Inside Story

The translator

A capacity to enable fruitful cross-cultural interaction was among the strengths of Yolngu leader Yunupingu, who died last weekend

Tim Rowse 5 April 2023 1160 words

Yunupingu with  prime minister Anthony Albanese at last year’s Garma festival. Melanie Faith Dove/Yothu Yindi Foundation

Yunupingu’s introduction to the arts of balanda (whitefella) politics came early, courtesy of Methodist missionaries at Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land. The late Bernard Clarke, a missionary who later worked with Yolngu people, recalls hearing that Yunupingu took the role of “prime minister” in the school parliament created by headmaster Ron Croxford.

Contact with the real parliament came not long after. Yunupingu’s father was one of the signatories of the Bark Petitions sent to Canberra in August 1963 asking the government to hear the Yolngu before excising land for bauxite mining from the Arnhem Land Reserve. According to some — and this is entirely plausible — Yunupingu helped draft those bilingual documents.

Still an adolescent, he’d already had a taste of two experiences that would be lifelong. One was settler colonial intransigence. Although the Bark Petitions succeeded in their immediate objective — a parliamentary committee visited Yirrkala, heard Yolngu testimony and recommended compensation — they failed to stop the mining province being excised in 1968.

The other experience was translation, for which he had, by all accounts, a particular talent. Translation was Martin Luther’s sixteenth-century gift to Christendom: the imperative to render God’s word in every vernacular (rather than lock it up in Latin) was central to the Protestant rebellion again Rome and to the global “civilising” florescence of Christian faith.

At the mission’s invitation, Yunupingu spent two of his teenage years at Brisbane Bible College. Then, when he was just twenty years old, his people took the Commonwealth to court. Once again, Australia had to bend its ear towards the Yolngu. As anthropologist Nancy Williams writes, Yunupingu and another college trainee, Wulanybuma Wunungmurra, skilfully translated the Yolngu testimonies of customary law into English for the judge, Richard Blackburn. They were assisted by missionary linguist Joyce Ross. Each of the trio occasionally interjected with an alternative interpretation to what had just been heard.

For the first time in Australian legal history, a judge needed to hear an exposition of Aboriginal law and decide whether the laws of Australia were obliged to treat Aboriginal land tenure as binding for non-Aboriginal Australians. He had to answer the question: is Aboriginal customary ownership an enforceable proprietary right?

Blackburn’s judgement in 1971 came in two parts. Yolngu did have a continuing customary law that included concepts of land tenure. But Yolngu concepts of “ownership” didn’t amount to what counts as an enforceable proprietary right in Australian law.

For the second time, Yunupingu found himself on the losing side of a battle he had grown up with. But the twenty-three-year-old had contributed significantly to the judge’s grasp of Yolngu customs, and the case had given him, and the Yolngu clans, unprecedented credibility. In the two parts of Blackburn’s judgment it became possible to see a gap between morality and law. If Yolngu were still living by their own concept of what was right, were Australians not under a moral obligation to recognise them as owners of the reserve ?

The posing of this question in 1971 was an early rupture in Australian colonial consciousness, and it had been made possible by a coming together of enlightened Methodism, Yolngu territorial practice and the Australia’s common law. Without Yunupingu’s (and others’) skill in translation, this productive interaction would not have been possible.

What followed, within a few years, was a bipartisan commitment to land rights legislation. A sufficient number of Australians had seen in Blackburn’s ruling an implicit indictment of the laws they had been living by. That insight has continued to cascade through Australian law and politics: Mabo, Wik, the case for constitutional recognition.

The Garma Festival, which Yunupingu and his brother, Dr M. Yunupiŋu, established in 1999, has proved a lasting contribution to settler colonial Australia’s continuing self-examination. Self-examination doesn’t require shame and guilt, as long as it affords a respectful acknowledgement of difference — the difference, for example, between being a host and being a guest.

Being a guest, in this case on Gumatj clan land, can be rewarding. In 2018, journalist Julia Baird wrote that adopting the Garma protocols (as advised by the Yothu Yindi Foundation) had opened her up to a transformation of awareness, including an appreciation that “the offer of ‘Makarrata’ — a coming together after a struggle — was an act of remarkable generosity… they still invite us to walk with them, to understand better, which is an act of grace.” In January 2019, the Australian Financial Review named several female chief executives who had included Garma in their calendar of self-improvement. It has become a fixture on the calendar of Australia’s national politics.

Garma can also be hard. Leaders who choose the occasion to say forward-looking things about the colonial relationship can expect to be confronted. Just as the guests increasingly feel that they must be there, so the hosts take the opportunity to call them to better efforts. In 2014 Labor leader Bill Shorten hinted in a Garma speech that he favoured “anti-discrimination” language in the Constitution. The following year Yunupingu was reported as saying that the need for such an amendment was non-negotiable, while Marcia Langton got stuck into Tony Abbott’s resistance.

A year later, in 2016, Noel Pearson gave what one reporter described as a “rage-flecked” speech outlining his frustrations about constitutional recognition. At Garma 2017, prime minister Malcom Turnbull warned of the difficulty of constitutional recognition, while others lamented politicians’ lack of ambition. In 2018, Yunupingu, a member of the Referendum Council created by Abbott and Shorten in 2015, admonished Turnbull and Shorten for a lack of progress since the last festival. He had expected “detail and meaning and cleverness, not words and promises and nothingness,” according to one report.

In 2019, attending Garma was part of Anthony Albanese’s preparation for a tilt at the top job; he used the occasion to express support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was a festival punctuated by fiery moments: Yunupingu expressed impatience at recognition’s slow progress and threatened to throw the Australian Constitution into the sea; Pearson, in another scathing address, accused the Institute of Public Affairs and conservative commentators of acting in bad faith.

Garma in 2022 — Yunupingu’s last, as we now know — was perfectly timed for Albanese to present his first draft of a constitutional amendment. Although he led a delegation of sympathetic MPs including federal Liberal MP Julian Leeser, it was also an occasion for Country Liberal Party senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price to double down on her rejection of the Voice live on ABC television.

Will Yolngu in August 2023 find themselves hosting a debate, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous ranged on both sides of the debate? Almost certainly. This year’s Garma falls on the sixtieth anniversary of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions. Recognition has since become an unpredictable dynamic. What the Yolngu — under the auspices of Yunupingu’s Gumatj clan — have given Australia is an annual off-centre space of political performance where the visitors must work out how to acquit themselves honourably as guests. •