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Northern Region


East Arnhem Shire

The mining towns of Nhulunbuy and Alyangula are enclaves of 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 Groote Eylandt and the Gove Peninsula 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 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 (LRA). 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 permission from the landowners.

Prospective commercial developers must seek the permission of landowners and negotiate financial and other arrangements acceptable to all parties.

Land Councils
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.

Federal leases
A new development since the Federal Intervention has been the introduction of five-year federal leases. The leases apply only to those Indigenous communities that are the subject of Intervention programs, enabling the Federal Government to set up new housing programs. The leases are intended to facilitate security of tenure and access for the repair of buildings and infrastructure, helping to address overcrowded and substandard housing.
The area of land involved in the five-year lease acquisitions is limited to specified townships—about 0.1 to 0.2 per cent of all Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. Traditional owners will still own the land. The legislation provides for the payment of reasonable compensation in certain circumstances.

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 ‘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.

Local government
In the larger communities (Galiwin’ku, Yirrkala, Milingimbi, Angurugu, Numbulwar and Ngukurr), new local government structures have been established under the Local Government Act passed in 2008. Responsibility for governance and service delivery now rests with the new Shire of East Arnhem.

Social profile
The predominantly non-Aboriginal population of Nhulunbuy is relatively homogenous:

  • It is a young population (the median age in the 2006 Census was 33 years);
  • It is a relatively high-income population (the median income for non-Indigenous people in the 2006 Census was $1077 per week). For Indigenous people the average income was $199 per week.

There are huge differences between Aboriginal communities. Outside the two big mining towns, on Aboriginal land, the situation is quite varied.

On the one hand there are the relatively large former missions such as Galiwin’ku, Yirrkala, Milingimbi, Angurugu, Numbulwar and Ngukurr. Social life in these larger communities is often beset with problems, a legacy of the welfare state being imposed on formerly nomadic people. The Federal Intervention program or Emergency Response is designed to alleviate these problems.

On the other hand, there are many decentralised and small homeland centres scattered across the region - perhaps a hundred or so - where individual family or clan groups live on their traditional country in small estates. This area has the highest concentrations of homelands in Australia. 

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 attempts to generate economic activities. These range from local people managing community stores, to joint harvesting of marine resources, to major cultural festivals and small-scale tourist ventures. These are all facilitated by the lease and licence provisions of the Land Rights Act.

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.

Critics of the “two cultures” approach say that Aboriginal children are falling behind in their Western-style education, failing to meet benchmarks in literacy and numeracy. They say poor education standards and a lack of proficiency in English is holding many communities back, leading to unemployment and social dysfunction.

However, many Indigenous communities believe they can gain these Western skills without sacrificing their Aboriginal heritage – that they can indeed have it ‘both ways’.

Historical Information

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

The first non-Aboriginal people to experience East Arnhem Land were traders from Macassar. Several hundred years before the arrival of Europeans, Macassan boats would arrive at the East Arnhem coast on the monsoon winds. They would camp for several months, harvesting and drying trepang (the sea slug otherwise known as 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. They then went 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.

Probably the first European to 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.[1] 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’.[2] He subsequently walked over Central Arnhem Land, in the area of the Arafura Swamp, recording anthropological and photographic data.[3] The popular award-winning Rolf de Heer film Ten Canoes was inspired by Thomson’s photographs of Yolngu hunting magpie geese in the wetlands.

World War Two
In the pre-War period, Aboriginals from East Arnhem Land had encountered Macassan traders, white missionaries, Japanese pearlers, policemen on horses and the odd adventurer. World War Two 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 boats.

After the War
After the War, life on the missions continued. Thomson’s report to the Commonwealth Government had recommended Arnhem Land become 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
A large deposit of manganese was confirmed on Groote Eylandt in the early 1960s. It was on land over which Church Missionary Society (CMS) had some say. Through this leverage, the CMS was 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 Yolngu noticed strange white men walking around the peninsula ceremonially putting painted sticks in the ground. It turned out the men were mapping minerals. The Gove Peninsula holds one of the world’s biggest deposits of high-grade bauxite. 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.[4]

Bark Petition
The local missionary at Yirrkala protested about this. Yolngu protested. 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…”[5]

The Gove Land Rights case: Milirrpum and others v Nabalco
Politicians visited Gove, Parliamentary committees of inquiry were held, and promises were made. In the end, Yolngu launched a case in the Supreme Court to assert their rights to control development on their ancestral land.[6]  During the court hearings Yolngu leaders 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 disallowed their claim and upheld the legal right of the mining company to proceed unencumbered by the concerns of Aboriginal people.[7] Yolngu were not to be parties to the legal agreement governing the mine operation or the township.

'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 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 led 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
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. Today, these small homeland centres persist 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 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.
[1] The families of the policemen and his murderer, a senior man, whose wife had been stolen by the Japanese fisherman,  were recently reconciled in a Wukudi ceremony staged in Darwin Supreme Court in 2004.
[2] For a full account, see Ted Egan, Justice All Their Own: the Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings 1932-33, Melbourne University Press, 1996.
[3] Donald Thomson (compiled by Nicolas Peterson), Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton Victoria, revised edition 2003.
[4] Edgar Wells, Reward and Punishment in Arnhem Land 1961-63, Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1982.
[5] The Bark Petition hangs in Parliament House in Canberra.
[6] Milirrpum and others v Nabalco
[7] 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.