Fact-finding expedition and a petition
In July 1963, Gordon Bryant, Member for Wills, and his parliamentary colleague, Kim Beazley senior, Member for Fremantle, went to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory to meet with mission residents. At this time there were approximately 500 people in 17 different tribal groupings living on the Gove Peninsula. In discussions with the two parliamentarians, spokesmen asked for help 'to get back our country of Yirrkala and Melville Bay'. It was Kim Beazley who suggested that the people petition the Australian government. He reasoned that they were citizens and as such they had a right to petition the Parliament.
Kim Beazley and Gordon Bryant reported on their visit to Yirrkala. They observed that unlike other Australian citizens, for example those occupying a country town of equivalent size, the Yirrkala residents had none of the services one would expect in a country town - no post office and a doctor only called for a few hours once a month. They reported that the people regard the land as theirs and could point out their traditional boundaries. Beazley and Bryant were highly critical of the Commonwealth government, accusing it of 'complete insensitivity to the economics and the social structure of the community'.
Report on Yirrkala, Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley senior
'Yirrkala', Barry Christophers Papers, 1951-1981, MS7992/8, box 16, National Library of Australia, Canberra
Kim Beazley suggested that the form of the petition should express the people's own culture. The people were taken with this idea and, with the support of Edgar Wells, his wife Ann and Doug Tuffin (another Yirrkala missionary), they set to work.
In August 1963, two petitions were tabled in the House of Representatives.  These petitions, written in Gupapungu, were pasted onto bark and surrounded by beautifully crafted traditional designs. They set out the people's complaints at not having been consulted.
Petition to the Prime Minister embedded in a bark painting, from Yirrkala residents, 1963
Parliament House, Canberra; images courtesy National Archives of Australia, Canberra
1 Jock Nelson, Member for the Northern Territory, presented the petition on 14 August 1963. A similar petition was presented by William Wentworth, Member for Mackellar. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), House of Representatives, 14 August 1963, p. 81.