They came a very long way to ignite a conversation with dance and a resolute message of quiet determination from Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the man they call the ngurrunga, or leader.
Almost 30 years ago, Mr Yunupingu presented the Barunga Statement to then prime minister Bob Hawke, calling for a treaty, or compact, between black and white Australia. Mr Hawke said he wanted one, but didn’t deliver.
Then, in 2008, after the formal apology to the stolen generations, Mr Yunupingu handed a Yirrkala statement to Kevin Rudd, asking for constitutional change to recognise Indigenous rights.
Now, Mr Yunupingu, almost 70, has sent a delegation of Gumatj clan leaders to Uluru, where about 250 Indigenous Australians have gathered to discuss what form of constitutional recognition to seek from Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten.
“The ngurrunga, the boss, the leader has been suffering with illness and he sent us here to be the spark when we light this fire today,” Djunga Djunga Yunupingu, Galarrwuy’s cousin explained to Fairfax Media.
An hour after we spoke, the clan leaders performed a dance about the fire, or gurtha, that links the Yolngu people of North-East Arnhem Land with the Anangu of Uluru.
“Our fire was lit by our ancestors and lives through our song and our dance. This gives us power and we seek to give that power to you,” Mr Yunupingu told the delegates after the performance.
“You can now go and light a fire in the nation for all of us, for our children, for all Australians.”.
If more spark and inspiration is required, the dancers from the Torres Strait were there to deliver it. So were the Anangu, who reciprocated the generosity of the visitors during an extraordinary opening ceremony at the Mutitjulu community at the foot of Uluru..
The unprecedented, three-day Indigenous constitutional convention follows 12 Indigenous dialogues across the country where the message has been that minimalist or purely symbolic change won’t cut it, and that whatever emerges must give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people more power over their lives and more freedom.
Noel Pearson has used the metaphor of the debate over same-sex marriage to make the point that partial recognition will not suffice.
Others have highlighted the folly of thinking big changes can flow from an emphatic vote in support of purely symbolic or minimalist change. As Megan Davis has observed, this idea is not supported by history and is “fundamentally at odds with how political and legal systems operate”.
But the task is fraught, perhaps more fraught than the one that confronted activists before the 1967 referendum, half a century ago, for two reasons.
The first is that there is no clear consensus among Indigenous people about what form recognition should take, though there has been strong support at the dialogues for enshrining in the constitution an Indigenous voice to the Parliament.
The other is the doubt about whether the politicians will be willing to embrace what is decided and put it to the people, given that only eight of 44 referenda have been successful.
This is not a reason to be pessimistic: it is simply to underscore the scale of this enterprise and the heavy responsibility being borne by the delegates. It is also why Mr Yunupingu is so keen to light this fire.
The mood at Mutitjulu was one of measured confidence that common ground will be found before the convention winds up on Friday.
The feeling among the Gumatj clan leaders was that the “noble compromise” predicted by Mr Pearson would flow later on. “This is a follow up from the Barunga Statement, and this one we feel more confident, more comfortable that we will succeed,” said Dhayirra Yunupingu, a brother of Galarrwuy.
Why? “Because we are giving this message at this iconic site, the nation’s heart, it will be easier for the balanda [the non-Aboriginal] to understand.”