This is a guest post by Sean Bowden, Director at Bowden McCormack, Lawyer and Advisers of Darwin and a long-term adviser to the Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation.

The Gumatj clan and its leaders are etched into the DNA of the Northern Territory. From early Yolngu resistance to pastoralists in the 1930s through the campaigns against the Gove bauxite mine that led to the Land Rights Act, through Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s quarter century chairmanship of the Northern Land Council, his deceased brothers leadership of the Yirrkala School and the Yothu Yindi band, to the establishment with other Yolngu of the Dhimurru Rangers and the Garma Festival, the brilliance of the blind musician G Yunupingu, or the paintings of the Yunupingu sisters emanating from Buku Larrnggay Art Centre.

The Gumatj people have been, and are, ever-present in the Territory consciousness.

With other Yolngu clans they have constantly reminded Territorians and the wider Australian public that the Territory is different – in the NT there is a vibrant, dynamic, powerful Aboriginal culture that can’t be spoken of in the past tense: it is very much alive. Today, an event is happening on Gumatj land at Gunyangara – the place that Galarrwuy led his family to stake their claim after the death of his father Mungurrawuy in 1979. It is the signing of a town lease for this same community.

The new township of Gunyangara was chosen, founded and established by its Aboriginal landowners and from today onwards, this town will be developed by its traditional owners, the Gumatj clan.

Australian and Northern Territory law will apply and town planning rules will be installed. The town’s public areas are all open, as with any other town, and external investment will be welcomed – but the town council is a Gumatj town council, and the decisions and conditions about who can lease the land belong to the Gumatj clan.

The township lease has taken all of 10 years to complete, since it was first proposed by Galarrwuy Yunupingu to John Howard in 2007 at the time of the NT National Emergency Response – better known as The Intervention.

This was a time when Yolngu people feared the wholesale appropriation of their land by the Commonwealth. The lease idea agreed to by Howard and his Indigenous Affairs minister Mal Brough before being resisted, then rejected by Kevin Rudd’s government.

It was then resurrected by Tony Abbott and his Minister Nigel Scullion in a face-to-face discussion with Yolngu leaders under a mango tree at Gunyangara in late 2014.

Over the years the lease has been criticised and praised, in equal measures, being described on the one hand as a “political expediency” and on the other as an “elegant solution.”j

Despite the delays, the Gumatj clan just kept on building their town.

Today at Gunyangara there is a primary school, a council office, a football oval, a basketball court, a store and a coffee shop, a small nursery, a mechanics workshop, timber mill a furniture factory, concrete batch plant, a brick making factory and build-up of visits by tourists.

It is a community that is dead set on making the most of its future, despite the challenges it still faces.

At current, $5 million is being spent on housing for local employees because the Gumatj Corporation employs over 65 Yolngu people.

All rents derived from the town will be spent back on the town, and it is a good bet that the decision will be to build infrastructure and houses for people, to give them security and confidence so that when they head off to work each day, and drop their kids off to school, there is a decent and safe place to sleep when they come back home.

It is expected that in late December the first load of bauxite from the Gumatj bauxite deposit that sits on the edge of the vast Rio Tinto holdings, will be delivered.

This will see more jobs created and more income returned to the community. Linked to the bauxite mine is the Gumatj Mining Training Centre that is about to graduate its first trainees.

Talks are advanced in relation to the proposed Arnhem space base which will sit on Gumatj land.

The forestry business that harvests hardwood from the mine sites is well established, but plans are now being put forward for a plantation enterprise, using post-mining areas.

Down the Gove Peninsula at Garrathiya there is a 1000 head cattle farm and in Nhulunbuy there is a Gumatj-owned butcher.

The Gumatj Corporation also runs the Nhulunbuy Waste Facility and each day a crew of men travel in to Nhulunbuy to work on civil contracts.

There is a joint venture building company that has in the past five years built more than 50 houses in the region, as well as the Garma Knowledge Centre, on the escarpment at Gulkula – the site of the annual Garma Festival.

In light of this work, the significance of this lease should not be underestimated. For this new town stands in stark contrast to the last 40 years of political disputation in relation to the Land Rights Act, which has been marked by court cases for and against Aboriginal land and sea rights, disputes about towns and who should control towns, arguments over whether the Northern Territory or the Commonwealth should control the Act, and whether home ownership is the key to the future, or whether we should just leave it as it is and embrace the status quo.

This 99 year township lease cuts through all of this.

By agreement between all parties – the Northern Land Council, the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth and the traditional owners – there is secure tenure at Gunyangara where leases can be issued for housing, or for business, or for government, there is a planning scheme that incorporates NT law and Commonwealth law, and there is an environment where residents can raise a family with prospects of school for the kids, a job for parents and a secure place to live.

The Northern Land Council, which led the negotiations with the Gumatj clan, has taken the step envisaged by Sir Edmund Woodward when he finalised the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission in 1974 – it has delegated responsibility to the land owners while maintaining a watching brief, just as Woodward foresaw.

No external interests are threatened. To the contrary, new interests in the town will be welcome if they add to the direction and the fabric of the town that is envisaged by its residents.

And Galarrwuy Yunupingu?

Although time and hard leadership have taken their toll – he received a kidney last Christmas but lost his lower leg in July – he hosted another prime minister in August, then found (yet again) what very little such a visit can bring.

He’s about to turn 70, but still keeps a sharp eye on development and is guiding every step taken.

He has straddled the whole of the Northern Territory’s history of self-government, been public enemy number one, and respected elder number one, sometimes at the same time.

He has hosted every prime minister since Whitlam and none claim to have bettered him.

He forgets the names of chief ministers but wants to get to know the “new one.”

He thinks always of his father Mungarrawuy, and what he would have done, were he still alive. He lives on his land, with his family around him, practising his law and culture as he has always done.

His vision has always been one where Yolngu are the masters of their own destiny – part of the nation, but secure within it.

And that is how he sees himself today – a proud Yolngu and a proud Australian.


This piece was first published in the NT News on 18 November 2017