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Yirrkala is ancestral land belonging to the Yolngu Rirratjingu and Gumatj clans.  The Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation (RAC) represents the Rirratjingu people. 

The major clans of the Miwatj region are; Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Manggalili, Marrakulu, Madarrpa, Gälpu, Dhalwangu, Dätiwuy, Ngaymil, Djarrwark, Djambarrpuyngu, Wangurri, Warramiri, Dhudi-Djapu, Gupapuyngu and Munyuku.

Yolngu worldview sees every species of plant, animal, fish, bird or any place or person as belonging to one of the two balancing halves of the world (moieties); Yirritja or Dhuwa.

The sacred art of this region details the spiritual forces behind the ongoing Creation and continuing identity of the fresh and saltwater country of the Miwatj region.

Yirrkala is home to a number of leading Indigenous artists, whose traditional Aboriginal art, particularly bark painting, can be found in art galleries around the world, and whose work frequently wins awards such as the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

Their work is available to the public from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre

Buku-Larrnggay translates in Yolngu Matha to ‘the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun’. Artists exhibit and sell through the Art Centre. Yirrkala is also a traditional home of the yidaki (didjeridu) which enjoys a huge profile around the world. Artists cut their yidaki from the young Eucalyptus trees of the region.

In recent years the annual Garma Festival  and Wukiḏi Ḻarrakitj Installations have used miny’tji to continue to rebut the myth of ‘Terra Nullius’ (that Australia was ‘unoccupied country’ before colonisation). Under Yolngu Law, the ‘Land’ extends to include the sea. Both land and sea are connected in a single cycle of life for which the Yolngu hold the songs and designs.

To demonstrate their rights and responsibilities over specific areas of both coast and sea and to protect those same marine environments from abuse by outsiders, the landowners combined to make the Saltwater Collection of Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country in 1997. The Collection of 80 bark paintings made by 47 Yolngu artists is featured in a publication of the same name. After a national tour (1998-2001) the Saltwater Collection is now held at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. It formed part of the Yolngu legal case for recognition of these rights.

After a lengthy court case which went through every level of the court system, the High Court determined in 2008 that the Yolngu were the owners of sea estates covering Aboriginal land.

Yolngu have used their art (including the Yirrkala Church Panels and Yirrkala Bark Petition) to assert their connection to the land in the Gove Land Rights Case; the Woodward Royal Commission; the Barunga Statement; the Yirrkala Homeland Movement; the Land Rights Act (NT) 1976; the Both Ways education bilingual curriculum; and the world-renowned contemporary music band Yothu Yindi .

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions, sent by the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land to the Australian Parliament in 1963, were the first traditional documents prepared by Indigenous Australians that were recognised by the Australian Parliament, and the first documentary recognition of Indigenous people in Australian law. The petitions were written in the Yolngu language, together with an English translation. They are on permanent display at Parliament House, Canberra.

The bark petitions asserted that the Yolngu people owned the land and protested the Commonwealth’s granting of mining rights to Nabalco of land excised from the Arnhem Aboriginal Land reserve. In 1971 the court decided that the ordinances and mining leases were valid and that the Yolngu people were not able to establish their native title at common law, in a decision known as the Milirrpum decision, or the Gove land rights case.

The Milirrpum decision had wide-ranging impacts on relations between Aboriginal people and the mining industry generally throughout Australia. In response to the decision, in 1973 the Whitlam government established the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, headed by Justice Edward Woodward, to inquire into “the appropriate means to recognise and establish the traditional rights and interests of the Aborigines in and in relation to the land, and to satisfy in other ways the reasonable aspirations of the Aborigines to rights in or in relation to land”.

Witiyana Marika is Yirrmal’s father and a well-known Yirrkala, national and international identity. Witiyana is a senior singer and ceremonial leader of the Yolngu community at Yirrkala, and one of the most significant traditional singers in Australia today. He is one of a dozen children of the late Rirratjingu clan and community leader (and ‘father of Yolngu land rights’) Roy Dadaynga Marika (MBE). In the Yirrkala area and surrounding region, he has served as a song and ceremonial leader for his own clan and related clans.

As one of the founding members of Yothu Yindi, Witiyana played a key role in ensuring the inclusion of traditional forms of expression within a popular music context. As a Director of the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, Witiyana helps to look after the business and community interests of the Rirratjingu and other clans in Northeast Arnhem Land. Witiyana is also an accomplished actor and producer – his latest film is High Ground, with Jacob Nayinggul, Magnolia Maymuru, Aaron Pedersen, Sean Mununggurr, Jack Thompson and Simon Baker.


Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation holds the Yirrkala Yarrapay Festival  each year at the Roy Marika Stage at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre.

The East Arnhem Regional Council is the local government for Yirrkala, which is in the Council’s Gumurr Miwatj Ward.  The Council consults with Yirrkala Mala Leaders Association, consisting of 12 elected community members. In the 2016 census, Yirrkala had a population of 809 people.

The Northern Land Council is responsible for all matters under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Permits are required to enter Aboriginal land or waters, travel by private road on Aboriginal land, or enter or visit an Aboriginal Community.

Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation manages visitor access and camping for designated recreational areas.

Header Photo © Alex Ellinghausen