FIFTY-ONE years ago, Aboriginal elders used bark to send an enduring message to the highest authority in the land, seeking to end injustice.
Today, children tracing their footsteps are going even further.
Woodridge State High School students have crafted traditional bark petitions to call for an end to racism, a message that will be heard on a global stage at the 2014 United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.
The bark tradition dates back to 1963, when the Yolngu people of Yirrkala, in the Northern Territory, sought recognition of traditional land rights by sending two petitions, which combined bark painting with text on paper, to the Australian Parliament. They were the first traditional documents to bridge Commonwealth and Indigenous laws.
The Woodridge students drew on this tradition as a response to racial riots in the Logan community during 2013, which saw violence flare between Aboriginal, Pacific Islander and African families.
Their petitions ask for fairness, tolerance, an upgrade of educational and hospital resources, and to “bring some poor people from another country because they don’t have anything in their country”.
Alexandra Green, a Woodridge student in Year 9, said she was overwhelmed by the positive response with the bark petitions from her classmates.
“It made me proud to be an Aboriginal person sharing my culture,” Alexandra said.
Fellow Woodridge student Chantal Sadi said that acknowledging other cultures and apologising for wrongdoing (to the Stolen Generation) allows people to heal and release pain.
“That is what you will see these past years – when you go to school you will see Indigenous, Aboriginal, Australian and people from different countries having fun at school, laughing and playing together because there is respect for one another,” Chantal said.
As part of last year’s NAIDOC Week celebrations, which increases awareness of the status and treatment of Indigenous Australians, and to honour the 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala bark petitions, Woodridge representatives presented their petitions to Dr Megan Davis (pictured right).
Dr Davis, Professor of Law and Director of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of New South Wales, in turn relayed the petitions to the peak UN Indigenous body, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples (PFII) in May 2014. She will also present them to the Chair of the PFII at the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York on September 22.
Dr Davis, an expert member of the PFII, said the petitions show how a school in a low socio-economic community addresses racial tensions and conveys a vision for racial harmony.
“We speak about what a tolerant society Australia is with few racial flashpoints, but we fail to recognise that most of this heavy lifting is done in those areas that have significant multicultural populations. This tends to be in low socio-economic areas,” Dr Davis said.
“It’s easy to feel powerless because no one listens to the poor in Australia, but they can empower themselves with education.
“These students by necessity have to develop skills of diplomacy and peacemaking that should be acknowledged and, in the case of the bark petitions, applauded.”
Among the individual messages on the Woodridge bark petitions were: “More help to find and prepare for jobs”; “Unity of all races”; “End racism”; “Fairness”; “Violence is not peace”; “Equal rights for everyone”; and “As a group we can accomplish anything.”
Dr Davis said the petitions outline a vision for racial harmony and better social infrastructure for youth to prevent boredom, as well as raise concerns about health care costs.
“I was extremely moved by the bark petitions,” Dr Davis said.
“I’m not sure social mobility is as achievable today as it was for me, but it just means students from Logan have to work twice as hard as everyone else.”
Head of ESL at Woodridge High School Kate Davis said the bark petition themes highlighted the passions and sentiments of the youth in the Woodridge community.
“Over 50 years later, the bark petition legacy lives on and continues to inspire our young people to stand up for change and positive reform in our nation,” Ms Davis said.