Mäpuru (note Yolŋu spelling using the  ä, pronounced XX)

"Arnhemland is like the European Union, made up of many different nations, each clan-nation with their own language, each with its own national estate.
Bringing everybody in from the homeland centres into the major settlements is not the right thing to do because people do not feel secure or happy living in another man’s land." 
Yiŋiya Guyula, Liya-Dhalinymirr Elder
Senior Lecturer, Charles Darwin University

Mapuru is located in east Arnhemland, home of 40 or so Yolŋu nations. Over 40 years ago Elders decided to establish a permanent base at Mäpuru on their ancestral estates. The first airstrip was cleared in the mid 1960s with axes to fell trees, then removing the stumps with small iron bars. They built the community through their own efforts and resources. Like all Yolŋu towns in Arnhemland, Mäpuru, by the decision of the elders has always been dry. Community decisions are made after reaching consensus between the families, younger community members are expected to defer to the wisdom of their elders.

In 2002 the residents established a food cooperative to sell necessities and non-perishable food items. The store does not sell soft drinks, lollies or chips. Stock is intended to supplement locally hunted foods in order to maintain strong cultural contact with the land and because hunted food is always healthier and fresher than store bought food. These are the reasons why in 2005 the Mapuru co-op won a National Heart Foundation award for their initiative. With the Federal Government’s NTER came the BasicsCard – and the decision that the Mäpuru store was not eligible to be a part of this system. With half of people’s pensions and welfare payments being compulsorily put onto this card, they had no choice but to shop where the card was accepted. From Mäpuru this meant Elcho Island, either a $500 flight or a 1 hour boat journey preceded by a 40minute drive, and then returning. After much lobbying by Mäpuru Homelands and their friends, the Federal Government reversed its decision. This change of policy was welcomed because, despite the hardships, families were determined not to relocate. The NTER was forced on NT black territorians after (wrongful) claims by the federal government of violence, abuse and dysfunction in all territory communities.

"Here at Mapuru there is no gambling, alcohol, or abuse or violence towards children or any of the other bad things that happen in towns and cities, we live peacefully together. We are good people"  says Roslyn Malŋumba.

As a cooperative all store profits are returned to the community so decreased sales affects everyone. The store is managed by community members and school teacher Jackie Nguluwidi. In Mäpuru telling one story means telling many, you cannot separate the shop from the school, from vehicles, from weaving, from local tourism ventures - it is all interconnected. This is because everything is interconnected; kinship, culture, country, history, the past, present and the future. Each decision of the community is made thinking about the community as a whole and the flow on effects that may occur. For example, the logical place to open the store was in the same building as the school (Mäpuru Homeland Learning Centre) - in part because Jackie already worked at the school, it had a telephone and a storeroom. Even more importantly it was because learning literacy and numeracy skills and Western ways is much easier in a real life setting.

The success and relative autonomy of Mapuru is unique and Jackie explains a fundamental reason for this;
 “We can only do things and speak up strongly because we are living on our home-lands, we couldn't do this on Elcho Island, that is not our country, that land belongs to someone else." (Elcho Island, also known as Galiwin'ku is where about twenty or so Yolŋu nations have been centralised and live together.)

The community paid for and constructed the first Homeland Learning Centre themselves in 1982. The NT Department of Education and Training draft policy stipulates that before it will fund any teaching staff for a Homeland community - the community must provide a place for classes to be held, a community person to be the teacher and run the school (with no financial remuneration) for at least six months. Twenty eight years later after continued lobbying, meetings with Elders, commitments by the NT Minister for Education and eventually Mäpuru Homelands approaching the Northern Territory Christian Schools Association – two full time teachers and two assistant teachers are being paid to provide schooling to the children of Mäpuru. 

School teachers were interviewed by the community before being appointed and since July 2010 the school program has run in a manner that is appropriate and meaningful to the children and respectful and inclusive of community values and traditions. As an independent school they are not bound to new NT regulations that curb the teaching of first languages in favour of English. The school has a flexible and realistic approach which gives learning a context. For example students accompany Jackie to pick up and unload the latest pallet of stock for the store, they undertake  stocktakes, stacking, recording, making sales, using the EFTPOS machine and are gaining skills that would take much, much longer to learn (if at all) in a text-book, classroom setting. Students are encouraged to meet and mentor visitors who come to participate in cultural weaving tours.

Over eight years ago in 2003 the women of Mapuru started a tourism business where women from around Australia and the world come and learn about weaving and Yolŋu culture. Girls from the school take part in these trips with their mothers, aunties and relatives - they experience positive interaction with respectful non-Indigenous people and teach these visiting women Yolŋu language and in turn learn more about western ways. The Mäpuru women are renowned for their skilled and aesthetically beautiful weaving. The tours involve collecting pandanus leaves, bark, collecting dyes from plant roots, and then imparting their weaving skills. But it is much more than that.

As Jackie's sister Roslyn says;
"For the first time in our lives we are meeting visitors who are not paid service providers or public servants, paid to 'teach' and tell us how to do things, that hurts us inside. The weaving visitors are different. These women are respectful, not telling us what to do, but want to be with us and learn from us. For the first time my families are getting back dignity and self esteem that can't be bought with money."

The Mäpuru women are reversing the approach taken by governments and service providers who wrongly believe that Yolŋu have nothing to teach and must be taught and trained, be told what to do and how to do it.  The Mäpuru women know differently, they have wisdom, knowledge and expert skills to teach visitors. Skills and knowledge handed down for countless generations, together with a sacred wisdom borne of an ancient dynamic culture.

These community initiatives have now expanded to include a tour for men's business and importantly, many people are returning for second, even fourth trips. As Roslyn puts it;
“It’s not just about tourism anymore, it’s about relationships, long term relationships with good respectful people. That's true reconciliation".


Mapuru residents have made a number of public statements in the form of video and audio files. A selection of these public statements and submissions to government can be downloaded from the links below:

In 2008 the Northern Territory government called for submissions to their Outstation Discussion Paper:
Submission by Ian Wuruwul September 2008
In 2008 the Northern Territory government called for submissions to their Outstation Discussion Paper:
Submission by Jackie Ŋuluwidi September 2008
Following the submissions made by Mäpuru residents to the Outstation Discussion Paper Jackie Ŋuluwidi  decided to make a public statement for his Yolŋu families and others interested people.
Jackie Ŋuluwidi 15 May 2009 Part 1 of 2  and  Jackie Ŋuluwidi 15 May 2009 Part 2 of 2.
Following the submissions made by Mäpuru residents to the Outstation Discussion Paper Roslyn Malŋumba, like her brother Jackie decided to make a public statement for her Yolŋu families and others interested people.
Roslyn Malŋumba 18 May 2009
Jackie made a further statement in response to difficulties experienced by himself and his family members in understanding and working with policies and programs implemented by FaHCSIA and Centrelink .
Jackie Ŋuluwidi 18 September 2009