Aboriginal people have occupied this area for more than 40,000 years. Milingimbi was established in 1923 by the Methodist Overseas Mission. It was bombed during World War II, forcing most of the island’s residents to move to Elcho Island and the mainland. Milingimbi then became an air force base. The missionaries returned in 1951, re-established the town and opened a school. They respected traditional culture, so Aboriginal customary religion and Christianity easily co-exist in the community.
The church continued to run Milingimbi until 1974. In the mid-1970s the government transferred responsibility for administration to Milingimbi Community Incorporated, which provided local government to the community. In 2008 Milingimbi became part of the East Arnhem Shire Council and the shire took over local government.
Milingimbi Island is part of the Crocodile Island Group in the Arafura Sea. It is approximately half a kilometre off the north coast of Central Arnhem Land, approximately 440 km east of Darwin and 200 km west of Nhulunbuy.
The population of Milingimbi and its surrounds in 2011 was approximately 1,081, of which 1,018 were Indigenous (94 per cent). In 2011, 41 per cent of Milingimbi’s Indigenous population was younger than 20 years of age. This is just short of the proportion of the national Indigenous population that was aged under 20 (49 per cent).
The growing size and ageing Milingimbi population will increase the need for housing and employment opportunities, as well as aged care and health services.
Milingimbi people are the Yolngu (‘Aboriginal person’), 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.
Milingimbi is organised into five camps of people who have moved from ancestral estates into the town area. The island has four ancestral estates. Traditional governance of Milingimbi is complicated, as the island is inhabited by over 21 clan groups.
Together Yolngu clans formed a social system of religious organisation that differs from neighbouring systems. In Yolngu belief, the landscape is inhabited by the dispersed bodies and powers of wangarr (totemic ancestors) along with traces of their activities and their names.
Traditional ownership is complex in Milingimbi. The community is organised into five camps of people who are not traditional owners but have moved from ancestral estates into the town area.
The East Arnhem Shire Council provides local government in Milingimbi, which is in the Shire’s Gumurr Gatjirrk Ward. Changes to the Electoral Boundaries in 2012, saw Gumurr Gattjirrk Ward elect two (2) of the fourteen (14) council members. The shire headquarters are in Nhulunbuy and it has a service delivery centre in Milingimbi.
The shire consults community members through the local councillor and the recently formed Local Board. There are 10 board members—two from each of the five camps.
The Northern Land Council, based in Darwin and with a regional office in Nhulunbuy, is the land council to the community. Working with the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Milingimbi Lands group, it 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.
Milingimbi is the only place in the Northern Territory where a ‘sea closure’ applies under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. This closure extends seawards around Milingimbi for 2 km from the mean low water mark, and prohibits non-Aboriginal people from entering and remaining in the area without permission.
There is an in-principle agreement in Milingimbi, endorsed by the Northern Land Council and Traditional Owners and elders, to proceed with 40-year whole-of-township leases.