‘Everyone on the two Islands are related and are in constant contact… there has always existed an authority exercised by what are, in fact, the traditional owners, recognised and respected by all the people.’
In 1928, the Tiwi population of 1,062 was based on nine ‘bands’ or ‘hordes’ made up of smaller family or clan groups. These groups met continually for ceremony and to determine unified joint responses to external threats. In 1941, the Tiwi Islands were declared Aboriginal Reserves and the Tiwi Land Council was created in 1978, following the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1976), when tenure of the Islands was passed to the Tiwi Aboriginal Land Trust. The creation of the Land Council was not just about land ownership, it reflected the Tiwi desire to secure authority over all aspects of their lives.
Also in 1978, the Northern Territory Government initiated a new form of local government for small and remote communities. Milikapiti and Pirlangimpi communities became Community Government Councils in 1983 and 1984, with Nguiu (now Wurrumiyanga) following in 1987. The aim was to create self-governing communities that could manage their own local affairs and municipal services. Wurankuwu on Bathurst Island remains an Aboriginal Corporation under Commonwealth legislation.
This structure resulted in a well-established group of clan leaders and representatives within the Tiwi Land Council with landowning authority over the management, protection and development of Tiwi interests, and municipal bodies with authority over community services. Although there was overlap in membership between the two systems and a respectful relationship, they largely operated in separate spheres.
In 1998, the NT Government amalgamated existing Community Government Councils to deliver a more efficient system of local government. The Tiwi put forward their proposal for regional government and in 2001 the Tiwi Islands Local Government was formed. In 2008, the Tiwi Islands Shire Council was created under legislation by the Northern Territory Government to administer Wurrumiyanga, Wurankuwu, Milikapiti and Pirlangimpi, as well as several smaller outstations. In 2014, the council became the Tiwi Islands Regional Council.
Township Leases are negotiated between the Australian Government and the Traditional Owners in the Township represented by the respective Aboriginal Land Council and the Land Trust. In 2007, the Australian Government entered into the first 99-year Whole of Township Lease over Nguiu (now Wurrumiyanga). The parties to the lease are the Tiwi Aboriginal Land Trust, the Tiwi Land Council and the Executive Director, Office of Township Leasing. In 2011, the second Township Lease was signed for Milikapiti and Ranku, while the third 99-year Township Lease was signed for Pirlangimpi in June 2017.