Regional Profile: northeast Arnhem Land

Today, non-Aboriginal people are a frequent sight in the wild landscapes of East Arnhem Land. But it was not always like this.


Macassan Perahu

Macassan Perahu

The first remembered non-Aboriginal people to experience East Arnhem Land were traders from Macassar. From at least several hundred years before the arrival of Europeans, Macassan boats would arrive at the East Arnhem coast on the monsoon winds. Here they would camp for several months, harvesting and drying trepang (beche de mer), interspersed with trading and partying with the locals – who called themselves Yolngu.

From the Macassans, Yolngu gained steel for their spearheads, skills for building canoes, knowledge of a wider world and many new words. Today, clusters of huge tamarind trees fringing the East Arnhem coastline, and shards of broken pottery in the sand, show where the Macassans camped.


Christian missionaries made the first long-term settlements in the region, starting at Roper River in 1908, then to the strip of sandfly-infested mud and grass which makes up the island of Milingimbi, in 1916. After Milingimbi came Galiwin’ku mission in 1922, and then Yirrkala in 1934. For decades, the only substantial non-Aboriginal activity in the region took place at these coastal mission stations. The missionaries cut wood, built houses, grew vegetables, preached, translated the Bible and put Aboriginal children into clothes and schools. Today, many Aboriginal people credit the mission era with giving them English literacy and numeracy, and individuals such as ‘Bapa Sheppy’ (Father Shepherdson, from Elcho Island) are remembered with affection.


Probably the first European to really engage with Aboriginal people over the whole of the region was Donald Thomson. An anthropologist from Melbourne University, Thomson was originally sent by the Commonwealth Government to negotiate settlement of an explosive legal situation. Yolngu had fatally speared Japanese fishermen at Caledon Bay in 1933, and followed it up by spearing a policeman sent in to investigate. Thomson landed at Roper Bar in 1935 and in an epic journey walked north, hoping to meet Yolngu leaders and negotiate the surrender of the ‘murderers’. He subsequently walked over Central Arnhem Land, in the area of the Arafura Swamp, recording anthropological and photographic data.

see Ted Egan, Justice All Their Own: the Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings 1932-33, Melbourne University Press, 1996.
Donald Thomson (compiled by Nicolas Peterson), Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton Victoria, revised edition 2003.


World War 2

So, in the pre-War period, Aboriginal people from East Arnhem Land had encountered Macassan traders, white missionaries, Japanese pearlers, policemen on horses and the odd adventurer. World War 2 was to add American and Australian servicemen to this list, as Drimmie Head (near today’s community of Gunyangara, or Ski Beach) became a base for flying boat airplanes.

After the War

After the War, life on the missions continued. Thomson’s report to the Commonwealth Government had recommended that Arnhem Land be an Aboriginal reserve, and this came about in 1949. To the West, some buffalo shooters intruded occasionally. In the south, the odd ‘frontier misfit’ ventured up from such watering holes as Borroloola. But, overall, Arnhem Land was a quiet place. Aboriginal people were still in control of most of it.

This was all to change in the 1960s and early 70s.

Miners on Groote Eylandt

On Groote Eylandt, a large amount of manganese was confirmed in the early 1960s, on land over which the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had some say. Through this leverage, the CMS was eventually able to negotiate a financial return to Aboriginal people from the mining project.

Miners on the Gove Peninsula

But on the mainland, on the Gove Peninsula, the situation was more controversial. The first thing Yolngu noticed was strange white men walking around the Gove Peninsula ceremonially putting painted sticks in the ground. It turned out the men were mapping minerals to mine. In fact, the Gove Peninsula had been shown to hold one of the world’s largest deposits of high-grade bauxite, just lying on the ground. So started the most intense period of non-Aboriginal activity in the region. The mission headquarters in Melbourne agreed to the Commonwealth Government allowing a mining company to explore for bauxite at Gove – but they had not discussed the issue with either the Yolngu or the local mission station at Yirrkala.

see Edgar Wells, Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land 1961-63, Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1982.
Bark petition

Bark petition

Bark Petition

The local missionary at Yirrkala protested about this. Yolngu protested about this. Leaders of all the Yolngu clans signed a Bark Petition in 1963 and sent it to the Commonwealth Parliament in Canberra, protesting “that the procedures for the excision of this land and the fate of the people on it were never explained to them beforehand, and were kept secret from them” … and … “that the people of this area fear their needs and interest will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past…”

Missionaries and health at Galiwin’ku

At Galiwin’ku, missionaries completed the first proper health facility, built by volunteers from the southern states. By 1965 they had constructed a building of 2 x 6-bed wards, a labour room, kitchen and verandah. The missionaries were also active in encouraging the community to grow its own food and other supplies. By 1967 on Elcho Island, many tons of food were being produced from the garden. One year produced 21 tons of sweet potatoes alone. We were weighing up to 2 tons of fish per week which was used to feed the children as well as being exported. The sawmill was supplying timber for Elcho and the whole District’s building needs as well as exporting a good amount to Darwin. Craftwork was flourishing.

Joyce and Clem Gullick, Our Stories: Partners in Service, Noonamah NT, 1997.

The Gove land rights case Milirrpum and others v Nabalco

Politicians visited Gove, Parliamentary committees of inquiry were held, and many promises were made. In the end, Yolngu took their own action, launching a case in the Supreme Court to assert their rights to control development on their ancestral land. Day after day, Yolngu leaders got up in court and painstakingly set out a complex system of spiritual beliefs, social practices and ethical values – all based on characteristics of land use and ownership. To their dismay, Judge Blackburn handed down a judgement disallowing their claim and upholding the legal right of the mining company to proceed unencumbered by the concerns of Aboriginal people. Yolngu were not to be parties to the legal agreement governing the mine operation or the township, and this remains the situation today. The current lease agreement for the Nhulunbuy township is 1963? – 2017?

The full story of this case is told in Nancy M. Williams, The Yolngu and Their Land: A System of Land Tenure and the Fight for its Survival, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1986.

Yirrkala Church Panels’

Today’s visitors to Buku-Larrngay Mulka, the art centre in Yirrkala community, can see this story, painted by Yolngu leaders as an assertion of their links to the land, on the priceless ‘Yirrkala Church Panels’.

Alcohol at Gove

And so Nhulunbuy was built in the 1970s, transforming the region with a sudden influx of 4000 non-Aboriginal people, supermarkets, ovals, shops – and a hotel. Once again Yolngu leaders took the matter to court, challenging the right of the newly-built Walkabout Hotel to sell alcohol. Again, they lost the case. Yolngu leaders were devastated. They saw young Yolngu were learning to drink, drunken violence was entering Yirrkala, more people were becoming addicted to the tobacco and processed sugary food now available from supermarkets, and their sacred places on the mining lease were now under the bulldozers.

The loss of what became known as the Gove Land Rights case caused national political disquiet. To Yolngu and their supporters, it was clearly an injustice. Indirectly, it lead to the creation of the Woodward Land Rights Commission which, after long consultations, recommended the creation of an Act of Parliament to protect the traditional rights of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Homeland centres

Homeland Centre and visitor

Homeland Centre and visitor

But Yolngu could not wait for this. All over Arnhem Land they voted with their feet, walking out of the missions to settle back on their own clan land in small family groups. The centralisation which had begun with the mission stations started to reverse, and the Aboriginal homelands movement was borne.

It was the activity of the mining companies that helped prompt the Reverend Harold Shepherdson to encourage the Yolngu to set up outstations. He pointed out that in the eyes of white people, the argument that the land was theirs would be pretty thin unless they were living on and using it.

Joyce and Clem Gullick, Our Stories: Partners in Service, Noonamah NT, 1997.

Today, these small homeland centres persist right around the region.

Often the homeland centres do not have the services and facilities of the large ex-missions – but Yolngu assert they have the great advantage of being on their own country, of supporting physical and spiritual health. Aboriginal leaders know, however, that their children need skills which will equip them to survive in the non-Aboriginal world and they want to strike a balance between access to modern facilities and maintenance of traditional culture.

Land Rights

Eventually, Woodward’s proposed Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976 (the LRA) came into force. Under the LRA, all of Arnhem Land was immediately designated Aboriginal-owned land, with landowners having the right to say yes or no to land-use and development projects. Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land did now control their land – except the mining leases at Gove, which were specifically excluded from the provisions of the LRA. Those communities closest to Nhulunbuy, such as Yirrkala and Gunyangara, were greatly affected by the mine and the town. But at the homeland centres there was respite from the pressures of western influence, and over the years functional communities developed and flourished.

The Region Today

The Riotinto bauxite processing plant at Gove

The Riotinto bauxite processing plant at Gove

This history has determined the character of the region today. Today, the mining towns of Nhulunbuy and Alyangula are enclaves of western/European culture surrounded by vast tracts of Aboriginal-owned land and Aboriginal communities. It is the character of different forms of land tenure which, more than anything, determines the social character of the region.

Land Tenure

Land covered by the mining leases on East Arnhem Land is broadly under the control of the private companies holding the leases. The leased land includes not only the areas where mining takes place but also the modern towns of Alyangula and Nhulunbuy. Residents of these towns have ready access to all modern shopping, recreational, education and communication facilities, all in the midst of one of Australia’s most beautiful natural landscapes.

Outside these mining leases – on ‘Aboriginal land’ – the predominant governance structures are those put in the place by the Land Rights Act. Under the LRA, land is owned by a series of Aboriginal Land Trusts, which take instructions from a Land Council. The Land Councils, in turn, take instructions from those local Aboriginal people recognised under traditional law and kinship structures as having responsibility for particular tracts of land.

This Aboriginal land is effectively private land:

  • Outsiders wishing to enter it must have permissionfrom the landowners
  • Prospective commercial developers must seekthe permission of landowners and negotiate financial and other arrangements acceptable to all parties

Land Councils and the economy

Visitors to Bawaka Cultural Experiences

Visitors to Bawaka Cultural Experiences

The landowners’ representatives for these purposes are the two Land Councils: the Anindilyakwa Land Council for land on Groote Eylandt, and the Northern Land Council for all the rest of Arnhem Land.

Aboriginal land under the Land Rights Act is inalienable. It cannot be sold, in recognition that it is there to benefit future generations as well as the current one. Aboriginal land can, however, be leased – and there are many leases throughout the region, for such purposes as community stores, tourist ventures, and utilisation of natural resources. These have been negotiated with the permission of traditional landowners, through the Land Councils.

Commercial development in the region is dominated by the mines at Alyangula and Nhulunbuy. The scale of these ventures dwarfs other commercial initiatives elsewhere in the region. However, in all the region’s communities – even the small homeland centres – there are numerous economic activities happening. These range from local people managing community stores, to joint harvesting of marine resources, to major cultural festivals, to small-scale tourist ventures. These are all facilitated by the lease and licence provisions of the Land Rights Act.

The Intervention

The Commonwealth Government’s Intervention in the Northern Territory, starting in 2007, changed things dramatically. The Commonwealth took compulsory 5-year leases over all the major communities, imposed income quarantining, suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, and in many other ways removed the rights of Aboriginal people. This has been very controversial, with different commentators holding different opinions. But the opinion of Aboriginal people from this region is very clear: the overwhelming majority is strongly opposed to the Intervention, seeing it as yet another attack on their human rights by a government who does not listen.

In 2010, the Commonwealth Government changed some important aspects of the NTER, extended it, and re-labeled it ‘Stronger Futures’. The changes included the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act; allowing local communities to have a bigger say in alcohol management plans; and non-renewal of the compulsory 5-year leases when they expired in August 2012. Included in ‘Stronger Futures’ was a substantial funding program for primary healthcare services in the NT (labeled ‘Strengthening Primary Health Care’), and Miwatj Health has used those funds to improve our service provision.

Recreation permits

Aboriginal landowners on the Gove Peninsula have made specific provision for non-Aboriginal people to access sections of their land for recreational purposes. A land management organisation owned and run by Aboriginal people, Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, has been established in Nhulunbuy for this purpose. Dhimurru is empowered to issue written ‘recreation permits’ for a number of specific sites (particular beaches and rivers) near Nhulunbuy. In this way, residents of Nhulunbuy are able to take advantage of the region’s natural beauty without disturbing Aboriginal communities.

Balancing two worlds

They key issue for many Aboriginal people in the region is developing the appropriate balance between the western and Aboriginal worlds. In many places, particularly the homeland centres, culture remains very strong, and Aboriginal children are raised with knowledge of kinship, law and ceremony. They are being brought up as proud Aboriginal people operating in both the western world and their semi-traditional world. They believe they can gain these skills without sacrificing their Aboriginal heritage – that they can indeed have it ‘both ways’.

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