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Surprise guest at leader‘s memorial

Caroline Kennedy
It‘s been revealed that the US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy was among the many dignitaries who gathered to farewell Indigenous activist Yunupingu. Picture: Twitter

Warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this article contains images of a person who has died

The US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy has paid her respect to activist Yunupingu who has been remembered as a pioneer of indigenous rights.

Family and friends of the 74-year-old, who died in early April, gathered alongside political leaders and other dignitaries at the East Arnhem Land island community of Gunyangara on Thursday to pay their respects.

Among them were Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who both delivered speeches honouring the late land rights campaigner.

Ms Kennedy was also in attendance, as it was later revealed on the US embassy’s official Twitter account.

In a tribute to Yunupingu, she remembered him as a leader, and someone who fought for unity and hope.

“I was deeply honoured to join the Yolngu clan and community in Arnhem Land yesterday to pay my respects to Yunupingu as he returns to his ancestors in Gumatj country,” wrote Ms Kennedy.

“A leader who fought for justice, land rights, education, and the culture of his people, he worked to build a future of partnership and hope.”

“My deepest sympathy to his family as they carry forward his remarkable legacy.”

Ms Kennedy, the daughter of former US president John F. Kennedy, previously served as the US ambassador to Japan, between 2013 to 2017 before relocating to Australia in July 2022.

Acting great Jack Thompson also paid tribute to the legacy of his great friend.
task like no other in Australian history – to master both worlds and in doing so to bring them together in unity,” Mr Thompson said.

Mr Thompson said education and land rights were part of that legacy, but so was constitutional recognition of indigenous people.

Gumatj clan dancers at the memorial for leader Yunupingu at the East Arnhem Land island community of Gunyangara. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.
Gumatj clan dancers at the memorial for leader Yunupingu at the East Arnhem Land island community of Gunyangara. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.

“He found the respect of all he met through his authority and poise. But it was

his determination to do things that needed to be done, and that were right, that

spoke to his allies and his opponents alike,” Mr Thompson said.

“And always he sought constitutional recognition and a voice for the powerless.

“He understood that to go forward in the nation, Aboriginal and Islander people

had to be part of the mainframe of the nation.

“That was the gift he sought he sought in return for his life’s work.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Yunupingu ‘left such great footsteps for us to follow’ at Thursday’s memorial. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Yunupingu ‘left such great footsteps for us to follow’ at Thursday’s memorial. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton also spoke at the memorial. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton also spoke at the memorial. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.

The Prime Minister said Yunupingu had “every right to be cynical, but he wasn’t.”

“No matter how often Australia let him down, he kept striving to have us rise to his level of integrity,” he said in his address.

“And as he did, what Yunupingu helped us all to see was not the reinvention of Australia, but the realisation of an even greater one.

“Yunupingu walked in two worlds with authority, power and grace, and he worked to make them whole – together.

“Now he walks in another place, but he has left such great footsteps for us to follow here in this one.”

Mr Dutton, in his speech, said Yunupingu’s “presence will always be felt in what he built”.

“Australia is truly a beneficiary of a man who cared. A man with conviction. A man who showed us just how it was to exercise the best of one’s character,” he said.

“Our generation’s admiration of Yunupingu will only amplify in generations to come.”

approved tribute photo of yunupingu
The Gumatj clan leader was a powerful land rights advocate during his life, advocating for both the Yolngu people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia.

Yunupingu’s eldest daughter, Binmila, spoke of her father as a “welcoming man” who deserved respect.

“His being away for work was always the hardest for us. But when he was home, he was always making up for lost time, taking us out on the boat to get stingray, or in the chopper to collect tern eggs,” she said.

“There was always a little piece of us missing when Dad was away, a little hole in our heart … his plane would come in and all of us kids would run to him, so excited to see him. And when he was home, he gave everything to us.”

Binmila Yunupingu led the family’s tribute to her father at the memorial. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.
Binmila Yunupingu led the family’s tribute to her father at the memorial. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.
CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation Denise Bowden described Yunupingu as a pioneer. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.
CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation Denise Bowden described Yunupingu as a pioneer. Picture: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation.

Yothu Yindi Foundation CEO Denise Bowden also spoke, describing Yunupingu as “a trailblazer and a pioneer for our nation, black and white, young and old”.

“He was loyal, he had high principles, and he expected those around him to adopt the same principles. To work hard and be diligent.”

Media were asked not to travel to Arnhem Land for the event, with images and vision of the memorial to be released pending final approval from Yunupingu’s family.

The service comes ahead of a private funeral and burial for Yunupingu’s family, to be held on Wednesday.

Yunupingu with former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at Garma in 2014. Picture: Peter Eve
Yunupingu with former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at Garma in 2014. Picture: Peter Eve

The Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation closed its offices on Thursday for the memorial, and only had their clinics open for emergencies.

They paid tribute to Yunupingu on their social media channels.

“Yunupingu was a prominent leader and activist for the rights of Yolŋu people,” they wrote.

“His advocacy and vision paved the way for the practical implementation of self-determination and community control, which ultimately led to the creation of community controlled and Yolŋu powered organisations across East Arnhem Land.”

The Gumatj clan leader was a powerful land rights advocate during his life, advocating for both the Yolngu people, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia.

The chair of the Gumatj Corporation, the Yothu Yindi Foundation, and the Northern Land Council was also named Australian of the Year in 1978 due to his work negotiating with the Ranger uranium mine and Kakadu National Park.

Prime Ministers have sought his advice on Aboriginal matters in the past, including Anthony Albanese last year over the Voice to Parliament issue.