Giant of the nation, Indigenous leader Yunupingu dies

Tributes for Yunupingu

Yunupingu’s last name and image are used here in accordance with the wishes of his family

Visionary land rights pioneer Yunupingu is being remembered by his people as “a giant of the nation” as they mourn his death in north-east Arnhem Land.

Yunupingu, 75, died peacefully at his home in north-east Arnhem Land on Monday morning, surrounded by his family and ceremonial adornments, the Youth Yindi Foundation confirmed.

“A giant of the nation whose contribution to public life spanned seven decades, he was first and foremost a leader of his people, whose welfare was his most pressing concern and responsibility,” the Youth Yindi Foundation, he chaired, said in a statement.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to the Yolŋu man after learning of his death during an interview on Radio National on Monday morning.

“He was one of the greatest of Australians,” he said.

“An extraordinary leader of his people, respected right across Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.”

Mr Albanese said Yunupingu “showed the way”.

Yunupingu met former prime minister Robert Menzies in the 1960s and dealt personally with every serving PM of Australia since Gough Whitlam.

“Many promises were made, none were delivered in full. As a sovereign man of his clan nation he was left disappointed by them all,” the foundation said.

In 1999, he founded Garma Festival with his brother. Mr Albanese announced details of the Indigenous Voice to parliament at the festival last year.

He shook hands with Yunupingu, who asked if his commitment was serious.

“I said to him that I was serious, that we would do it,” he said.


Mr Albanese and Yunupingu at the the Garma Festival 2022. Photo: Getty

Yunupingu was born on June 30, 1948, in Gunyangara, on the northern tip of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory.

A pioneer for land rights throughout Australia, in 1963 he assisted in the drafting of the first Yirrkala bark petition presented to the Australian parliament.

After attending the Methodist Bible College in Brisbane, Yunupingu acted as a court interpreter for his father in the first native title litigation in Australia, the Gove Land Rights case.

From 1973 to 1974, he gave advice towards the Whitlam government’s royal commission into land rights in the NT, and worked with the Fraser government on the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

During this time, together with other Yolngu leaders, he also led the revival of the homelands movement.

A strong advocate for local employment and self-determination, Yunupingu set up a local cattle station, a timber mill and a nursery in Arnhem Land, and established the first Aboriginal-owned and operated mine in the country, the Gumatj-owned Gulkula Bauxite Mine.

“He guided this company to its present state, building on the wealth of his people’s land, their knowledge of the land and their willingness to work for a future that is theirs,” the board of Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation said in a statement.

Yunupingu was also a revered master of the ceremonies and a keeper of the songlines of the Yolngu people.

His totems were fire, rock and baru (saltwater crocodile).

His daughter Binmila Yunupingu said the family was mourning with “deep love and great sadness … the holder of our sacred fire, the leader of our clan and the path-maker to our future”.

“The loss to our family and community is profound. We are hurting, but we honour him and remember with love everything he has done for us,” she said in a statement.

“We remember him for his fierce leadership, and total strength for Yolngu and for Aboriginal people throughout Australia. He lived by our laws always.”

Ceremonies to return Yunupingu “to his land and to his fathers” would eventually be held in north-east Arnhem Land, she said.

“Our father was driven by a vision for the future of this nation, his people’s place in the nation and the rightful place for Aboriginal people everywhere.

“In leaving us, we know that Dad’s loss will be felt in many hearts and minds.

“We ask you to mourn his passing in your own way, but we as a family encourage you to rejoice in the gift of his life and leadership.

“There will never be another like him.”

Mr Albanese said he would speak with Yunupiŋu’s family about the potential of holding a state funeral.

– with AAP

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