Yirrkala is a well-known indigenous community in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia, 18 km South-East from the large mining town of Nhulunbuy. It has a population of about 800 people, of whom nearly all are Yolngu, and also acts as a regional centre for a further 800 people living in surrounding indigenous homelands.
There has been an indigenous community at Yirrkala throughout recorded history, but the community increased enormously in size when Yirrkala mission was founded in 1935. Local governance and planning are now the responsibility of the Yolngu-led Dhanbul, which is roughly equivalent to a Shire Council in non-indigenous communities.
Yirrkala is one of the best-known indigenous communities in Australia for five reasons:
It is home to a number of leading indigenous artists, whose traditional Aboriginal art, particularly bark painting, can be found in art galleries around the world, and whose work frequently wins awards such as the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Their work is available to the public from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and Museum and also from the YBE art centre.
It is a traditional home of the Yidaki (didgeridoo), and some of the world’s finest didgeridoos are still made at Yirrkala.
Yirrkala played a pivotal role in the development of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians when a bark petition was created at Yirrkala in 1963 and sent to the Federal Government to protest at the Prime Minister’s announcement that a parcel of their land was to be sold to a bauxite mining company. Although the petition itself was unsuccessful in the sense that the bauxite mining at Nhulunbuy went ahead as planned, it alerted non-indigenous Australians to the need for indigenous representation in such decisions, and prompted a government report recommending payment of compensation, protection of sacred sites, creation of a permanent parliamentary standing committee to scrutinise developments at Yirrkala, and also acknowledged the indigenous people’s moral right to their lands. The Bark Petition is on display in the Parliament House in Canberra.
It is home to members of the indigenous rock band Yothu Yindi.
Each year it hosts the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, which is one of Australia’s most significant Indigenous festivals.