Australian Unions: Celebrating NAIDOC Week

Published: 9 Jul 2013

The ACTU has an active Indigneous Committee, and the inaugural ACTU Indigenous Conference was held in 2011 with a renewed emphasis on advancing Indigenous rights. At the conference, the ACTU announced a new partnership with Indigenous Australians to campaign to improve the lives of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through decent jobs, sustainable economic development and social justice.


This NAIDOC Week we are commemorating the Yirrkala Bark Petitions of 1963.  The Yirrkala Bark Peitions were a ‘first’ in many ways.


They were the first petitions to be written in traditional language, on bark, and presented to the Australian Federal Government – and the first petitions of their kind to be formally recognised by the Commonwealth. They were the first recognised protest – by Aboriginal people – against the granting of mining leases on Aboriginal land without prior consultation, consent and reparation for the use of land.


It’s been 50 years since the Yolgnu authored the documents.  Fifty years since the struggle for recognition and land rights was formally acknowledged by an Australia Government. Fifty years since the Yolgnu become the forerunners for Indigenous land rights.


The Yirrkala Bark Petitions set in motion the struggle for Aboriginal people to be recognised as the traditional owners and First Nations people of Australia.


The Yirrkala Bark Petitions and the Yolgnu people helped provide the foundations for significant shifts in Australia such as: the 1964 Wave Hill Walk Off (and proceeding award wages for Aboriginal stockmen); the 1967 Referendum and later the 1992 Mabo decision which overturned the notion that Australia was unoccupied before colonial settlement.


It was Dr Yunupingu’s ancestors – mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins – who were the authors of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions.  These same ancestors grew Dr Yunupingu up to be a solid union and rights activist.


It’s safe to say that without the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, and the brave and defiant step taken by the Yolgnu to defend their land, that the civil and industrial rights movements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders would have been a more hostile playing field.


It is with these things in mind, that we pay tribute to the Yolgnu, their foresight and vision that was the  Yirrkala Bark Petitions and we give thanks and condolences to them for the man, Dr Yunupingu, that continued their legacy.


Vale Dr Yunupingu – a leader, an educator, a union activist and a true warrior for what he saw as a better Australia through recognition and reconciliation – communicated to us all through the language of music.

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Key milestones on the path to equality


A little known, but interesting and politically significant, timeline of protests and activities agitating for Indigenous recognition has culminated in what we now celebrate as NAIDOC week in July each year.1935


In 1935, William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aborigines League, drafted a petition to send to King George V, asking for special Aboriginal electorates in Federal Parliament. The Australian Government believed that the petition fell outside its constitutional responsibilities.



On Australia Day, 1938, protestors marched through the streets of Sydney, followed by a congress attended by over a thousand people. One of the first major civil rights gatherings in the world, it was known as the Day of Mourning.


Following the congress, a deputation led by William Cooper presented Prime Minister Joseph Lyons with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people. This was again rejected because the Government did not hold constitutional powers in relation to Aboriginal people.



In 1955 Aborigines Day was shifted to the first Sunday in July after it was decided the day should become not simply a protest day but also a celebration of Aboriginal culture.



Major Aboriginal organisations, state and federal governments, and a number of church groups all supported the formation of, the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC). At the same time, the second Sunday in July became a day of remembrance for Aboriginal people and their heritage.



In 1972, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was formed, as a major outcome of the 1967 referendum.



In 1984, NADOC asked that National Aborigines Day be made a national public holiday, to help celebrate and recognise the rich cultural history that makes Australia unique. While this has not happened, other groups have echoed the call.

1991 – present


With a growing awareness of the distinct cultural histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, NADOC was expanded to recognise Torres Strait Islander people and culture. The committee then became known as the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). This new name has become the title for the whole week, not just the day.


Each year, a theme is chosen to reflect the important issues and events for NAIDOC Week.




Authorised by P Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney