Prints that started land rights debate revealed

Thumbprint petitions of Aboriginal elders – stored in parliamentary archives for decades – will be revealed to the public for the first time this week.

The ochre-coloured prints, which signified the beginning of the land rights debate in Australia, will be available to view in an online exhibition that has been curated by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies for NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will visit indigenous communities in Arnhem Land to mark 50 years since the Yirrkala bark petitions were presented to Federal Parliament in Canberra.

The petitions were protests by the Yolngu people from Yirrkala against plans for the government to lease their land to mining companies. Framed by bark and carrying indigenous designs, the first petition was signed by 12 Yolngu and presented to the House of Representatives in 1963.

The then minister for territories, Paul Hasluck, rejected the validity of the petition’s signatories, indicating that they did not represent all of the clans entitled to speak.

Two weeks later, the people of Yirrkala fought back by sending a second bark petition, this time with thumbprints of clan elders, so there could be no doubt that they approved of the petition.

”It is a revelation to see the thumbprints,” said Will Stubbs, co-coordinator of the Yirrkala art centre, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka.

”The reason for its creation was because of the bad faith of the government. But they didn’t take no for an answer. This document shows all the major clans and elders put their mark to the petition. It was an act of unity.”

Mr Stubbs, who has reproduced the thumbprints in poster form to be shown at the NAIDOC Week event in Yirrkala, said it was ”difficult to understand that all those years ago all these amazingly gifted leaders were regarded as fauna”.

Before 1967, Aboriginal people were not counted as people, but were classified under the Flora and Fauna Act.

”There was a systemic effort to pretend they didn’t exist,” Mr Stubbs said. ”The thumbprints let everyone in Yirrkala know that all clan representatives signed the petition. It shows how far we’ve come. This is the start of the end of dishonesty in dealing with Aboriginal people.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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