The Yunupingu Legacy

Tayla Gentle / June 03, 2013 01:50 PM

Yunupingu led a life of firsts.

Making history as the first Aboriginal person from Arnhem Land to gain a university degree and later becoming Australia’s first Aboriginal school principal, Yunupingu paved the way for inspired Indigenous thinkers across the country.



Yunupingu, who died overnight aged 56, after a battle with kidney disease, was born in an Aboriginal reserve in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land, on September 17, 1956.

A member of the Gumatj clan, his ancestral totem was the “baru”, or saltwater crocodile and his surname translates as “rock that will stand against time”.

Yunupingu founded and fronted the band Yothu Yindi in 1986 with Stuart Kellaway, Cal Williams, Witiyana Marika, Milkayngu Mununggurr and nephew, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

Their fusion of classic rock and traditional indigenous music promoted an understanding of culture between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

Yothu Yindi brought Indigenous issues to a national stage, most significantly through their timeless protest song, Treaty.

Written in collaboration with musician and icon Paul Kelly, the band’s signature song famously highlighted the Hawke government’s promise of a treaty for Aboriginal people. 

Treaty pushed the band into the international spotlight after touring the US with Midnight Oil and opening the launch of the UN International Year of the World’s Indigenous people in 1992.

The same year Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year, recognized for his work as musician and educator and his role in “building bridges of understanding” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

He followed in the footsteps of his older brother Galarrwuy who won the award in 1978, adding to the tradition of political activism throughout the family.

Along with winning eight ARIA awards and being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, Yunupingu was also a committed philanthropist, establishing the Yothu Yindi Foundation and building the Yirrnga Music Development Centre.

In 1998, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Queensland University of Technology, “in recognition of his significant contribution to the education of Aboriginal children, and to the greater understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.”

Heart-felt tributes have flooded social media this morning with national and international musicians, politicians, activists and fans mourning the loss.

Education minister and Midnight Oil front man, Peter Garett, tweeted: "Can't believe he's gone, my dear friend. A path breaker and leader. A shining light for his people. Rest in peace Mr Yunupingu."

In an interview with ABC Radio Breakfast, biographer Robert Hillman said Yunupingu was a “giant amongst his people and a legendary figure in Australian music.”

"He was one of the generation of Indigenous Australians who saw a different way ahead, and what they brought to the consciousness of Australia is going to be valued forever," he said.

Arts minister, Tony Burke, said Australia had lost a key cultural figure.

“Yunupingu didn’t only create a fusion of musical styles and a celebration of Australian culture, he reached people in a way that only music can.

“The passing of Yunupingu is a sad day for Australian music and indigenous culture.”

In an interview in 2008, Yunupingu said he was still waiting for the promised treaty to come along for his grandsons.

“Even if it’s not there in the days that I am living, it might come in the days that I am not living.”

As well as an extraordinary legacy and an inspiring story, Yunupingu has left behind his widow Yalmay, their six daughters and musician nephew, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.

Sources: Who’s Who, ABC, Fairfax


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