Arnhem Land – Communities and Places

There are seven main community centres for art work in Arnhem Land, as shown on this map. There are also numerous small communities and outstations across the region where artists are active. Descriptions of two of the larger centres are given below.

Arnhem Land map

Elcho Island – Galiwin’ku

An island in the Arafura Sea, north of northeastern Arnhem Land. Northern Territory. Its residents are mostly Yolngu people, although immigrants have settled there since the establishment in the early 1940s of a Methodist mission station at Galiwin’ku, which has since developed as the island’s only town. Galiwin’ku is also the Aboriginal name for the whole island.

Elcho Island billabong

Billabong on Elcho island

Possibly the first non-Aboriginal people to know of the island were the Macassan trepangers, whose annual expeditions to Arnhem Land included visits to Elcho. The first European settlement was in 1922-23, when an oil search company drilled for naphtha petroleum and Methodist missionaries established a short-lived station there. The second attempt at opening a mission, in 1942 was successful.

As in other Yolngu areas, many of the rituals centre on the Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties. There is an important djangkawu centre on the island and performances of the djangkawu ceremonies, which relate to the Yolngu creation story, take place here. The ceremonies entail elaborate performances of song and dance and the practice of body painting. Since the mission transferred control of its facilities during the late 1970s, the island’s 1750 people have been self-managing through the Galiwin’ku Community Inc. the local community association.

Text by Dr Ian Howie-Willis from the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia


A town on the eastern bank of the Liverpool River estuary in Arnhem Land. It began in 1949 as a trading post established by the Northern Territory administration’s welfare branch, at which time 60 people from the area who had moved to Darwin were repatriated. The name of the settlement, at an old Macassan well, means ‘the watering place’. After being destroyed in a cyclone, the post was abandoned, but it was reestablished in 1957 because more and more people of the area were migrating to Darwin.

After the Maningrida town council assumed control (from government welfare authorities), Europeans who wished to visit the area required permits, which the council was reluctant to issue. There were continual complaints about Europeans without permits visiting, fishing, driving and taking photographs in restricted areas ‘Too many balanda (whites) here‘ was a common complaint by 1974, when the town’s non-Aboriginal population peaked at 250. While the senior Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) officer in the town respected this feeling and took action to reduce the number of DAA staff, it took some months before his Darwin office supported him and progressively withdrew staff. To further emphasise their wish to end European domination of town affairs, the council withdrew town residency permits from the government forestry agency’s white workers.

As an outstation movement gained strength in the 1970s, the town council established an outstation resource centre. This operated mobile stores, provided workshop and communications facilities, offered a wholesale outlet for art and craft production, and helped support outstation schools. By the mid-1980s the town itself was well supplied with urban amenities, including an administrative centre, supermarket school with 200 students enrolled, health centre, church, 116 multi-room houses and standard utilities like reticulated electricity, water and sewerage. As the large outstation population indicates, however, many people with Maningrida links prefer life in their bush settlements.