Indigenous Australians are advised that this article may include images or names of people now deceased.
To mark National Reconciliation Week 2011, the Archives delved into its collection to display a document that played a significant role in the evolution of native title. Canberra writer Philip O’Brien tells the story of the 1972 Larrakia petition – one of the most important documents in the history of Indigenous Australians’ struggle for land rights.
Headed Gwalwa Daraniki, which means ‘our land’ in the language of the Larrakia people (the traditional owners of the Darwin area), the Larrakia petition called for land rights and political representation for the Aboriginal people of Australia.
It was signed in October 1972 by 1000 Aboriginal people from all states of mainland Australia – some with their names, others with thumb prints – and addressed to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The story of the petition
To draw attention to the Larrakia petition – as evidence of the fight for Aboriginal land rights and as part of the documentary heritage held by the Archives – it was the focus of a public presentation during National Reconciliation Week. Speaking at the presentation were Dr Bill Day, an anthropologist who had been involved with the creation of the petition, and Mr Daniel May from the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation.
Dr Day revealed that this was the first time he had seen the petition – with both the title page and covering letter in his own handwriting – since he had mailed it to Buckingham Palace in 1972.
He recalled that representatives of the Larrakia community had originally attempted to present the petition to Princess Margaret during her official visit to Darwin in October 1972. ‘We didn’t expect that a petition would lead to royal intervention, but we wanted to publicise the struggle for land rights and to put pressure on the Australian Government.’
However, as community representatives broke through the police barriers to gain access to Princess Margaret, a scuffle broke out and the petition was torn – an incident, Dr Day said, that symbolised the struggle Indigenous Australians faced.
Later that month, Dr Day and representatives of the Larrakia people posted the petition to the Queen, with an accompanying letter that offered an apology for the poor condition of the document.
The petition was eventually forwarded from Buckingham Palace to the office of the Australian Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, in early 1973. From there it was placed on file in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs before being deposited with the Archives in 1975.
The Aboriginal land rights movement in the early 1970s
The Larrakia petition was created at a time when the issue of Aboriginal land rights was becoming a politically divisive one in Australia.
‘Following the 1971 Gove land rights decision, which rejected native title, and the McMahon government’s rejection of the concept of a commission to negotiate land treaties, Aboriginal politics took a separatist direction. The tent embassy, set up in front of Parliament House in Canberra in 1972, was evidence of that,’ Dr Day said.
The petition was intended as a national effort on behalf of all Aboriginal people, not merely the Larrakia people. ‘Most of those who signed the petition were not the movers and shakers of the Aboriginal struggle. The majority were from the grassroots and expressed the cry for recognition of a people whose rights had been crushed. They seized the banner from their predecessors at a crucial time in history and carried it forward.’
Not surprisingly, the petition has been in a fragile condition for some years, which has made accessing and handling the document difficult. It had originally been lined with sheets of grease-proof paper and repaired with adhesive tape, which had deteriorated. Archives conservators decided that the pages would be better protected if separated and displayed in book form. However, the conservators were also concerned that this treatment should be reversible, so that the petition could be returned to its original 3.3-metre format if necessary.
Dr Day said that he was delighted that the Larrakia petition has been so well preserved by the Archives. ‘By displaying it, the Archives has honoured all those whose names are written on it. Many were my friends and, sadly, the majority have since passed away but their signatures act as a cry for Aboriginal rights, one that has echoed down through the generations.’
And, nearly 40 years after its creation, the petition has renewed significance in the context of the Australian Government’s Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, he said. ‘In displaying the petition, the Archives has compelled historians and the Australian public to reassess it in the light of demands for a constitutional amendment that will recognise the Indigenous inhabitants of our nation.’