The Arnhem Land Region is one of the five regions of the Northern Territory of Australia. It is located in the north-eastern corner of the territory and is around 500 km from the territory capital Darwin. The region has an area of 97,000 km² which also covers the area of Kakadu National Park, and a population of 16,230. In 1623 Dutch East India Company captain William van Colster sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape Arnhem is named after his ship, the Arnhem, which itself was named after the city of Arnhem in the Netherlands.
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Arnhem Land has been occupied by indigenous people for tens of thousands of years and is the location of the oldest-known stone axe, which scholars believe to be 35,500 years old. The Gove Peninsula was heavily involved in the defence of Australia during World War II.
The area from Port Roper on the Gulf of Carpentaria around the coast to the East Alligator River, where it adjoins Kakadu National Park. The major centres are Jabiru on the Kakadu National Park border, Maningrida at the Liverpool River mouth, and Nhulunbuy (also known as Gove) in the far north-east, on the Gove Peninsula. Gove is the site of large-scale bauxite mining with an associated alumina refinery. Its administrative centre is the town of Nhulunbuy, the fourth-largest population centre in the Northern Territory.
The climate of Arnhem Land is tropical monsoon with a wet and dry season. Temperatures do not fluctuate widely throughout the year, though it can range from overnight lows of 15 degrees Celsius in the dry season (April to September) to daily highs of 33 degrees Celsius in the wet season (October to March).
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Declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931, it remains one of the largest Aboriginal Reserves in Australia and is perhaps best known for its isolation, the art of its people, and the strong continuing traditions of its Indigenous inhabitants. Northeast Arnhem Land is home to the indigenous Yolngu people, one of the largest Indigenous groups in Australia, and one who have succeeded in maintaining a vigorous traditional indigenous culture. The Malays and Macassans are believed to have had contact with the coastal Aboriginal groups and traded with them prior to European settlement of Australia.
The 2006 film Ten Canoes captures life in Arnhem Land through a story tapping into the aboriginal mythic past; it was co-directed by one of the indigenous cast members. The film and the documentary about the making of the film, The Balanda and the Bark Canoes, give a remarkable testimony to the indigenous struggle to keep their culture alive - or rather revive it in the wake of considerable relative modernisation and influence of white ('balanda') cultural imposition.
The Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, just outside Nhulunbuy, is internationally known for bark paintings, promoting the rights of Indigenous Australians, and as the origin of the yidaki, or didgeridoo. The community of Gunbalanya (previously known as Oenpelli) in Western Arnhem Land is also notable for bark painting. The indigenous inhabitants also create temporary sand sculptures as part of their sacred rituals.
Arnhem Land is also notable for Aboriginal rock-art, some of the finest examples of which can be found at Ubirr Rock, Injalak Hill, and in the Canon Hill area. Some of these record the early years of European explorers and settlers, sometimes in such detail that Martini-Henry rifles can be identified. They also depict axes, and detailed paintings of aircraft and ships. One remote shelter, several hundred kilometres from Darwin, has a painting of the wharf at Darwin, including building and boats, and Europeans with hats and pipes, some apparently without hands (which they have in their trouser pockets). Near the East Alligator River crossing, a figure was painted of a man carrying a gun and wearing his hair in long pigtails down his back, characteristic of the Chinese labourers brought to Darwin in the late 19th century.
One Yolngu prehistoric stone arrangement at Maccasans Beach near Yirrkala shows the layout of the Macassan praus used for trepang (sea cucumber) fishing in the area. This was a legacy of Yolngu trade links with the people of Makassar on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The trading relationship predated European settlement by some 200 years.
Arnhem Land is also renowned for embracing the homeland movement, sometimes referred to as the Outstation movement.
A focus in recent years by governments about the 'viability' of the homelands has caused tensions and uncertainty within the Arnhem Land community.
In September 2008, then Darwin correspondent for The Age, Lindsay Murdoch wrote: "Elders tell of their fears that Yolngu culture and society will not survive if clans cannot continue to live on and access their land through homelands. They warn that if services are cut, many of the 800 people in the Laynhapuy homelands will be forced to move to towns such as Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsula, creating new law and order problems, while those who stay will be severely disadvantaged."
In response to changes made by the Northern Territory government surrounding reduced support for the homelands in 2009, the Indigenous leader Patrick Dodson heavily criticised the Northern Territory Government's controversial new policy on remote Aboriginal communities, describing it as a "die on the vine" plan that will "slowly but surely" kill Indigenous culture.
Born in the 1930s, Dr Gawirrin Gumana AO is a leader of the Dhalwangu clan. He is one of the most senior Yolŋu alive today and is renowned for his artwork and knowledge of traditional culture and law. In May 2009 he had the following to say about the significance of the homelands to his people:
"We want to stay on our own land. We have our culture, we have our law, we have our land rights, we have our painting and carving, we have our stories from our old people, not only my people, but everyone, all Dhuwa and Yirritja, we are not making this up.
I want you to listen to me Government.
I know you have got the money to help our Homelands. But you also know there is money to be made from Aboriginal land.
You should trust me, and you should help us to live here, on our land, for my people.
I am talking for all Yolŋu now.
So if you can't trust me Government, if you can't help me Government, come and shoot me, because I will die here before I let this happen."
Despite facing government concerns and policy confusion, a number of people have developed commercial enterprises that have centred on utilising the best elements of their homelands. Indigenous tourism ventures incorporating the controlled use of homelands are now showing signs of success for a select number of Yolngu.
An example of a homeland based business venture gaining wider recognition is Bawaka located in North Eastern Arnhem Land.