Sorry Business – The Passing of Yunupingu

5 April, 2023

NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) and the Land Rights network mourn the passing of Land Rights legend Yunupingu.

The Yolngu man and Gumatj clan leader passed away in north-east Arnhem Land aged 74, after a life devoted to land rights, a national treaty, his culture and his people.

Yunupingu was born in 1948 at Gunyangara in Melville Bay, grew up in Yirrkala and was schooled in traditional law, Yolngu Matha traditional languages, dance and song.

He entered the land rights struggle as a teenager in 1963, where he assisted his father to draw up the Yirrkala Bark Petitions on Yolngu land rights, which were the first traditional documents to be recognised by the Australian Parliament.

He completed his education in Brisbane before returning home and playing a major role in the landmark Gove Land Rights Case in the late 1960s. That case was the first legal action by Aboriginal people challenging mining companies’ exploitation of their lands.

Yunupingu was the Chairman of the Northern Land Council for 24 years until his retirement and was awarded Australian of the Year in 1978 for his commitment to Aboriginal rights. One of his enduring legacies was handing then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke the Barunga Statement in 1988 calling for Treaty negotiations, and the National Trust named him one of Australia’s “100 Living National Treasures” in 1998. He was also a member of the Referendum Working Group, the Indigenous Voice co-design Advisory Group, and was the long-time Chairman of the Garma Festival.

NSWALC Chairperson Councillor Danny Chapman says Yunupingu was a visionary leader highly respected across Australia and internationally.

“Yunupingu leaves a huge legacy for his unwavering commitment to Aboriginal Land Rights, Aboriginal empowerment and our rights to our land, waters, and culture.

On behalf of the NSW Land Rights Network, I send my deepest condolences to Yunupingu’s family, the Yolgnu people, and his many friends at this very sad time.”


We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners of the lands where we work as well as across the lands we travel through. We also acknowledge our Elders past, present and emerging.

Artwork Credit: Craig Cromelin, from a painting he did titled, "4 favourite fishing holes". It is a snippet of his growing years on the Lachlan River, featuring yabby, turtle, fish and family.