Till his death, Mandawuy Yunupingu was just a voice to me. Then I learnt how to say his name properly.
I remember hearing ‘Treaty’, the anthem of inclusiveness that Yunupingu and his band Yothu Yindi sang in New York at the launch of the United Nations’ International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.
I remember thrilling to the words:
“Well I heard it on the radio
And I saw it on the television
Back in 1988
All those talking politicians…
Promises can disappear
Just like writing in the sand”
But I did not know it was Mandawuy Yunupingu who sang them. His name seemed too hard to pronounce.
As they say, after silence, music comes closest to expressing the inexpressible. And Yunupingu seemed so eloquent in the way he captured the sense of exclusion felt by Australia’s Aborigines. In himself, he was a remarkable example of inclusiveness, with a band that counted both Aboriginal and white musicians and combined traditional indigenous sounds and modern pop and rock.
‘Treaty’ has several lines in Yunupingu’s native tongue. (To me, they sounded a little like a Sanskrit incantation, but they were strange in that I, who know Sanskrit could not understand a word). The song itself refers to a 1988 promise by Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Two-hundred years after European settlement in Australia, Mr Hawke made so bold as to say it was appropriate for the government to have a formal treaty with the Aborigines.
The Aborigines were destined to be disappointed even though the idea of a treaty was hardly new. It was put about as far back as 1837 by Saxe Bannister, the first Attorney General of New South Wales. ‘Treaty’ is a dirty word in Australian politics. As Prime Minister John Howard said more recently, “… I hope we have some kind of written understanding. I don’t like the idea of a treaty because it implies that we are two nations. We are not, we are one nation.”
Quite so, but it is hard for one-nation politics to overcome the hump of perceived humiliation. In 2010, as Mick Gooda, an Aboriginal man (who also served as social justice commissioner for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, the full name of the indigenous people) lamented the hurt he felt.
In an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Gooda said many things had changed since Queen Victoria’s royal assent to the Australian constitution on July 9, 1900, “but one thing that has not changed is the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as Australia’s first peoples.”
He meant that they were still ignored in Australia’s founding document.
It bears thinking about, especially as Canada, the US and New Zealand have managed to pay tribute to their indigenous people with dignity, grace – and, crucially, legal force. The US, of course, famously negotiated nearly 390 treaties with American Indian tribes and the Supreme Court considers these to be agreements between the Federal Government and a foreign country.
In the 21st century, surely it’s time for Australia to, at the very least, move towards a ‘document of reconciliation’, a settlement, a compact, a covenant, a declaration. Or a makarrata? It is an indigenous word but it means the same thing. And it might have exactly the ring required.