The Anindilyakwa were traditionally hunter-gatherers. Anindilyakwa myths describe huge lizards, snakes and other reptilian creatures who lived in waterholes, and the Anindilyakwa performed ceremonies in the hope of pleasing these creatures so that they might be safe to go near the waterholes. Traditional Anindilyakwa belief holds that Yandarrnga, or Central Hill, the highest point on the island, was originally on the mainland and travelled across, bringing some plants and animals with ‘him’.
The Umbakumba community started in 1938 as a base for trepanning and as a service point for Qantas flying boats. During World War II it was a service point for the Royal Australian Air Force flying boat base. After the war, the Church Missionary Society ran Umbakumba as a mission until 1966, when it was taken over by the Australian Government. The first local council began in 1982. This was absorbed into the East Arnhem Shire Council in 2008, when Umbakumba became part of the East Arnhem Shire and the Shire Council took over local government.
The Groote Eylandt economy changed dramatically when manganese was discovered near Angurugu. The Church Missionary Society and BHP agreed on royalty payments to allow mining. In 1964 the Groote Eylandt Mining Company was granted leases on the island, and the first shipments of manganese ore left in 1966. Groote Eylandt now produces over three million tonnes of manganese ore each year.
Mining employs many Indigenous people, however, to secure the island’s economic future, the traditional owners—through the Anindilyakwa Land Council and with Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island Enterprises—have started the Dugong Beach Resort and other culture-based tourism businesses. Groote Eylandt became Aboriginal freehold land in 1976. The Groote Eylandt archipelago became an Indigenous Protected Area in 2006.
The population of Umbakumba and its surrounds in 2011 was approximately 441, of whom 414 were Indigenous (94 per cent). In 2011, over half of the Indigenous population (53 per cent) was aged between 20 and 44 years of age.
The changing size and composition of the Indigenous population in Umbakumba will increase the need for housing, employment opportunities, and aged care and health services.
Anindilyakwa is the language of the communities of Groote Eylandt. Umbakumba also has a number of Yolngu Matha speakers.
Umbakumba is in the traditional lands of the Warinindilyakwa people. Groote Eylandt’s Indigenous population has 14 clan groups, which make up the two moieties on Groote Eylandt. The Anindilyakwa-speaking clans maintain their traditions and have strong ties with the people in the community of Numbulwar and on Bickerton Island.
The traditional owners of Umbakumba are the Mamarika clan.
The East Arnhem Shire Council provides local government in Umbakumba, which sits within the Anindilyakwa Ward. In 2012 the Anindilyakwa Ward elected two (2) of the fourteen (14) Shire Council members. The Shire’s headquarters are in Nhulunbuy and it has a service delivery centre in Umbakumba.
Shire Services Manager, in cooperation with the Community Liaison Officer, consults local people through the Local Board. The five board members are strong people from the community and generally represent all community groups and interests.
The Anindilyakwa Land Council represents the Aboriginals of the Groote Eylandt archipelago. 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,
- helping traditional landowners claim, manage and protect the land, and
- being the first point of contact between Groote Eylandt traditional landowners and the Groote Eylandt Mining Corporation on all land-related issues and the payment of royalties.
Umbakumba traditional owners have negotiated a whole-of-township lease with the Australian Government to support the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program, home ownership and economic development. The Executive Director of Township Leasing, who administers the lease, must act on the advice of the Traditional Owner Consultative Forum on any decisions involving land use.