Yirrkala Bark Petition

As this year’s NAIDOC (National Aborigines & Islanders Day Observance Committee) week closes I would like to acknowledge this year’s very significant anniversary.

50 years ago indigenous leaders from the Gove area of the Northern Territory presented the Federal Government with a petition on bark, it had traditional Aboriginal law carved on one part and white law on the other; it is known as the Yirrkala Bark after the community that presented it.

The significance is that when the Federal Government accepted the Yirrkala Bark Petition it became the first documentary recognition of indigenous people in Australian law and put the concept of Terra Nullius into question.

By today’s standards the categorising of the First People as non-entities seems abhorrent, they had no rights, either legal or human.  Having no legal rights meant they could not swear an oath, so were not allowed to give evidence in court.

A little over 100 years earlier the first public hanging in Melbourne was of two Aboriginal men.  They were convicted on police evidence alone, which was based on alleged confessions by three Aboriginal women.  Neither the confessors nor the accused were allowed to give evidence in court, resulting in a very dubious outcome, and foundation for Victoria’s judicial integrity.

The Yirrkala Bark Petition changed the legal standing of indigenous people in Australia forever and all subsequent land rights claims are based on it.  So when celebrating NAIDOC week this year remember the Yirrkala Bark Petition, and dwell on how recently it is Australia’s First Nation, who have been here for 50,000 years, became recognised as persons with legal standing by the colonising race.

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