Welcome to Groote Eylandt
Northern Territory, Australia
Groote Eylandt archipelago is situated in the Northern Territory on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, approximately 640km east south east of Darwin and some 50km off the Arnhem Land coast. The Warnindilyakwa people are the Traditional Owners of the Groote Eylandt archipelago region and are referred to by their language name Anindilyakwa.
The Groote Eylandt airport is a 25 minute flight south from Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula. Groote Eylandt is Australia’s third largest island; named by explorer Abel Tasman in 1644 and is Dutch for “Large Island”.
There are three Indigenous communities in the archipelago – Angurugu and Umbakumba on Groote Eylandt and Milyakburra located on Bickerton Island. Groote Eylandt archipelago is unique and has a very diverse environment – with pristine beaches, spring water swimming holes, open woodland, rainforest, red sand dunes, aqua waters and rock art which is thousands of years old.
The Groote Eylandt Mining Company (GEMCO), a subsidiary of BHP Billiton, began operations on Groote Eylandt in 1965 to mine manganese. GEMCO established Alyangula primarily as the residence for the mining company workers. The township of Alyangula is established under a special purpose lease between GEMCO, ALC and the Anindilyakwa Land Trust.
The archipelago is in an enviable position in the context of the Northern Territory, Australia and indeed the world’s natural environment. The archipelago possesses a unique ecosystem. Surrounding the islands of the archipelago is a marine environment with unspoiled reef systems and an abundance of marine life.
The People Of The Groote Archipelago
The traditional owners of the Groote archipelago are an amalgamation of two cultures, the Warnindilyakwa, who have occupied Groote Eylandt for around eight thousand years, and the Nunggubuyu.
The latter, at the invitation of the Warnindilyakwa, began their migration to Groote Eyland in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Warnindilaykwan and the Nunngubbyu traditional owners of the Archipelago now constitute a family based collective culture bound by Ceremonial participation of two types. The first, the Mardian Ceremony, involves the initiation of young men; the second, Mortuary Ceremonies, ensure the reincarnation of deceased people. Ceremonial belief dominates the thinking and behaviours of the Traditional Owners of the archipelago. Additionally, the Warnindilyakwa and the Nunngubuyyu intermarry and are bound by a common kinship system where-bye they are all related to each other and follow immutable rules governing their relationships and day to day interaction.
Both cultures also speak, as their first language, Anindilyakwa. The Groote Eylandt aboriginal culture is now commonly referred to as the “Anindilyakwa” culture, and the people the Anindilyakwa. The traditional owners, the Anindilyakwa, are made up of 14 clan groups divided into two moieties operating under the aforementioned umbrella of Ceremony, Kinship and language. The Anindilyakwa people endeavour to live traditional lifestyles and the maintenance of cultural and traditional practices form an important part of life on the archipelago.
The language, Anindilyakwa, is arguably one of the most ancient languages in Australia, and contemporary ceremonial practices are a continuum of those which, to the Andilyakwa, have existed since their totemic ancestors created the land, the sea and Ceremonial Law at the beginning of time.
A Brief History Of Groote Eylandt
The Anindilyakwa people were brought to Groote Eylandt on a series of song lines which created the land, rivers, animals and people and which named everything pertaining to the region, laid down rules of marriage, Kinship and [Ceremonial] Law.
The island also has a rich non-indigenous history. The first non-traditional visitors were the Macassans who travelled to the region for hundreds of years in search of trepang. The earliest formally recorded visitor was a Dutchman named William Van Coolstrurdt on the ship “The Arnhem” in 1623. Van Coolstrurdt was followed by Abel Tasman in 1644 and then by Matthew Flinders in 1803 during his circumnavigation of Australia.
The first major historical impact on the Warnindilyakwa people came from the arrival of the missionaries of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), first in an exploratory expedition in 1917 and soon after, in 1921, the establishment of a trading store and mission at Emerald River. Subsequent to the flooding effects of a cyclone during the monsoonal season of 1943 and the RAAF’s requirements for the use of the airstrip during World War II, the mission was moved inland to what is now known as the township of Angurugu.
Umbakumba, a village on the eastern side of Groote Eylandt was established in 1938. Milyakburra, a village on Bickerton Island was established in the 1980’s. In addition to these three main population centres there are a number of family based outstations dotting Groote Eylandt.
Since 1967 the Groote Eylandt Mining Company, a subsidiary of mining colossus, BHP Billiton, has operated a manganese mine on leases on the central western coastline of Groote Eylandt. In 1976 the Anindilyakwa were granted inaliable free hold title to the islands of the archipelago to the high water mark. As a result of the “Blue Mud Bay” decision in 2010, title now extends to the low water mark.
On 6 June 2006, the Groote Eylandt archipelago was declared an Indigenous Protected Area. Song lines, crucial to the survival of their reincarnationist culture, criss-cross the sea between Groote and the Mainland and many sacred sites exist in that particular seascape. Having already secured a mining exclusion zone they are now in the process of pursuing Heritage Listing of the Song Lines and Native Title over the sea to the west of the Groote. The ultimate aim of the Anindilyakwa is to secure Sea Rights in that location.
The Warnindilyakwa people primarily reside in the three townships of Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra. There are also a number of outstations/homeland centres including Ananja, Bartalumba, Emerald River, Leske Pools, Little Paradise, Malkala and Yenbakwa.
The Angurugu township has a population of about 835 and is located on the banks of the Angurugu River on Groote’s mid-west coast.
Angurugu has a school, clinic, police post, supermarket, football oval, basketball court, library, Linguistics Centre, the Shire of East Arnhem has an office in Angurugu and runs a sport and recreation centre and aged care centre. A women’s centre and safe place also operates from Angurugu.
Angurugu forms the base for many island wide services and businesses including GEBIE Civil and Construction and a job services centre.
The Umbakumba population is approximately 581 and is located some 65km from Alyangula by road, 47km of which was unsealed until a major upgrade of the road between Angurugu and Umbakumba was completed in 2012.
Umbakumba was established in 1938 by Fred Gray and was later run by the CMS as an extension of the Angurugu activities. It can be reached by barge into Port Langdon on the island’s east coast or, at times, by an unsealed airstrip.
Umbakumba has a school, a clinic, a football oval, basketballcourt, supermarket, police post, library and a radio station, the Shire of East Arnhem has an office located in Umbakumba and provides sport and recreation services and aged care services. An Aboriginal Corporation, Aminjarrinja Enterprises has a strong presence in Umbakumba and has established a construction business, trepang farming business and mini mart in Umbakumba.
Milyakburra has a population of about 176 residents and is situated on the central eastern part of Bickerton Island; east of the mainland, between Groote Eylandt and Blue Mud Bay, and west of Groote Eylandt.
Milyakburra is approximately one hour’s travel by boat from Alyangula, and is normally serviced by a barge into South Bay on a fortnightly basis. Milyakburra is more usually accessed by air and has had a sealed airstrip since 2009 which is able to accommodate twin-engine aircraft.
Milyakburra has a school, clinic, women’s centre, supermarket, basketball court and receives other services including police and additional health services via regular visits to Bickerton Island. An Aboriginal Corporation, established by the Wurramurra clan, called Lagulalya Aboriginal Corporation, has a strong presence in Milyakburra and has established visiting officer’s accommodation and a business centre, and also runs municipal services.