed and the Land Councils were established, he naturally became Chairman of the Northern Land Council and held that position twice.

Yunupiŋu with traditional art and law books.
He is in many ways one of the critical figures in the land rights movement.
Northern Land Council

So in many ways he is one of the pivotal figures in the land rights movement. He was able to translate philosophical beliefs and the inherited ancient property systems of the Yolŋu people to a very great judge, Judge Woodward, to make it possible to legislate a system of land rights.

He also contributed to the culture, the survival of Aboriginal culture and to education. Yothu Yindi Foundation press release about his death explains how he founded the Dhupuma Barker School in his community in Arnhem Land, which has produced wonderful results with high attendance rates for the children.

He also led many other initiatives; too many to mention. People turned to him for advice because of his highly refined political and strategic skills.

A kind man

The great quality he had was kindness. He chose not to make people his enemies unless they had committed a serious crime. He always tried to find humanity in people. He was able to talk to every Prime Minister, as I said, and encourage Indigenous leaders to set goals — like constitutional recognition — and find a way to achieve them.

He brought together the clans of Arnhem Land and presented three petitions for constitutional recognition to Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. He was very firm about this. He also gave some wonderful lectures on this subject.

Yunupiŋu with Bob Hawke.
People turned to Yunupiŋu for advice because of his highly refined political and strategic skills.
Peter Eve/Yothu Yindi Foundation

Many people are inspired by him because he always found a way through the terrible burden of colonialism. No one has suffered more than people like him.

There is sometimes a terrible view that traditional people were not affected by colonialism. That is far from the truth. In fact, I think if an indigenous culture survives today, and of course that much, it is precisely because people like this great man valued culture above all else.

He regarded his ceremonial responsibilities as the highest priority and regarded the survival of his own culture, and by extension other indigenous cultures, as matters of paramount importance.

Because in our cultures we find the values ​​that make life worth living, make life worth living and allow us to enjoy life.

And he enjoyed life. He had a great life. It is such a tragic loss for everyone.

I met him in the late 1970s and we became very good friends and remained so all our lives. He was very curious, a great intellectual, and I think he was very concerned, not only about his family, but about the friends he made far and wide.

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Yunupiŋu with Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton in Garma in 2019. Image courtesy.
Melanie Faith Dove/Yothu Yindi Foundation

Hence the popularity of the Garma festival with so many people from Australia and around the world. He truly believed that we are all one people; we all have red blood flowing through our veins.

I wish Australian political leaders had learned more from him because Australia would be a much better country if they adopted some of his values. He certainly showed the way forward.

Read more: We now know exactly what question the Voice referendum will ask Australians. A state law expert explains

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