Aboriginal people have inhabited this region for more than 40,000 years. After the Goulburn Island mission was set up in 1921, Elcho Island was chosen as the site for a second Methodist overseas mission. However, oil drilling by the Naphtha Petroleum Company closed the mission site, which was relocated to Milingimbi.

Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island was eventually established in 1942 as a refuge from possible bombing of the Milingimbi Royal Australian Air Force Base during World War II.

The Methodist church started its Methodist overseas mission in Galiwin’ku in 1947. During the 1950s a fishing industry started, a large market garden flourished and a cypress pine logging industry and sawmill began. During early settlement, the mission encouraged Aboriginal people to stay on their traditional homelands and use Galiwin’ku as a service centre. However, the mission ended when self-government came in the 1970s, and the community is now the largest Aboriginal community in north-east Arnhem Land. In 2008, Galiwin’ku became part of the East Arnhem Shire and the Council took over local government. 


The population of Galiwin’ku and its surrounds in 2011 was approximately 2,124, of which 1,890 were Indigenous (89 per cent). In 2011, 44 per cent of Galiwin’ku’s population was younger than 20 years of age.

The changing size and age composition of the Indigenous population of Galiwin’ku will increase the need for housing and employment opportunities, as well as aged care and health services.


Galiwin’ku is the largest community on Elcho Island, which is 150 km north-west of Nhulunbuy and 550 km north-east of Darwin. Elcho Island is at the southern end of the Wessel Island group, and is bounded on the western side by the Arafura Sea and on the eastern side by Cadell Strait.

Galiwin’ku is the only town on Elcho Island, and is also the Aboriginal name for the whole island.

You can get to Galiwin’ku via air charter or commerical flights with Air North.


Galiwin’ku is home to the Yolngu people. Yolngu means ‘Aboriginal person’ in the languages of northern Arnhem Land. Yolngu is also the name given to a group of intermarrying clans who live in Milingimbi, Yirrkala and Galiwin’ku and speak a dialect of one of a number of closely related languages. Djambarrpuyngu is the most widely used and understood language in Galwin’ku. Galpa, Golpa, Golumala, Gumatj, Liya’gawumirr, Wangurri, Warramiri and Gupauyngu are also spoken.

Clan groups

People from many clan groups now live in the township of Galiwin’ku and are known collectively as Yolngu people. Together these Yolngu clans formed a social system of religious organisation that differs from neighbouring systems. Yolngu people identify themselves first by their family group, then by their clan and language, and finally by their family’s country.

The Yolngu landowning groups are divided into two moieties, Yirritja and Dhuwa. People belong to the moiety of their father and marry someone of their mother’s moiety.

Traditional owners

A small number of traditional owners share the residency of the Galiwin’ku community with the speakers of the nine principal Yolngu languages drawn from the many surrounding clans. The residents of Galiwinku, drawn from these clans, share multi-dimensional connections to the land and sea of the islands including rights expressed through matri-lateral relations of Ngandipulu (Mother’s groups), Maripulu-ringgitj (Mother’s Mother’s groups), and Wakupuludjungaya (Mother’s Mother’s Mother’s groups).

The patrilineal title holders of the estate, Baymarrwangga (Senior Living) share the Galiwin’ku township with residents drawn from ancestral areas surrounding the islands. Some of these clans have matrilineal links and other cultural alliances, including ringitj interests, which connect them to the Galiwin’ku traditional owners and their traditional estate. There are traditional owners who currently reside in the nearby communities of Milingimbi, Murrunga and Maningrida.

Local government

The East Arnhem Regional Council provides local government in Galiwin’ku, which is in the Council’s Gumurr Marthakal Ward. The Gumurr Marthakal Ward is one of six wards in the Council and elects three (3) of the fourteen (14) council members. The Council's headquarters are in Nhulunbuy and it has a service delivery centre in Galiwin’ku. 

The Council consults community members through the Galiwin’ku Local Authority, which meets monthly with the Gumurr Marthakal Ward councillors. 

Land council

The Northern Land Council, based in Darwin and with a regional office in Nhulunbuy, is the land council to the community. It is responsible for matters under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

This includes:

  • checking, representing and responding to the wishes and opinions of local Indigenous people about legislation, tourism, development and commercial activities that affect traditional land, and

  • helping traditional landowners claim, manage and protect the land.

All of Arnhem Land was proclaimed as an Aboriginal reserve in 1931.