I spoke in parliament tonight about the death of Mr Yunupingu.
Mr Yunupingu, 4 June 2013
It is my pleasure to follow the eloquent words of the member for Fremantle. In 2008, 17 years after he first sang of 'hearing about it on the radio and seeing it on the television', Mr Yunupingu reflected on the Hawke government's promise for a treaty for Indigenous Australians. 'I am still waiting for that treaty to come along for my grandsons,' he said. 'Even if it is not there in the days that I am living, it might come in the days that I am not living.'
Mr Yunupingu's optimism rings with particular poignancy in light of his passing this weekend. At only 56, his days on this earth were too few. Pushing Indigenous Australian issues to the forefront of the national psyche in a fashion that blended the political with pop culture was a momentous achievement. His influence extended internationally. He drew global attention to the ongoing mistreatment and inequality within Australia, while always encouraging a positive and inclusive attitude. Few of us could forget Yothu Yindi's performance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics closing ceremony, bracketing, as it did, the role that Cathy Freeman played in the opening ceremony and with her victory in the 400 metres. During a period in Australian history where the government was reluctant to say sorry, thousands of voices sang along to Treaty, showing the world that non-Indigenous Australians wanted a better future with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
Mr Yunupingu's story is one of extraordinary passion, with the importance of identity and of hope for the future. As a member of the Gumatj clan, his ancestral totem was the saltwater crocodile and his family name, Yunupingu, translates to the 'rock that will stand will against anything'.
In his youth he was known simply by a short, anglicised first name, but he chose to shrug off this anglicisation and in his adulthood adopted his Yolngu first name. This act was an embrace of cultural tradition and served as a gentle reminder that no-one should have to adjust their identity for the convenience of others, least of all for the convenience of non-Indigenous Australians, whose tongues struggle with the unfamiliarity of this country's oldest language—as I confess mine does.
Mr Yunupingu began teaching at the Yirrkala school in his early 20s, and in 1987 he became the first Indigenous Australian from Arnhem Land to gain a university degree with his Bachelor of Education. He then broke another barrier by becoming the first Indigenous Australian appointed as a school principal. The curriculum he developed blended both Western and Aboriginal traditions, and this approach was also one he embraced in his music in the band he was fronting in his personal time. Yothu Yindi translates from Yolngu as 'child and mother', and theirs was a musical project that fused traditional Indigenous music with modern rock and pop.
In 1991 Mr Yunupingu stopped teaching to pursue his musical endeavours with the band. Along with the band's other members, Stuart Kellaway, Cal Williams, Witiyana Marika, Milkayngu Mununggurr and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the song Treaty was released in 1991. It spent 22 weeks at No. 1 on the Australian singles chart, and gained global recognition in 1992. Yothu Yindi toured the US with the Hon. member for Kingsford Smith's band, Midnight Oil, famously performing at the launch of the United Nations International Year of the World's Indigenous People.
Those who knew him personally say that Mr Yunupingu often spoke of his 'both ways' philosophy, and the need for Aboriginal Australians and non-Aboriginal Australians to speak to one another, not just about one another. This notion of balance and harmony was described by his close friend and fellow musician Paul Kelly, who described Yothu Yindi:
'They are not so much a band as a physical philosophy. All great art contains contradictions. And their art has always rested on holding opposites together. The modern and the tribal, the parent and the child, balanda and yolngu, freshwater and saltwater, seriousness and celebration.'
Mr Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year in 1992 for his contribution to building bridges of understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Political activism was something of a tradition with the family. His brother, Galarrwuy, had won the award in 1978. Mr Yunupingu was also committed to an extensive array of philanthropic work. He established the Yothu Yindi Foundation as a means to develop Yolngu cultural life, and he built the Yirrnga Music Development Centre, a recording studio for Indigenous artists.
The uniting power of Mr Yunupingu can best be summarised by again drawing on Paul Kelly's words. He paid tribute to Mr Yunupingu by saying:
'You showed me your country, brought me into your family, called me brother. You called the whole country brother.'
Australia has lost a powerful uniting voice. As an educator, a songwriter, a musician and a tireless campaigner, the contribution that Mr Yunupingu made to bridging the cultural and communicatory divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians cannot be overstated.
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