The Kardu Yek Diminin are the Traditional Owners of the land on which Wadeye is situated, and there are over twenty clans living within the area. There are numerous Aboriginal languages spoken at Wadeye, with Murrinh-patha regarded as the most common. Other languages include Marri-Ngarr, Marri-Tjavin, Magati-Ge and Djamindjung. A distinguishing feature of Wadeye community is that it is the principal place of residence of a number of distinct clan/language groups who have a strong sense of individual identity.
Local Aboriginal people had little contact with non-Indigenous people until the early 1930s. In July 1931 three Japanese shark fishermen anchored their lugger near Port Keats. Nemarluk, the Aboriginal resistance leader, and his party killed the Japanese. When news of the murders reached Darwin, Nemarluk’s companions were arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death but the sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. Nemarluk evaded arrest until May 1933 when he was apprehended at Legune Station. While awaiting trial, he escaped and remained at large for six months. After his recapture he was transported back to Darwin and tried. His death sentence was also commuted to life imprisonment. He died in1940 at Darwin Hospital.
In 1934, following the arrest and trial of Nemarluk and his companions, the Government asked the NT Catholic Bishop to start a mission at Port Keats. Father Docherty and other Catholic missionaries travelled to a remote area north of the Fitzmaurice River to establish the mission. They were accompanied by the anthropologist W.E. H. Stanner, who was to provide advice and support. At the time of the journey the Port Keats area was virtually unknown to Europeans but was thought to be home to warlike groups of Aboriginal people. Father Docherty established his first mission on Wentek Nganai (Old Mission) Country. After some years it became obvious another mission site would have to be found, as there was inadequate water supply, the site was not central to all Aboriginal clans, and there was no place for an airstrip. Thus the mission was relocated to Diminin land in 1938, which is the existing Wadeye community.
Initially, Aboriginal leaders made their decision to engage with the mission possibly for socio-economic reasons. Due to the opportunities that the mission provided, there were fights between clan groups trying to get into the mission. As there was limited space and facilities to support a large group of people, Father Docherty had to turn some people away until the mission’s facilities and gardens could provide for large numbers of people. The mission was populated by people from seven different language groups and more than twenty clans. Their leadership and way of life was significantly challenged by the missionaries. The Australian Government managed the mission until the late 1970’s.
In 1978, the Kardu Numida Council was incorporated through the NT Associations and Incorporations Act. However, over time it lost legitimacy and was seen as being the instrument of a select few. The people commenced a journey of regaining some control, which culminated in the establishment of Thamarrurr Regional Council in 2003. This Council represented the 20 clan groups of the Thamarrurr Region, and while TRC was subsumed by the Victoria Daly (later West Daly) Shire Council in 2009, the same model was used in the establishment of Thamarrurr Development Corporation in 2008. TDC continues to represent the interests of Traditional Owners at Wadeye and throughout the Thamarrurr Region.