Our Region’s HistoryYolŋu history is rich in history and culture stretching back thousands of years
The first ‘remembered’ non-Aboriginal people to arrive in East Arnhem Land were Macassan traders from the island of Sulawesi (now Indonesia).
Early in the seventeenth century, Macassan boats arrived on the East Arnhem coast. They would camp for several months, harvesting and drying trepang (sea cucumber), trading and mixing with the local Aboriginal people – who called themselves Yolŋu.
From the Macassans, Yolŋu gained steel for their spearheads, skills for building dug-out canoes, and learned many new words.
Today, clusters of huge tamarind trees planted by the Macassans over the centuries, fringe the East Arnhem coastline. Also, shards of broken pottery can still be found in the sand, showing where the Macassans camped.
Pre-World War 2
In the pre-World War 2 period, Aboriginal people from East Arnhem Land had encountered white missionaries, Japanese pearlers, occasional policemen on horses and the odd adventurer. However, the first European to really engage with Aboriginal people across the whole of the region was Dr Donald Thomson, an anthropologist from Melbourne University.
In 1932-33, Yolŋu living in the Caledon Bay area of north-east Arnhem Land were involved in the killing of five Japanese fishermen and three Europeans.
Donald Thomson was sent to investigate the causes of the conflict. After seven months of investigation he persuaded the Commonwealth Government to free the three men convicted of the killings.
He returned with them to their own homelands and spent the next fifteen months documenting their culture, learning their languages and accompanying them on their nomadic journeys.
He created comprehensive records of domestic life, house types, religious life, subsistence, material culture, providing a comprehensive insight into the life of Indigenous Australians.
His influence in the region was only just beginning as he began to resent the injustices under which they had suffered.
World War 2
As Allied Air Force bases were established across the Arnhem region, American and Australian servicemen arrived at the Gove Peninsula. With three operational air squadrons based there, it became key to the defence of northern Australia. There was an airfield, and a flying boat base at Drimmie Head, near today’s community of Gunyaŋara or Ski Beach.
The Yolŋu took an active role in the war, providing invaluable services in a specially created Reconnaissance Unit. This unit was led by Donald Thomson and was responsible for monitoring the Arnhem Land coastline and reporting any Japanese intrusions.
After the War, life on the missions continued.
In Donald Thomson’s report to the Commonwealth Government, he recommended that Arnhem Land be an Aboriginal reserve, and this came to fruition in 1949. Apart from the occasional buffalo shooters from the South, Arnhem Land was a quiet place and Aboriginal people were still in control of most of it.
Christian missionaries arrived in 1908 bringing the first long-term settlements to the region, starting at Roper River.
Then in 1916 they expanded to the island of Miliŋinbi, Galiwin’ku in 1922, and then Yirrkala in 1934.
For decades, these coastal mission stations were the only substantial non-Aboriginal activity in the region. The missionaries cut wood, built houses, grew vegetables, preached the word of God, translated the Bible, and provided Aboriginal children with clothes and schooling.
By 1965 at Galiwin’ku, missionaries and volunteers established the first functional health facility, with 2 x 6 bed wards, a labour room, kitchen and verandah.
The missionaries also encouraged communities to grow food and other supplies. By 1967 on Elcho Island, many tons of food were being produced from the gardens and up to 2 tons of fish caught per week for export.
A sawmill was established and supplied timber for Elcho Island and the whole District’s building needs. Timber was also, exported to Darwin.
Mining Impact on Yolŋu Communities
On Groote Eylandt in the early 1960s, a large amount of manganese was confirmed on land over which the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had some influence. The CMS was able to negotiate a financial return to Aboriginal people from the mining project.
However, on the Gove Peninsula, the situation was far more controversial. It began when Yolŋu noticed white men walking around the Gove Peninsula, mapping minerals to mine. The Gove Peninsula was found to hold one of the world’s largest deposits of high-grade bauxite.
The mission’s headquarters in Melbourne had agreed with the Commonwealth Government to allow a mining company to explore for bauxite at Gove. However, they had not discussed the issue with the Yolŋu clans or the local mission station at Yirrkala.
Today, Australia produces the largest amount of Bauxite worldwide. (In 2019, 100 million metric tons of Bauxite were produced).
The Yolŋu Bark Petition
This began the most intense, and controversial period of non-Aboriginal activity in the entire region.
The local missions at Yirrkala and Yolŋu communities protested about the Gove Peninsula ruling. In 1963, leaders of all the Yolŋu clans signed a Bark Petition sending 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 interests will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past…’
Subsequently, politicians visited the Gove Peninsular, Committees of Inquiry were held, and there were many empty promises made.
The Gove Land Rights Case
The Yolŋu launched a case in the Supreme Court asserting their rights to control development on their ancestral lands.
Day after day, Yolŋu leaders got up in court and outlined a complex system of spiritual beliefs, social practices and ethical values – all based on characteristics of land use and ownership.
Finally, a judgement was handed down by Judge Blackburn, disallowing their claim and upholding the legal right of the mining company to proceed, unencumbered by the concerns of Aboriginal people.
The Yolŋu were not to be parties to the legal agreement governing the mine operation or the township, and this still remains the situation today.
The loss of the Gove Land Rights case caused national political unease. To the Yolŋu and their supporters, it was clearly an injustice and lead to the creation of the Woodward Land Rights Commission.
After many years and long consultations, the Land Right Commission recommended the creation of an Act of Parliament to protect the traditional rights of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
However, the land rights movement had already begun.
Aboriginal Homeland Movement
All over Arnhem Land, Yolŋu communities walked out of the missions and settled back on their own clan homelands in smaller family groups.
These small clan homeland communities did not have the services and facilities of the larger Christian missions, but the Yolŋu claimed they had a greater advantage of being on their own country and this contributed to better physical and spiritual health.
Connection to the earth is a very strong aspect of Aboriginal culture and children are raised with the knowledge of kinship, local law and ceremony. However, Indigenous leaders know that the younger generations need skills to equip themselves in a non-Aboriginal world, while maintaining a balance with their traditional culture.
They believe they can gain these skills without sacrificing their Indigenous heritage and that they can indeed have it ‘both ways’. These days, they are being raised as proud Aboriginal people who can traverse both traditional and western worlds.
Aboriginal Land Rights ACT 1976
In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976 (the LRA) came into force as a result of the Woodward Land Rights Commission.
Under the LRA, all of Arnhem Land was immediately designated Aboriginal owned land, with traditional owners having the right to approve or deny land use proposals and development projects.
Now, Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land had control over their land, except for the mining leases at Gove, which were specifically excluded from the provisions of the LRA.
Those communities closest to Nhulunbuy, were greatly affected by the mine and impact of western culture in the towns. However, by returning to their clan homelands there was respite, and over the years these communities have developed and grown.
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.
Outside these mining leases, on ‘Aboriginal land’, the predominant governance is those put in place by the Land Rights Act.
Aboriginal land under the Land Rights Act is non-transferrable. 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 purposes such as community stores, tourist ventures, and the utilisation of natural resources.
These have been negotiated with the permission of traditional landowners, through the Aboriginal Land Councils.
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