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Yolŋu History and culture

Yolŋu culture in East Arnhem Land is among the oldest living cultures on Earth, stretching back more than 60 000 years. The earliest history of East Arnhem Land is recorded in the paintings, dances and songs of Yolŋu, which tell of creation ancestors bringing lands and waters, people, animals and plants into being and laying down the Law that governs them all.

Yolŋu life is divided into two moieties: Dhuwa and Yirritja. All aspects of life (people, animals, plants for example) fall into one of the two moieties. For people, within each moiety there are eight skin groups. Yolŋu groups are connected by a complex kinship system (gurrutu), which governs fundamental aspects of Yolŋu life, including responsibilities for ceremony and marriage rules. Kinship relations are also mapped onto the lands owned by the Yolŋu through their clan estates. Different clans have their land for which they are responsible, and often, their own language dialects and philosophies.

Throughout East Arnhem Land, there are many dialects of the language group Yolŋu Matha spoken, with English often being a third or fourth language for much of the Yolŋu population.  Some examples of common conversation and dialogue phrases are below:

Yolŋu Matha

Below are some some common Yolŋu Matha terms. If you would like to learn more Yolŋu Matha, the Charles Darwin University’s Yolŋu Matha online dictionary is a great resource.

  • Nhamirri nhe? (how are you?)
  • Manymak (good,ok)
  • Nhamirri manda? (how are you to?)
  • Yaka manymak (not good)
  • Nhamirri walala? (how are they?)
  • Bäyngu (no, nothing)
  • Ga' gapu (got water?)
  • Dhuwala bay' (here)
  • Ga' rrupiyah (got money?)
  • Yaka (no)
  • Ngay' (here)
  • Go marrtjina! (come here)
  • Yo! Yalala bay' (Yes, later on)
  • Yaka. Yalala marrtji (No, go later)
  • Ma (okay! Do it!)
  • Nhäma (goodbye)
  • Nhäma yalala (see you later)
  • Nhäma godarr' (see you tomorrow)
  • Rangi (beach)
  • Buŋgul (Dance, not necessarily Traditional ceremony)
  • Bäpi (snake)
  • Bäru (crocodile)
  • Bathi (dilly bag)
  • Bilma (rhythm sticks (clap sticks))
  • Gara (spear)
  • Gapaṉ (white clay used for ceremony purposes, dancing and painting)
  • Gapu (water)
  • Yidaki (Didgeridu) 

Cultural TNT JamesFisher 4 1000

Yolŋu have traded internationally for hundreds of years with visits documented as early as the seventeenth century between Yolŋu of north-eastern Arnhem Land and the Macassans from the island of Sulawesi (now Indonesia). The Macassans sailed annually to the region with the north-west wind of the monsoon to trade trepang (sea cucumber) which they boiled down, dried on their boats and traded with China where it is still used for food and medicine today. You can read more about the trade relationship between Yolŋu and Macassans here.

In recent history, Yolŋu leaders throughout East Arnhem Land have played a pivotal role in the Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia. In 1963, provoked by an unilateral government decision to excise a part of their land for a bauxite mine, Yolŋu from the community of Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land sent a petition on bark to the Australian House of Representatives. The Bark Petitions attracted national and international attention and are now on display in the Australian Parliament as a testament to the role of Yolŋu in the birth of the land rights movement. You can see a replica of the Bark Petitions at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala. More recently, Yolŋu from the East Arnhem Land homeland of Bäniyala led the way on the recognition of sea rights, with the successful Blue Mud Bay sea rights case. The Blue Mud Bay sea rights case recognised First Nations’ native title rights to the intertidal zone for the first time.

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European Contact with East Arnhem Land

The first recorded European contacts with East Arnhem Land were an exploratory voyage by Dutch man Willem van Colster in 1623 that sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Cape Arnhem (Wanuwuy) is named after the ship of this voyage, The Arnhem. Several other fleeting sorties occurred up to the early 1700s, however, it was not until 1803 that, on his Australian circumnavigation, Matthew Flinders made the first detailed charting of the Arnhem Land coast in The Investigator.

North-west of the Gove Peninsula in the English Company's Islands Flinders came across a Macassan fishing fleet on their seasonal visit. Japanese pearlers and trepangers replaced the Macassans after the South Australian government stopped their visits in 1907.

The Methodists established missions across East Arnhem Land from around 1923 to 1970 creating several communities that still exist today. 


Numerous Allied Air Force bases were established across the Arnhem region during World War II and many of the communities are within easy access of the old air strips, bunkers and the wrecks of aircraft that were shot down during the war.

During World War II, the Gove Peninsula was key in the defence of northern Australia. Three operational air squadrons were based here:

  • 83 Squadron – flew Boomerangs
  • 13 Squadron – flew Venturas
  • 42 Squadron – flew Catalinas

There was an airfield on the site of the present Gove Airport and a flying boat base at Drimmie Head in Gunyaŋara. The Peninsula derived its name from a RAAF navigator who died in a mid-air collision in the vicinity.

Yolŋu also took an active part in the war, providing invaluable service in a specially created Reconnaissance Unit led by anthropologist Dr. Donald Thomson to monitor the Arnhem Land coast for Japanese intrusions.

World War II relics can be seen around the Gove Peninsula. Historic sites include Drimmie Head where the Catalinas landed in the bay and taxied onto land and remnants of the European Launch Development Organisation program satellite down range tracking station.

There is also a War Memorial located at Yirrkala community which is dedicated to Yolŋu men trained to defend the East Arnhem Land shores from Japanese attack.

Get in contact with the Arnhem Land Historical Society if you would like more information by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.