Yunupingu honoured as visionary, champion, diplomat

·3-min read

Gumatji leader Yunupingu has been honoured as a true diplomat and a courageous leader for land and sea rights for Aboriginal people across Australia.

Yunupingu was born on June 30, 1948 and died on April 3, 2023.

Ceremonies to honour Yunupingu's legacy began on Friday in Gunyangara, the northeast Arnhem Land community where he was born, and will continue until next week.

A public memorial was held on Thursday, which included tributes from family, politicians, artists and other friends.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described Yunupingu as a giant who had a vision for a more equal and just world.

"A vision underpinned by an unbending belief in the need for Aboriginal people to hold their future in their own hands," he said.

"He had every right to be cynical, but he wasn't. No matter how often Australia let him down, he kept striving to have us rise to his level of integrity.

"And, as he did, what Yunupingu helped us all to see was not the reinvention of Australia, but the realisation of an even greater one."

An accomplished painter, singer and dancer, Yunupingu dealt with every serving Australian prime minister since Gough Whitlam.

Yunupingu's eldest daughter Binmila said her father was driven by a vision that respected the rightful place for Aboriginal people.

"As his brother sang in the song Treaty, promises can disappear just like writing in the sand," she said.

"One of the last things Dad did was to give the word 'Makarrata' to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

"He shared his fire, sending his cousin Djungadjunga and the family down to Uluru, taking the flame with him."

In 1977, when he was in his late 20s, Yunupingu was elected chair of the Northern Land Council.

Northern Land Council chief executive Joe Martin-Jard delivered a tribute on chair Samuel Bush-Blanasi's behalf, saying the council owed Yunupingu a debt that could never be repaid.

"His history is our history," he said.

"As chair of the NLC Yunupingu was a true diplomat, a courageous leader and a man of great vision."

Yunupingu means "the rock that stands against time".

Opposition leader Peter Dutton said Yunupingu was a pioneer who changed the nation.

"His courage and commitment made him a trailblazer who inspired many after him," he said.

Actor Jack Thompson said Yunupingu's determination earned him respect.

"And always he sought constitutional recognition and a voice for the powerless," he said.

"He understood that to go forward in the nation Aboriginal and Islander people had to be part of the mainframe of the nation.

"That was the gift he sought in return for his life's work."

In 1963, as a teenager, Yunupingu helped draft the first Yirrkala bark petition presented to the Australian parliament, calling for Yolngu land rights to be recognised.

In 1973, Yunupingu served as an advisor to the Whitlam government's royal commission into land rights in the Northern Territory.

He also worked with the Fraser government on the development of Aboriginal land rights legislation for the territory.

Yunupingu helped his people secure negotiations with mining companies on their land and established the first Aboriginal-owned and operated mine in Australia, the Gumatj-owned Gulkula Bauxite Mine.

With his brother, Dr M, Yunupingu established the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which hosts the annual Garma Festival.

"He gave our nation the gift of purpose, an ability to thrive within our own national identity and to express that through the vitality and beauty of Yolngu culture, song, dance, art," Yothu Yindi Foundation chief executive Denise Bowden said.

"He stood with Aboriginal people throughout our country and he was always troubled by the inequality, unfairness and suffering experienced by our people.

"He looked to government for collaboration, fairness and equity but his own expectations often left him short and disappointed. He realised the only true way through was to be a master of your own destiny."