A Rightful Place

A Rightful Place

Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth

Noel Pearson


Had Galarrwuy Yunupingu and his dilak elders been present at the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, there might have been a scene like this:

I wait for the new prime minister … An event is taking place at Yirrkala and I have called the leaders of the 13 clans together. No children or young people will participate, only leaders, men and women who have proved themselves: dilak. By my side are Djinyini Gondarra and the leaders of the Elcho clans, Richard Ganduwuy and Dunga Dunga Gondarra, Butharripi Gurruwiwi. Wilson Ganambarr, Gali Gurruwiwi, Gekurr Guyula and Timmy Burrawanga are there. Laklak and Dhuwarrwarr Marika are there, too, along with the great old man from Gan Gan, Garrawan Gumana. My cousin Banambi Wunungmurra brings the prime minister down to us. We have a petition for him.

Learning of the cataclysmic history experienced by Aboriginal tribes in the coastal south and east of the country and the inexorable expansion into the west and the north in the first 110 years of European colonisation, and fearing the time when the Yolngu of Arnhem Land would face the same devastation, Yunupingu might have presented Edmund Barton – along with Sir Samuel Griffith and the other founding fathers of the new nation – with a petition, as he did Kevin Rudd in 2008:

We, the united clans of East Arnhem land, through our most senior dilak, do humbly petition you, the … Prime Minister of Australia, in your capacity as the first amongst equals in the Australian Parliament, and as the chief adviser to Her Majesty … to secure within the Australian Constitution the recognition and protection of our full and complete right to:


  • Our way of life in all its diversity;
  • Our property, being the lands and waters of East Arnhem land;
  • Economic independence, through the proper use of the riches of our land and waters in all their abundance and wealth;
  • Control of our lives and responsibility for our children’s future.

In going to the heart of the matter of constitutional recognition, there are few more important documents than Yunupingu’s December 2008 essay in the Monthly, which discusses the Yolngu Petition. 

It is no mere essay. It is an existential prayer.

A prayer on behalf of a people fearing their future non-existence. Fear that the old trajectory of colonisation and its continuation in the new nation will lead to the disappearance of Yolngu from history.

I read this document and hear the voices of William Cooper, Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten echoing down the century, the voices of Vincent Lingiari, Charlie Perkins and Eddie Mabo. I sense the Day of Mourning in 1938 and the establishment of the Tent Embassy in 1972. I hear the voices of Margaret Tucker, Faith Bandler and Lowitja O’Donoghue.

My thoughts flash back to the warriors who fought the colonial invasion: Yagan, Pemulwuy, Windradyne, Jundamurra.

I cannot take my mind off William Lanne, the so-called “Last Man” of Tasmania.

In talking about Yunupingu’s existential fears for the future of his people in the deepest, hottest north, I want to re-remember what happened in the deepest, coldest south of the country, at the beginning of two centuries of Australian history. Because I think that as the old Tasmanians saw their world destroyed and felt history’s determination that they should disappear from the earth, they faced the same fears.

Yunupingu enjoyed a youth in the classical culture of the Yolngu (“My father sent me to school, although he worried that I might lose my Gumatj identity”). He was educated by Methodist missionaries (“As I received my education from my clan leaders and from the balanda teachers, I watched as the world changed”), and, although he attended Bible college for two years, he returned to the traditions of his people (“I dedicated myself, under the direction of my father and the older men, to a Yolngu future”).

In his essay, Yunupingu touches on every prime minister since Gough Whitlam. He recalls taking the newly elected Malcolm Fraser on a fishing trip: “I try and put words in his mind about the importance of land, about the importance of respect, about giving things back in a proper way, not a halfway thing,” but the prime minister is preoccupied with catching barramundi – “he’s not listening; he doesn’t have to.”

He recalls how Bob Hawke’s promises of a treaty turned to tears of regret when his last act as prime minister was to hang the Barunga Statement in Parliament House (“I am sure that his tears are for his own failure – we have no treaty; his promise was hollow and he has not delivered”).

The prime ministerial and ministerial merry-go-round over the decades lends a depressing circularity to Yunupingu’s long history of dealing with power in Australia:

I have walked the corridors of power; I have negotiated and cajoled and praised and begged prime ministers and ministers, travelled the world and been feted; I have opened the doors to men of power and prestige; I have had a place at the table of the best and the brightest in the Australian nation – and at times success has seemed so close, yet it always slips away. 

He cares nothing for his association with power but only for the purpose to which he wishes to direct it, for his purpose is pressing: “And behind me, in the world of my father, the Yolngu world is always under threat, being swallowed up by whitefellas.” 

The existential angst of the tribal leader who fears for the future of his people is harrowing (“it is a pressure that I feel now every moment of my life – it frustrates me and drives me crazy; at night it is like a splinter in my mind”).

Yunupingu recalls meeting minister Mal Brough at his Dhanaya homeland in the wake of the Northern Territory Intervention (“we talked as men should – about the future of children and of failures and frustrations, and how we could turn it all around with action”) and raises the question of constitutional recognition (“to bring my people in from the cold, bring us into the nation”).

The future is the source of Yunupingu’s psychic trouble:

I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.

Yunupingu’s achievements in his struggle for land rights were colossal, both for his people and for people across the Northern Territory and the continent. There is no doubt that securing a territorial base for Yolngu people has gone a long way towards underpinning that society. But Yunupingu’s assessment of his life’s work is bleak:

I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders.

And the gulf between the powers-that-be in Canberra and the Yolngu world is as vast as ever:

There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things? Who in the parliament? No one speaks an Aboriginal language, let alone has the ability to sit with a young man or woman and share that person’s experience and find out what is really in their heart. They have not raised these children in their arms, given them everything they have, cared for them, loved them, nurtured them. They have not had their land stolen, or their rights infringed, or their laws broken. They do not bury the dead as we bury our dead.

To understand what Yunupingu is talking about here is to understand how misguided it is to reduce the indigenous predicament in Australia to the banal idea of “closing the gap” on indigenous disadvantage. There is something more fundamental at stake: whether the Yolngu of Arnhem Land will find a place in the Australian nation so that – honouring their fathers and mothers, as obliged by the Second Commandment – they may live long on the earth.

It is a predicament shared by the Wik and the Yidinji of Queensland. By the Wiradjuri of central New South Wales and the Bundjalung of the Northern Rivers district. By the Kaurna of South Australia and the Anangu of central Australia. The Nyungar and Martu of Western Australia. By the Kulin nation and the Yorta Yorta of Victoria. By the Ngunnawal of the capital and by William Lanne’s Palawa descendants in Tasmania.

This is a problem of the world. The planet is occupied by thousands of distinct ethnic groupings, with their own languages and cultures and territorial connections. Many are indigenous to the territories in which they live. Depending on how these distinct peoples are defined, they number between 7000 and 10,000.

But if the fragmentation of Babel resulted in this great diversity, the Age of Imperialism and the creation of empires scrambled many of these societies. Globalisation and modernity now force blending, assimilation and integration, and rupture the isolation and containment that enabled diverse peoples to maintain their esoteric identities, cultures and languages. There has been much history in this process. And that has necessarily left legacies of grievance. 

Settler colonialism is one such history, replete with grievance the world over, not least in our country.

There are four focuses of grievance: identity as a people; the territorial lands of a people; language; and culture. Peoples hold hard to these four things.

And then there are the nation-states that harbour peoples. There are only 200 or so of them.

So the problem of the world is: how do 10,000 distinct peoples live well and prosper – and get along with each other – within 200 nation-states?

There is surely no future in hoping the nation-states will further fragment, so that more nations can be created which reflect the existential convictions of distinct peoples. The existing nation-states, jealously guarding their integrity, have no appetite for further fragmentation. At best, in the future, new states of Palestine and a self-governing West Papua will emerge.

But it is also surely clear that nation-states denying the existence of distinct peoples within their territories and insisting upon the integrity of the unitary state, without recognition of distinct peoples and cultures, is no solution either. Insisting on comprehensive assimilation as the concomitant of nationalism is not the recipe for unity within nations; it foments too much ethnic destruction and resistance.

There is an alternative to fragmentation and the assimilatory state. It is recognition and reconciliation: where peoples within nation-states come to terms with each other and commit to the nation, while respecting the existential anxieties of distinct peoples.

The Constitution of Australia adopted in 1901 afforded no such recognition. It is this recognition which Yunupingu seeks on behalf of his people, and in doing so he asks a question that remains unanswered after two centuries: is there a proper and rightful place for the original peoples of Australia in the nation created from their ancestral lands? 

Buy the updated book edition: A Rightful Place: A Road Map to Recognition here


This is an extract from Noel Pearson's Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


An Aboriginal activist and respected community leader, Noel Pearson came from the Guugu Yimithirr Aboriginal community at Hope Vale, a Lutheran Mission on Cape York Peninsula. He graduated with an honours degree in history from the University of Sydney. Pearson completed a law degree in 1993. In 1990 Pearson co-founded the Cape York Land Council where he was Executive Director until he resigned in 1996. He continues to advise a number of Indigenous organisations in Cape York, and advocates self-determination and land rights for Indigenous people.


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