Aboriginal people have inhabited this region for 40,000 years. The Gapuwiyak community was established by Methodist missionaries in the late 1960s to supply timber for missions in the region. Timber workers came from the surrounding areas of Burrum, Raymangirr, Bunhanura and Balma, and from Galiwin’ku.
Those from Galiwin’ku returned to their own country when they were not working but those from the surrounding areas stayed near the timber mill and established the Gapuwiyak community. In the 1970s the mission ended and Gapuwiyak became Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. In 2008, Gapuwiyak become part of the East Arnhem Shire and the Shire took responsibility for local government for the community.
Gapuwiyak is on the shore of Lake Evella in north-east Arnhem Land, about 500 km east of Darwin and 120 km west of Nhulunbuy. It is one of the Northern Territory’s easternmost settlements.
The population of Gapuwiyak and its surrounds in 2011 was approximately 874, of which 824 were Indigenous (94 per cent). In 2011, 40 per cent of Gapuwiyak’s Indigenous population was younger than 20 years of age.
The changing size and age composition of the Indigenous population of Gapuwiyak will increase the need for housing and employment opportunities, as well as aged care and health services.
Djambarrpuyngu (a dialect of Yolngu Matha) is the main language in Gapuwiyak, spoken by 76 per cent of people. Other languages include Ritharrngu and Dhalwangu.
The population is predominantly Yolngu, with people from 11 different Yolngu groups. Gapuwiyak was built on the land of the Gupapuyngu people but the dominant Yirritja moiety group is Dhalwangu.
Several First Nations groups live in Gapuwiyak. They are not the landowners but people who moved from their ancestral estates into the town area.
There are 11 Yolngu groups in the community and homelands.
Within their moiety, people are further classified by whether they live on or near a beach (rangipuyngu) or inland (diltjipuyngu).
The senior traditional owner for Gapuwiyak is Jimmy Marrkula
The East Arnhem Shire Council provides local government in Gapuwiyak. During the 2012 Local Government Elections two new Electoral Wards were created from the splitting of existing Ward Boundaries.
Gapuwiyak will now reside in the newly created Ward of Gumurr Miyarrka. This is one of six wards in the Shire and elects two (2) of the fourteen (14) council members. The Shire headquarters are in Nhulunbuy and it has a service delivery centre in Gapuwiyak.
The Shire consults local people through the Mala Leaders Group—the Local Board. This group meets monthly. It has organisational and secretarial support from the Government Business Manager, who mentors the chair of the Mala Leaders Group. The group is expanding to include a youth mentoring program and a strong women’s subgroup.
The Northern Land Council is the land council for Gapuwiyak. It has headquarters in Darwin and a regional office in Nhulunbuy. The Northern Land Council is responsible for matters under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
- 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 became an Aboriginal reserve in 1931.
The traditional owners have agreed in principle to proceed with 40-year whole-of-township leases. The Northern Land Council supports this.