Our Timeline

Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest civilization
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An unprecedented DNA study has found evidence of a single human migration out of Africa which confirmed that Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest civilization.

Researchers say, in the case of indigenous Australian ancestral groups, this migration occurred approximately 58,000 years ago— as they ventured eastward to our region.

17th Century

The first ‘non-Aboriginal people’ to arrive in East Arnhem Land were Macassan traders from Sulawesi. Yolŋu traded sea cucumber over centuries and gained steel for spearheads, skills for building canoes, and a knowledge of a wider world. Clusters of huge tamarind trees, planted by the Macassans, fringe the East Arnhem coastline.

Early 1900s

Early 1900s Missionaries made long term settlements in Roper River in 1908, then in 1916 on the island of Miliŋimbi, then Galiwin’ku in 1922 and Yirrkala in 1934. At Galiwin’ku in 1965, missionaries completed the first proper health facility with 2 x 6-bedoom wards, a labour room, and kitchen facilities.

Pre-World War 2

Pre-World War 2 Yolŋu had already encountered white missionaries, Japanese pearlers and mounted policemen, however, Dr Donald Thomson was the first white man to really engage with them. In 1933 he was sent by the Commonwealth Government to negotiate a settlement of Yolŋu fatally spearing Japanese fishermen and a policeman sent to investigate.

World War 2

World War 2 Allied Air Force bases were established across Arnhem Land with Gove Peninsula key to defending northern Australia. Three squadrons were based there, and a flying boat base at Drimmie Head. Yolŋu had an active role in a Reconnaissance Unit led by Donald Thomson to monitor the coast for Japanese intrusions.

Post World War 2

Post World War 2 Donald Thomson’s report to the Commonwealth Government had recommended that Arnhem Land be an Aboriginal reserve, and this came about in 1949. Although buffalo shooters and the odd ‘frontier misfit’ ventured there, East Arnhem Land was a quiet place and Aboriginal people were still in control of most of it.

Early 1960s

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

Mining Gove 1962

Mining Gove 1962 Yolŋu noticed white men walking around putting painted sticks in the ground. They were mapping to mine one of the world’s largest deposits of high-grade bauxite. So started the most intense period of non-Aboriginal activity in the region. The mission headquarters had agreed to the Commonwealth Government allowing a mining company to explore without discussing with the Yolŋu or the local mission station at Yirrkala.

Aboriginal Homeland Movement

Aboriginal Homeland Movement The loss of the Gove Land Rights case to the Yolŋu and their supporters, was clearly an injustice. The Yolŋu walked 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 right around the region.

Bark Petition 1963

Bark Petition 1963 The local missionary at Yirrkala and Yolŋu protested about this. In 1963, leaders of all the Yolŋu clans signed a Bark Petition and sent it to the Commonwealth Parliament. Yolŋu then launched a case in the Supreme Court, without success.

Aboriginal Land Rights ACT 1976

Aboriginal Land Rights ACT 1976 Eventually, the 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.

Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation

Prior to Miwatj Health, there was almost no primary healthcare provision by doctors in the bushland of East Arnhem Land. The enduring mission of Miwatj, as first conceived in the early Constitution of Miwatj, remains: “to provide resources and support to Yolŋu to enable them to assume control over the delivery of health services to the people of the Miwatj region.”

Let's Build Stronger Communities Together

Get in touch with the team at Miwatj Health today