Elcho Island is situated about 90 kilometres west-north-west of the Gove Peninsula in the Arafura Sea. Approximately 60 km long and 6 km wide, it is home for some 1,000 Indigenous Australians whose homelands are scattered on Elcho, several neighbouring islands and surrounding mainland regions. Elcho Island is one of the most remote communities in Australia.
Historically, Gäwa, on the northern tip of Elcho Island, was a meeting place for Indigenous groups long before white people came to these shores. The seafaring Macassans from Indonesia visited Elcho Island to collect trepang, a sea animal that is to be found lying on the sea bed, a Chinese delicacy. The Macassans visited for a period of over 200 years prior to 1906 when the Australian Government stopped the practice. During that time, some Gäwa and Elcho people travelled back to Macassar. Since then some have made periodic visits back and forth. Many Macassan words, artefacts and cultural practices were adopted into the local languages and lifestyle. Macassan artefacts have been bartered via Indigenous trading routes as far as the southern and western coasts of Australia.
The first Europeans only moved to Elcho Island in 1921 and then permanently in the 1940s. These people were missionaries who came to live side by side with, and learn from their Indigenous co-workers. Most of these were committed to learning local languages, and training those workers with skills to equip them to live within the changing world.
Government policies of the 1970s encouraged missionaries to leave, and hand over their work to local people. Government policies tend to have a 4 year currency, after which there is always a better policy. With 2 year tenures, airfares home, and generous entitlements, (compared to mission rates), new government workers who did not have the long term commitment for Indigenous people, stepped into the gap, exposing Yolnu to further disadvantage and confusion caused by the rapid and unrelenting change.
Various enterprises were set up on communities everywhere; grazing, fishing, gardens, sewing, baking; some employing and training Indigenous people, others acting as supply bases. Before the equal pay policy of the 70s, Indigenous people could work as stockmen and domestic workers and often retained their dignity and connection to the land, even when they were used as cheap labour. However, the Welfare age that began at this time, left Indigenous people who had been working, no longer able to work. The introduction of welfare created a long term disincentive to work, learn, care for self and country and has made a serious impact on Indigenous Australians today. Welfare dependency leads to unemployability, lack of motivation, depression, illness, domestic violence and early mortality. At Elcho the average male life expectancy is 36 years of age. Leaders in communities such as Gäwa, are seeking to change this situation by regaining control of their own and their children’s lives.
The current situation has largely become one of relying on handouts and support from government. Nevertheless the island has an arts centre and could be a way to receive some external income support outside welfare.