Most experts believe that Australian Aborigines have occupied the Australian landmass for around 60, 000 years, although the central regions were not inhabited until about 24, 000 years ago. The first significant contact with outsiders was an amicable one, occurring in the 17th century when Macassan traders from modern-day Sulawesi in Indonesia came to collect trepang (sea cucumber).
Early attempts to settle the Top End were mainly due to British fears that the French or Dutch might get a foothold in Australia. The Brits established three forts between 1824 and 1838, but all were short-lived. Then the desire for more grazing land and trade routes spurred speculators from Queensland and South Australia (SA) to explore the vast untamed north. With an eye to development, SA governors annexed the NT in 1863 (it became self-governing only in 1978).
From the mid-1860s to 1895 hundreds of thousands of sheep, cattle and horses were overlanded to immense pastoral settlements. Dislocation and hardship were bedfellows of the industry, with Aborigines forced from their lands and pastoralists confronted by a swath of difficulties. Some Aborigines took employment as stockmen or domestic servants on cattle stations, while others moved on in an attempt to maintain their traditional lifestyle.
In the early 1870s, during digging to establish the Overland Telegraph (from Adelaide to Darwin), gold was discovered. A minor rush ensued, with an influx of Chinese prospectors. Though the gold finds were relatively insignificant, the searches for it unearthed a wealth of natural resources that would lead to mining becoming a major economic presence.
WWII had a significant impact on the Territory. Just weeks after the Japanese bombed Darwin, the entire Territory north of Alice Springs was placed under military control, with 32, 000 men stationed in the Top End.
While the process of white settlement in the NT was slower, it had an equally troubled and violent effect as it did elsewhere in Australia. By the early 20th century, most Aboriginal people were confined to government reserves or Christian missions. During the 1960s Aboriginal people began to demand more rights.
In 1966 a group of Aboriginal stockmen, led by Vincent Lingiari, went on strike on Wave Hill Station, to protest over the low wages and poor conditions that they received compared with white stockmen. The Wave Hill walk-off (still celebrated annually at Kalkarringi) gave rise to the Aboriginal land-rights movement.
In 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act was passed in Canberra. It handed over all reserves and mission lands in the NT to Aboriginal people and allowed Aboriginal groups to claim vacant government land if they could prove continuous occupation – provided the land wasn’t already leased, in a town or set aside for some other special purpose.
Today, Aboriginal people own about half of the land in the NT, including Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which are leased back to the federal government. Minerals on Aboriginal land are still government property, though the landowners’ permission for exploration and mining is usually required, and landowners are remunerated. Around 30% of the Territory’s 200, 000 people are Aborigines.
While non-Aboriginal Australia’s awareness of the need for reconciliation with the Aboriginal community has increased in recent years, there are still huge gulfs between the cultures. Entrenched disadvantage and substance abuse is causing enormous social problems within some indigenous communities. A report by the Crown prosecutor in 2006 revealed appalling sexual and violent abuses against women and children in remote NT communities. The federal government has responded with an audit of policing in indigenous communities and attempts to abolish the permit system (which limits access to Aboriginal lands). It also, with support from Aboriginal leaders and the NT government, continues to expand the availability of non-sniffable Opal fuel and restrict the provision of alcohol.
It’s often difficult for short-term visitors to make meaningful contact with Aborigines, as they generally prefer to be left to themselves. The impressions given by some Aboriginal people on the streets of Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin, where social problems and substance abuse among a few people can present an unpleasant picture, are not indicative of Aboriginal communities as a whole. Tours to Aboriginal lands, most operated by the communities themselves, and visits to arts centres (such as at Yuendumu and Gunbalanya) are gradually becoming more widely available, as communities feel more inclined to share their culture. Benefits are numerous: financial gain through self-determined endeavour, and educating non-Aboriginal people about traditional culture and customs, which helps to alleviate the problems caused by the ignorance and misunderstandings of the past.