One of Australia’s most influential Aboriginal leaders, the trailblazing land rights fighter Yunupingu, has died in the Northern Territory aged 74.
- Gumatj clan leader Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year in 1978
- Yunupingu was a former long-term chairman of the Northern Land Council
- He also chaired the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which runs the annual Garma Festival
Note to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: Yunupingu’s last name and image are used here in accordance with the wishes of his family.
The Gumatj clan leader, who passed away in north-east Arnhem Land, was a powerful advocate for the interests of the Yolngu people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country.
In 1978, he was named Australian of the Year for his work relating to negotiations over the Ranger Uranium Mine and Kakadu National Park.
Yunupingu was also a long-term chairman of the Northern Land Council, which represents traditional owners in the Northern Territory’s Top End.
Additionally, he chaired the Gumatj Corporation and the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which runs the annual Garma Festival at Gulkula in Arnhem Land.
Yunupingu held significant political sway, with prime ministers from both sides of politics seeking his advice over the decades, including Anthony Albanese at last year’s Garma Festival, where the path towards a referendum on a Voice to Parliament was outlined.
In 2015, Yunupingu received the University of Melbourne’s highest academic honour, an Honorary Doctor of Laws, in recognition of his “relentless struggle for land rights and advocacy for the agency of his people”.
In 2019, he launched a $700 million compensation claim on behalf of his clan against the Commonwealth over the 1969 acquisition of land on the Gove Peninsula, which became the site of the Nabalco mine.
Decades earlier, he took part in the unsuccessful Gove land rights case against the mine, which was eventually taken over by Rio Tinto in 2007.
With his father, Yunupingu also helped draft the Yirrkala Bark Petition, which was sent to the Australian Parliament in 1963 to assert the Yolngu people’s ownership of the land.
Yunupingu was an elder brother of the late Yothu Yindi frontman Mandawuy Yunupingu, who was also an Australian of the Year.
He is survived by two of his four wives, 12 children and many grand and great-grandchildren.
Yunupingu remembered as a ‘giant of the nation’
Some of those closest to Yunupingu have offered heartfelt tributes about his life and legacy.
Gumatj Corporation leaders Klaus Helms and Djawa Yunupingu have released a statement which spoke of Yunupingu’s “drive, leadership and mentorship that never wavered from his vision”.
“As our founder and inaugural chairman, Yunupingu held a vision of self-determination for Yolngu people through employment and business development,” the Gumatj statement said.
“He sought this future for his people, and 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.
“We will all miss him, not only as the head of the Gumatj clan or the chairman but as an outstanding leader and friend.”
The Yothu Yindi Foundation, which runs the annual Garma festival, said it was mourning “a giant of the nation”.
“He starts his journey now to be reunited with his fathers and his kin, who await him in the hearth of his sacred Gumatj country,” the foundation said.
“He returns to where he began, born on sacred Yolngu country in northeast Arnhem Land, not knowing Europeans until his early childhood, living with the rhythm of life, the balance of the land, the water, the sacred winds and the ceremonies – he returns now to his ancestors.
“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.
“A pioneer of the land rights movement and Aboriginal rights more broadly, he spoke for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when they were voiceless, working with leaders from throughout the country to return Indigenous people to their rightful place.”
Just prior to his death, Yunupingu’s pioneering steps for Aboriginal land rights were cited by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and prominent academic Marcia Langton, among others, during the announcement of the wording of the referendum question for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.