Yothu Yindi’s deadly story chronicled in new book

Date: Dec 20, 2021

Publication Type: Blog

Subject: Newspaper

Writing in the Sand, by Yothu Yindi’s authorised biographer Matt Garrick, is the epic story of one of Australia’s most original bands.

Yothu Yindi co-founder Witiyana Marika, singer Yirrnga Yunupingu and Mandawuy’s grandson Guruwuk Mununggurr, June 2021. (Michael Franchi)

The following is an edited extract from Chapter 2, ‘Child and Mother’, about the band's land rights lineage.

BY the mid-eighties, the future Yothu Yindi frontman Bakamana (Mandaway) Yunupiŋu had his eye on a young fella in Yirrkala community: a disciplined student of traditional knowledge, with a powerful lineage and a neat tuft of  jet-black hair. He was barely out of boyhood but he could already hold a crowd; his dances at ceremony were a blaze of movement, his yiḏaki playing a rumble of thunder across the landscape. He was bold, strong and proud. Slightly cheeky, but good- hearted. His name was Witiyana Marika, of the Rirratjiŋu clan. The son of Ḏaḏayŋa ‘Roy’ Marika, the clan’s leader. He was Bakamana’s sister’s son, the musician’s nephew. In gurruṯu (Yolŋu kinship) terms, he was the yothu to his uncle’s yindi.

And, as Witiyana reflects now, ‘He saw me, saw that I was something.’ Bakamana’s judgement was on the money. Plenty of primped-up rock-and-rollers spend years carefully cultivating their image. But for Witiyana, the charismatic co-founder of Yothu Yindi, now sixty, rockstar swagger flows as naturally out of his being as fish swim along East Arnhem’s Cato River.

With slack jeans, reflector sunnies and a ready, beaming smile, wherever he goes in the NT or across the world, he gets noticed. And so it was with his uncle, who Witiyana says ‘chose’ him for what would become a lifelong collaboration – at least for one of them – to take Yolŋu knowledge from their isolated home community in Arnhem Land out to the world.

‘He saw me as I was growing up and learning all that powerful knowledge,’ Witiyana says, motioning with his hands as if to physically summon up the recollection. ‘One day he would choose me, because I’m ralpa; I do as I’m told what to do from my father in a disciplined way, because I had been disciplined in my mind, my spirit, to do ritual, culture. I was still a young boy when [Bakamana] was in Diamond Dogs. He was older than me. He saw that I had lots of talent, and like, “This boy has got something,” you know? Powerful. Power there.’

In the years to come, Witiyana would translate that cultural power onto the stage – striped in gapaṉ (ceremonial clay) and bellowing out thousands-of-years-old songs to wide- eyed white suburban kids. He would become the captivating traditional showman of Yothu Yindi, the foil to Bakamana’s guitar-carrying troubadour.

‘He would just stand there, beautiful, bold in his gapaṉ and holding his biḻma, just singing,’ says Darwin musician Todd Williams, who was side of stage for some of Witiyana’s earliest performances to southern audiences. ‘Going into these Sydney pubs, and having these manikay sung in these places, you could just see people’s jaws dropping.’

Yothu Yindi’s former drummer Bart Willoughby, a stalwart of South Australia’s music scene, says watching Witiyana’s early performances was akin to watching a star soprano belt it out in an opera house. ‘When Witiyana would sing, he knew how to fill up the whole area with his voice, like an opera person,’ Willoughby says. ‘But that technique came from out in the bush. He’d be sitting out in the bush, and he’d have to train himself on how to fill up the whole area, from a young age. By the time he got to America and started singing, he had the same power as an opera singer. A technique of how to fill up the whole air.’

As well as a performer, songwriter, ceremonial leader and ARIA Hall of Fame entrant, in 2020 Witiyana added to his startlingly impressive CV the title of big-screen actor, pulling off a key role in a confronting film about the NT’s frontier wars, High Ground. On this particular day, he’s sitting out the back of the Rirratjiŋu Aboriginal Corporation office in Yirrkala, elbows propped against a scratched wooden tabletop and looking out over the view of the Arafura Sea. He reaches for a half-opened tobacco pouch to roll a cigarette. He shouldn’t really be smoking; a tapering scar across his chest from an aortic valve replacement suggests this with severity. But drag away he does.

He’s thinking back to the start of things, decades in the rear-view mirror, to times before Hollywood record deals, TV interviews, endless bus tours and backstage parties.  He’s recalling a time when it was just him, his uncle and their families, trying to keep living the traditional way. Hunting magpie geese and spearing stingray. Cutting yiḏaki from stringybark trees. Trading stories, songs and secrets. Knowledge.

‘My father stood for the land and sang for the land and managed the land at that time,’ he says. ‘So, as I was growing up, I became a part of that life. And growing up I got to a certain age, six, seven years old, I was learning manikay. I was singin’ manikay along with Dad. Eight, I was getting stronger, nine, ten years old, learning dance.’ 

A mural in Yirrkala honouring the work of land rights pioneer and artist Roy Marika, father of Yothu Yindi co-founder Witiyana Marika. (Blue Douglas/mural by Mike Makatron and Cam Scale)

Witiyana’s father, Roy, remains imprinted in NT folklore for taking on the mining industry when his people hardly had a voice. He was a serious ceremonial leader and a showman, with a chiselled face like a skull, as Witiyana describes it, and a central figure in the fight to attain Aboriginal land rights in Australia.

The bulldozers had come to East Arnhem Land with little warning in the 1960s. As had the dynamite. Some Yolŋu thought they were being bombed, and  while  this  wasn’t the case, it was the beginning of a kind of war. In 1962 the Australian Government granted mining exploration rights to a multinational consortium, Pechiney, for more than 300 square kilometres of traditional Yolŋu land. It planned to extract bauxite, a type of rock, red as Uluru, that contains the raw material needed to produce aluminium, a lucrative commodity used to construct most of the world’s trains, cars and cans.

The consortium was preparing to dig up dirt that for tens of thousands of years had been home and hunting grounds of the area’s Aboriginal custodians. The elders were livid. Rirratjiŋu and Gumatj leaders, Roy and Mungurrawuy among them, rallied the elders from all thirteen clans of the Gove Peninsula to rail against the mining. They soon took their fight to the nation’s capital.

A teenage Galarrwuy helped his father and the clan leaders draft the Yirrkala bark petitions – signed, typewritten letters plastered on bark and bordered by traditional designs, which spelled out their inherited rights to the land ‘from time immemorial’. They sent two petitions to the federal parliament and the House of Representatives tabled them in August 1963. ‘[The petitions were created] to try to help explain to the government and the mining company the spiritual relationship we have with our land,’ says Bakamana in the 1994 Yothu Yindi documentary, Tribal Voice. ‘This was Australia’s first land rights claim.’

Politicians noted the grievances of the Yolŋu, and created a committee to travel to Arnhem Land to hear their concerns firsthand. The committee sat down in the scrub and gave the impression they’d listened. But, by and large, the clan leaders’ voices were ignored by Canberra.

By 1968, the consortium Nabalco had been granted a special mineral lease to expand its operations, including the creation of a nearby town to house its workers. On one occasion, in 1969, senior clansmen gathered at the top of a sacred hill site named Nhulun, which had been partly bulldozed by the  mining  firm. Up there, gara (spears) in hand to demand an end to the desecration, they performed a special ceremony known as the ‘Land Rights Galtha Buŋgul’, calling for respect. A photograph of the Yolŋu clutching their gara on the hillside hit newspapers as far south as Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. In one concession to the elders, the company agreed to keep the traditional name of Nhulunbuy for the township, in preference to its chosen name of Gove, after a World War II pilot.

But the mining operations still went forward at full tilt and, aghast, Roy and the traditional owners took their fight a step further. With prompting from supporters, they entered the balanda legal arena and waged a high-profile Supreme Court battle (Milirrpum v Nabalco and the Commonwealth of Australia) which, heartbreakingly, they lost in 1971. Justice Blackburn ruled that under Australian law, the Yolŋu had no claim to ownership of the land.

Witiyana was then just ten years old, but remembers clearly his father’s and the elders’ sorrow. ‘They were devastated. We felt like we were nobody, like terra nullius, like they say. But we didn’t let it beat us. We are survivors. It doesn’t matter about that white man’s case not recognising us, it doesn’t matter. They only lived by their law and their society – but they can’t sing the land. [The clan leaders] didn’t forget that ruling. But they always knew who they were.’

In the court case’s aftermath, the elders finally had some success – albeit a far cry from their original goal. Although the mine forged ahead, their legal tussle had laid the groundwork for the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act to be written into law in 1976. It was a watershed moment, an opening for other Aboriginal clan nations around Australia to follow suit and demand recognition – and royalties – of and for use of their traditional lands. The younger generation, including the future members of Yothu Yindi, took notice.

Writing in the Sand | ABC Books | $45 hard cover