Yolngu associated with the Yirrkala and Milingimbi Missions found themselves dealing with missionaries who made an effort to respect their culture. Wilbur Chaseling at Yirrkala and TT Webb at Milingimbi saw the social cohesion of Yolngu as wholesome, and not as an obstacle to their evangelism. Edgar Wells, Yirrkala's superintendent at the time of the 1963 bark petition, was glad to inherit their policies and to build his own practice on its benefits. The criteria by which Yirrkala recognised men as leaders - primogeniture, ritual knowledge, physical forcefulness and rhetorical accomplishment - and the processes through which those leaders made decisions remained intact by the early 1960s.
A policy of 'community development' was, in some missionaries' opinion, crowned with success by the organised protest to the Australian parliament in 1963. In his memoir of the bark petition, Wells writes that he saw 'personal growth' in the Aboriginal representatives 'who actually stormed the citadels of power as they gave their simple testimony before the Committee. By defending their ancient heritage in an entirely new technical format, future emotional security, together with order and tranquillity within their society was vaguely discerned, but nonetheless, brought within their grasp.'
Not all missionaries to the Yolngu thought this way. Wells has written critically of the readiness of some of his colleagues to lament Yolngu independence. In 1972 he recalled differing responses to the death - 'in a tribal affray' - of a leader named Garmali:
'... one of the missionaries let me know, and added, 'if anyone had to die it was a good thing it was Garmali...he was a trouble maker'. Of course he was! But I came to regard his trouble as part of the emergence of the whole man in a position of social change; and what a man! A master wood carver, the first Aboriginal to introduce the chain system to lightning outline drawing on timber so that others could fill in the detail and thus produce more of his work, which was much sought after. The man who electrified the Commonwealth Committee of Inquiry at Yirrkala, by producing a common Shell map of the area in dispute and proving how he could read it in detail, then went on to deliver a fine speech indicating how deeply he felt about the attempt to rob him "of his land for his children".'
Keywords: Arnhem Land, bark petition, Blackburn, Justice, cultural preservation, Gove Case, Kakadu National Park, Millingimbi, missionaries, missions, Wells, Reverend Edgar, Yirrkala, Yolgnu, Yunupingu, Galarrwuy, 1962-72
EA Wells 1982, 'Reward and punishment in Arnhem Land 1962-3', Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies 1982, p 96; Wells, EA 'The missions and race prejudice', in Stevens, FS (ed) 1972, 'Racism: the Australian experience, volume 2 - black versus white', Australian and New Zealand Book Company p 246.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor