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Paying deep respects to Yunupiŋu, a visionary leader

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people. Yunupiŋu’s family have given permission for his name and images to be used.

Below are tributes and links to statements paying respects – from family members, colleagues, health leaders and others. They share a wealth of knowledge about the Gumatj Clan leader, his work and accomplishments over many decades. (This article was updated on 12 April to include additional tributes).


Rejoice in the gift of his life and leadership

Family statement on 3 April

Yunupiŋu Maralitja Bapurra Dhukulu

Today we mourn with deep love and great sadness the passing of our dearly loved father Yunupiŋu.

The holder of our sacred fire, the leader of our clan and the path-maker to our future.

The loss to our family and community is profound. We are hurting, but we honour him and remember with love everything he has done for us.

We remember him for his fierce leadership, and total strength for Yolŋu and for Aboriginal people throughout Australia. He lived by our laws always.

Yunupiŋu lived his entire life on his land, surrounded by the sound of bilma (clapsticks), yidaki (didgeridoo) and the manikay (sacred song) and dhulang (sacred designs) of our people. He was born on our land, he lived all his life on our land and he died on our land secure in the knowledge that his life’s work was secure.

He had friendship and loyalty to so many people, at all levels, from all places.

Our father was driven by a vision for the future of this nation, his people’s place in the nation and the rightful place for Aboriginal people everywhere.

In leaving us, we know that Dad’s loss will be felt in many hearts and minds. We ask you to mourn his passing in your own way, but we as a family encourage you to rejoice in the gift of his life and leadership.

There will never be another like him.

In time we will announce the dates for bäpurru (ceremonies) that will see him returned to his land and to his fathers.  These ceremonies will be held in North Eastern Arnhem Land.

We ask the media to respect our grieving space over the coming weeks as we put together ceremonial arrangements to honour Dad.

Instead of flowers, we invite those of you who were touched by Dad’s fire to share with us your personal recollections and memories of his life. This will lift our spirits.

Thank you.

Binmila Yunupiŋu

(Daughter)


A giant of the nation

Yothu Yindi Foundation statement

Yunupiŋu was a master of the ceremonies and a keeper of the songlines of the Yolŋu people. He held the deep backbone names of the country and the sacred knowledge of his people.

His totems were fire, rock and bäru (saltwater crocodile), and his name means the sacred rock that stands against time.

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.

He returns to where he began, born on sacred Yolŋu country in North East 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.

With Yolŋu leaders, he led the revival of the homelands movement in the 1970’s and the emergence of the Land Rights movement throughout Australia.

His name is synonymous with some of the nation’s most significant events – the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Gove Land Rights case, the Land Rights Act, the Barunga Statement, the Native Title Act and the Voice.

Although his influence reached the farthest boundaries of the country, he lived his entire life in Yirrkala and Gunyaŋara, among his people.

He met Prime Minister Robert Menzies with his father in the 1960’s when Cabinet met to announce the Gove Bauxite Mine, and dealt personally with every Prime Minister since Whitlam.

Many promises were made, none were delivered in full. As a sovereign man of his clan nation he was left disappointed by them all.

In 2022 he responded to Prime Minister Albanese’s commitment to the Voice asking whether his commitment was “serious”. He was told it was. This promise has been kept.

As chairman of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, he made education the primary focus of its work, and in recent years oversaw the establishment of the Dhupuma Barker junior school in Gunyaŋara, and the Garma Institute, realising a long-held dream by community leaders for world-class education facilities in northeast Arnhem Land.

With his Yolŋu kin he gifted the nation the Garma Festival, which showcased Yolŋu miny-tji (art) bunggul (dance), manikay (song) and story-telling to a national audience, and which today leads discussion and debate of issues affecting Yolŋu and other Indigenous people.

He won a string of awards but never sought recognition or accolades for his work.

He established a suite of sustainable large and small business in the region which supported local employment, including a cattle station, a timber mill, and a nursery, and in recent years set up the Gumatj-owned Gulkula Bauxite Mine – the first Aboriginal owned and operated mine in the country.

In 2022, he oversaw the establishment of the Gulkula Space Base and its partnership with NASA.

He lived and died in the arms of his family, and they in his arms. He is Yolŋu first and Yolŋu forever.

Always in our hearts. Rest in Peace.

Denise Bowden, Chief Executive Officer


Outstanding leader and friend

Statement by Gumatj Corporation

The Board of Gumatj Corporation its staff and employees pass on their condolences to the family of the late Yunupiŋu.

As our Founder and Inaugural Chairman, Yunupiŋu held a vision of self-determination for Yolŋu people through employment and business development. He believed that Yolŋu people, like all of us, were economic beings.

He saw welfare as poison for his people. His view was that welfare anchored his people to a future without independence and to a life controlled by government.

His drive, leadership and mentoring never wavering from this vision. Without our Chairman we would never have achieved the solid foundation we have built.

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.

Chairman: Djawa Yunupiŋu

Chief Executive Officer: Klaus Helms


A policy leader

Professor Ian Anderson, writing in Pearls and Irritations, ‘On the passing of Dr Yunupingu AM (1948 – 2023)’.

Extract from the article: “His legacy was and will continue to be profound. His passing has weighty implications for our nation and the Gumatj clan he led. It has implications for how we navigate the most transformative agenda of our generation: the 2023 referendum.

It was in his later years that Dr Yunupingu’s power as a policy leader really came to the fore and consolidated his legacy.

From 2007 he lent his authority to a process that transformed the Garma Festival. He built on its foundation as a cultural festival but transformed it into the most significant Indigenous political event in the calendar. It is an understatement to say that Garma has become the Australian Indigenous Davos. He laid out this vision in 2007 at a speech at the University of Melbourne.

For twenty years up to four thousand national leaders have converged on the ceremonial grounds of the Gumatj. They participate in cultural exchange and policy debate.

Everyone from Prime Ministers, business leaders and cultural leaders join Indigenous leaders to map future policy agendas. It was here that strategies to Close the Gap; promote Indigenous reconciliation and constitutional reform were contested.

As we collectively mourn the loss of this great man it will be challenging for Yolgnu and all of us. Particularly as we move forward to a referendum for constitutional enshrinement of the Voice to Parliament.”

Professor Ian Anderson is Palawa & Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) for the University of Tasmania. 


Much-loved and widely accomplished

Professor Marcia Langton, writing at The Conversation, ‘Yunupiŋu was a great clan leader, a great family man and very much loved. I wish Australian political leaders could have learned more from him’.

An extract from the article: “Dr Yunupiŋu was a magnificent person and a magnificent leader. Most people in Australia who are aware of him know him as a ceremonial leader because of his towering presence leading ceremonies at the Garma Festival for so many years and, most importantly, at events that he himself curated in order to make representations to prime ministers and ministers of Australian governments.

Throughout his life, he has spoken and made representations to every prime minister of his adulthood.

He was a great clan leader, a great family man and very much loved by so many Australians who came into contact with him through his Garma Festival and so many other good works.

He was also an intellectual. He published some wonderful works, particularly Tradition, Truth and Tomorrow.

He was a musician, one of the most important traditional singers from Northeast Arnhem Land. Indeed, one could hear his beautiful voice on the Tribal Voice album, which his late younger brother’s band Yothu Yindi made famous.”

Professor Marcia Langton is Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies, The University of Melbourne.


Deepest respect

Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed, CEO of the Lowitja Institute

An extract from Institute’s newsletter: “Before all else, I would like to acknowledge the passing of a great leader of the Gumatj Clan and one of our most respected and influential trailblazers of the past five decades. I offer my deepest respect to this revered Yolngu Elder, ‘trailblazing giant’ and ‘land rights pioneer’.

He was a close friend of our patron, Lowitja O’Donoghue, with the two known for having the utmost respect and admiration for each other as leaders of their time and people. We at Lowitja Institute honour him and his significant social and political achievements.

We also echo the countless media tributes that recognise him as a man who walked tall in two worlds. His legacy of determinedly pursuing self-determination, recognition and Treaty will continue to impact us for decades to come. I encourage you to read his 2016 Monthly essay, where he reflects on his own song cycle and reminds all of us to ‘dream of a future that is different from the past. A future that has in it everything my people need’.

Over this past fortnight, we have also watched the referendum question and Constitutional clause be officially announced and introduced to Parliament. We welcome these developments and that federal government worked in close partnership with prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, including our patron, Pat Anderson AO, to ensure that the wording met our expectations…”


Life-long fight for land rights

Reconciliation Australia statement

News of the passing of Gumatj leader Yunupingu has left the reconciliation movement grieving.

A member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation from 1991 until 1996, Yunupingu was a truly monumental leader of his Yolŋu people and a tireless advocate for reconciliation and mutual respect.

Reconciliation Australia enjoyed a warm and long-standing relationship with Yunupingu through our involvement in the Garma Festival and the Yothu Yindi Foundation.

His enormous contribution to Australian public life was strengthened by his ability to operate with great skill and confidence in both the Yolŋu and Australian legal, cultural and political systems.

He continuously reminded Australians of the complexity of his people’s culture and the unyielded sovereignty they hold over their Country.

His experience, as a sixteen-year-old, witnessing Yolŋu people’s wishes and laws arrogantly overridden when the Australian Government granted mining leases to the Nabalco corporation, shaped his life and leadership.

Decades later, in his Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, he said that this experience proved that the Yolŋu had “no standing either as citizens of Australia, or as a people with our own law. We did not exist in Balanda law. The Commonwealth Government, the missionaries, the mining company, all had power. We, the people of the land, had none.”

It was this story which saw Yunupingu start his life-long fight for land rights.

Yunupingu helped draw up the Yirrkala bark petitions of which his father was a signatory. In one of the key milestones of the Aboriginal Land Rights movement the petitions were sent by the Yolŋu Nation to the Australian Parliament asserting sovereignty over their land and rejecting the federal government’s rights to grant mining leases.

In 1971 Yunupingu recorded a single, Gurindji Blues, with a spoken introduction from Vincent Lingiari, highlighting the struggle of the Gurindji people to win back their lands from English pastoral giant Vestey Brothers.

In 1978 he became the third Aboriginal person to win Australian of the Year and the first to do so for achievements outside of the sporting arena. When his brother, leader of the world-famous band, Yothu Yindi, was awarded the same honour in 1992, they became the only brothers to win Australia’s highest award.

In the Australia Day Honours in 1985, Yunupingu was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to the Aboriginal community.

His life of enormous achievement was furth