The news of the passing of Yunupingu today will resonate around the nation. This is an immensely sad occasion for Australians, especially for Indigenous Australians.
A Gumatj man of the Yolngu people, Yunupingu was born in 1948 on the island of Gunyangara in Melville Bay in Arnhem Land.
He was educated at the Yirrkala mission school before attending the Methodist Bible College in Brisbane.
As a young man, he became an advocate for advancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights. He was a pioneer and a forefather for the cause. His courage and commitment throughout his life changed our nation and inspired many.
In 1963, he helped draft the Yirrkala Bark Petitions with his father and uncle. Those petitions asserted Aboriginal ownership of the land over which mining rights had been granted by the government without consulting the Yolngu owners.
While the Yolngu were unsuccessful in the Gove Land Rights case, their legal action set in motion change. For in 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was passed by federal parliament – our country’s first legislation to enable Indigenous Australians to claim land rights.
Yunupingu joined the Northern Land Council and would later become its chair. He helped Indigenous Australians in negotiations with mining companies. And he was deeply respected by all sides of politics and all the prime ministers with whom he engaged.
On Gunyangara, he helped found the Dhupuma Barker junior school which combines an Australian education with traditional Yolngu teachings. Yunupingu also started businesses on the island which saw his people provided with employment opportunities. In 2018, he established the Galkula mine – the first mine to be Indigenous owned and run in Australia.
When I visited Arnhem Land in February, the influence of Yunupingu was omnipresent in the community.
Testimony to Yunupingu’s achievements, he was named Australian of the Year in 1978, made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1985, and received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Melbourne in 2015.
Yunupingu passed away on his land in Arnhem Land, among his people and with his family.
Today we acknowledge the life and legacy of not just a great Indigenous Australian, but one of our greatest Australians.
May he rest in peace.