Arnhem Land – Part 3

White Man Dreaming

The Gove Peninsula in Australia’s Northern Territory is a focal point for Aboriginal art and culture in the 94,000 sq km expanse of Arnhem Land, a place where many indigenous people only met white men for the first time little more than 70 years ago.

The two main Yolngu communities in the area are both “dry” (alcohol free) – Ski Beach and the Yirrkala Dhanbul Community, about 12km from Nhulunbuy, which is looked upon as the birthplace of the Aboriginal land rights movement.

In 1963, elders from the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans at Yirrkala (led by the father of Yothu Yindi rock group founder, Mandawuy Yunupingu, and Northern Land Council chairman, Galarrwuy Yunupingu) presented a bark painting and petition to Federal Parliament calling for recognition of traditional ownership of their land.

The petition, which now hangs in Parliament House, Canberra, led to the establishment of the Woodward Royal Commission and the tabling of the Land Rights Act (NT) in 1976.

The coastal community of Yirrkala, originally established by the Methodist Missionary Society in 1935, is also the home of the famous Yirrkala Church Panels.

The highly detailed panels are kept at the Buku Larrngay Mulka Centre, a gallery and arts centre for Yolngu artists from thirty homeland areas in the region.


The two 3.6m by 1.2m panels, completed in 1963, depict the two main creative legends or “Dreamings” governing the lives, behaviour and ritual of the Aborigines living in north-east Arnhem Land. The panels, which were to be placed behind the communion table at the Yirrkala Church, took two years to complete and were designed to convince the Balanda ministers that the people of the area were already a religious society.

In a historical display at the centre, an ornately designed larrakitj, a hollow log used for burial, stands beside a display of the involvement of Arnhem Land Aborigines in World War II. There are pictures of the tall, wiry tribesmen who formed the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit (1941-43), Yolngu training in aircraft recognition, making spears and weapons of defence from old drums, horse shoes and pieces of galvanised water pipe, and patiently watching “frequent demonstrations on the avoidance of machine gun fire”.

Yirrkala also has one of the best football ovals in the Northern Territory, irrigated and complete with night lighting, and the locals, particularly the children, are mad keen on Australian Rules football.

North-east Arnhem Land is a land of contrasts, where the chairman of the Northern Land Council flies around in a helicopter and children at Yirrkala play in the freshwater stream in a tinnie using a long-handled spade as a paddle.

Where the young boys that leap and cart-wheel along the beach in designer basketball singlets will soon take their place on the road to manhood through ritual circumcision.

It’s a land where money can be a salve but not always a solution, where community leaders must deal with the problems of close encounters with the 20th century – cultural adaptation, youth boredom, alcohol and kava abuse.

Kava, an intoxicating beverage made from the root of the kava, or pepper plant, is a ceremonial drink widely used in the South Pacific islands. It’s a place where the older generation is concerned about survival of their culture, securing a place in the world for their children and protecting what is theirs. And somewhere in between the problems and the politics are the people – often guileless, welcoming and affectionate. The open, wide smiles and unbridled happiness of the children as they flip, leap, laugh and fall about on the sand; the gentleness of the elderly people, who feel the need to touch your shoulder and clasp your hand as they ask where you come from, who you are related to….how you fit into their world.


Continued from:

Arnhem Land Part 1 – Into A Primal Landscape

Arnhem Land Part 2 – Fishing The Wild Coast

Continues in:

Arnhem Land Part 4 – Ancient Bloodline



Photo Credits

Aboriginal Art In Arnhem Land –  Wikimedia Creative Commons

Arnhem Land  – Credit Pending

Yirrkala Bark Petition– Parliament House, Canberra; image courtesy National Archives of Australia, Canberra

 The Mission Church at Yirrkala – Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved

Kava License Area Sign – Wikimedia Public Domain


Recent Vincent Ross Articles:

  • A Mate Drops in
  • The Lost Battalion – Kokoda’s forgotten foot soldiers
  • Water for Elegance – One Man’s Dream
  • Transported to Devils’ Island – Part 2
  • Transported to Devils’ Island – Part 1

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