In yet another display case in the same hall in Canberra are three petitions on bark from the Yirrkala people in Arnhem land, presented to the parliament in 1963, and 1968, requesting that their submission protesting the proposed excision of land from the Arnhem Land reserve be heard before the relevant committee. The petitions are typed on paper, with English translation beneath, and pasted onto bark that is decorated with traditional Yirrkala designs, including fish, turtles and lizards. They are accompanied by an appropriate certification from the Clerk, affirming that their form on bark was acceptable to parliamentary bureaucratic requirements: ‘I certify that this Petition is in conformity with the Standing Orders of this House.’ An information card in the case also draws attention to the medieval antecedents of the form of the petition:
The three bark petitions displayed here are vivid examples of the fundamental right, dating back to the thirteenth century, of citizens to petition parliament concerning their grievances.
There’s a lovely and not atypical contradiction here between the anxiety about the form of the bark petitions that needs to be reassured with the Clerk’s certification; and the affirmation, taking the longer historical view, that these petitions are ‘vivid’ exemplars of a medieval tradition. These differences may reflect changes in attitudes to indigenous culture between the 1960s and the more recent present: they are just as likely to reflect the contradictory relationship between modernity and its medieval inheritance.
I just remembered why I love my job. Now, back to it!