Gapuwiyak is a small very remote Aboriginal community located on the shore of Lake Evella in Northeast Arnhemland. It is one of the Northern Territory’s easternmost settlements, about 500 km east of Darwin by air (870 km and 14 hours by road) and 115 km west of Nhulunbuy by air (220 km and 3 hours by gravel road). There is almost year round road access to Katherine (570 km and 11 hours). The name “Gapuwiyak” means bitter water (Gapu-water and Wiyak-bitter). The township of Gapuwiyak began as an Elcho Island outstation, and its development was based around a timber mill for cypress pine that was operated in partnership by Yolŋu and the Methodist Mission. In 1969 it became an independent community.
Today Gapuwiyak has an average population of around 1000 with Yolŋu people from 19 different Clans living in the town, all of whom are related in different ways to Gapuwiyak, the surrounding estates and Homelands and each other through the Gurruṯu system. Yolŋu Rom (law, leadership and governance) and Gurruṯu (kinship) systems are still strong and operational. There is an airstrip with flights to and from Darwin twice weekly and it is serviced weekly by a barge.
There are Yolŋu representatives on various boards and committees in Gapuwiyak, and these people liaise between mainstream government and organisations, and Yolŋu Clan Leaders and families. They become the liaising interface, that has been described as “a kind of ‘middle government’, culturally distinct systems, Yolŋu and Mainstream government”. Much currently depends on the effectiveness of this interface.
Gapuwiyak has 17 identified surrounding Homelands: Balma, Baygurrtji, Bunhaŋura, Burrum, Dhamiyaka, Dhupuwamirri, Dhuwalkitj, Donydji, Galiŋar, Garraṯa, Mirrŋatja, Ŋalindi, Raymaŋgirr, Warranyin, Wulku, Yaḻakun, Yarriŋul.