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Tangentyere Council - Indigenous Urban Settlement
Central Australia

Keywords: Social Exclusion/Integration
Crime Prevention


The Tangentyere Council is a voluntary organisation which was formed to address the needs of Aboriginal people living in town camps on the fringes of Alice Springs in Central Australia. These town camps, which were established in an ad hoc manner as people drifted into the town from neighbouring settlements and pastoral properties, lacked basic housing and infrastructure services and suffered from a range of major social and economic problems.

The Council comprises members of various kinship and language groups in the town camps. It works in partnership with Australian Federal and State governments, as well as the town campers to improve the living environment of the town camps.

Tangentyere Council provides social support services in housing, infrastructure, employment, training, education and other social services. It encourages and relies on community involvement in activities designed to create a safer and more stable living environment for town camp residents.


Alice Springs is a modest sized urban settlement of around 25,000 people in central Australia. Some 4,000 of this population are members of Australia's indigenous Aboriginal population. The European settlement of Alice Springs was sited on pastoral lands previously occupied by a large number of traditional Aboriginal tribal groups. Much of the land surrounding and including Alice Springs is still recognised as the traditional homelands of the Arrernte, Anmatyerre, Warrumungu, Warlpiri and other peoples.

A series of social and economic policy changes in the the late 1960s and early 1970s saw considerable numbers of Aboriginal people migrate into the town from surrounding rural community settlements, mission stations and pastoral properties. These people settled into relatively homogeneous cultural and linguistic groups in makeshift settlements on the outskirts of the town. The settlements were called "town camps" and quickly became a permanent feature of the Alice Springs environment.

In the early years the town camps lacked basic housing and urban infrastructure services and the town campers experienced a range of social and economic problems including:

  • insufficient housing for the population;
  • a lack of suitable employment opportunities;
  • a lack of employment training opportunities;
  • conflicting forces which undermined education;
  • boredom, arising from lack of employment, which led to excessive consumption of alcohol, vandalism, petty crime and accompanying problems;
  • the absence of any sanctioned codes of visitor behaviour;
  • poorly developed leadership and the potential problems of the void created if the few recognised leaders died or emigrated; and
  • breakdown of family and traditional values.

While token funding had been provided to address some of these problems, a comprehensive program was required to address them all in a concerted way so that the problems did not become intergenerational or part of the cultural environment of the town campers.

    The Town Camps

Today there are 18 well-established camps around Alice Springs, which contain between 30 and 40 per cent of the indigenous population of Alice Springs. The camps are not regarded as being a transitional stage to a European urban mode of living. Instead, they represent strong kinship based communities where traditionally oriented Aboriginal people may live relatively settled lives without being subject to the pressures associated with European town life.

Town camps have certain characteristics which make them radically different from suburban neighborhoods. The land that town camps occupy becomes an extension of the traditional tribal territory of a particular language group.

These systems of settlement are serving to bring about lasting changes in the way Australia provides housing and urban infrastructure services to its Aboriginal people. Socially and ceremonially, town camps are an integral part of a system of camps and settlements stretching throughout central Australia.

    Formation of the Tangentyere Council

In the 1970s, as a response to the poor living conditions experienced by the town campers, the different kinship and language groups in the town camps began to organise under one entity to acquire leasehold title to the land on which they camped. This organisation evolved into the Tangentyere Council. Tangentyere (pronounced Tungen-jerra) means "working together" in the language of the local Arrernte people.

The granting of leases resulted in the need for town campers to maintain and manage improvements to the land. As well as providing town campers with access to land by helping with lease applications, Tangentyere took on responsibility for providing basic services, such as water and garbage collection and building materials.

The role and function of the Council has evolved over the years. The Council works in partnership with the Federal and State Governments and charitable organisations, administering a range of grants. It also works in partnership with the town campers towards achieving the social and economic betterment of the town campers. In this way the Tangentyere Council has had a positive impact on improving the living environments of the town campers by encouraging their participation in decision-making processes.

Currently the Tangentyere council:

  • is able to identify, offer and provide services to town campers more effectively than other organisations;
  • is more effective in training of town campers who find it hard to learn in the foreign environment of formal institutions;
  • provides mechanisms for campers to adapt their social and cultural tradition to an urban environment;
  • is able to be an effective decision making facilitator and a strong voice for town campers;
  • has the courage to initiate ways of addressing difficult social problems, such as alcohol, being faced by the town campers; and
  • is recognised as a central service point for the town campers

    Housing and urban services

Piecemeal and uncoordinated efforts in previous years had failed to establish suitable housing and urban services in the town camps. In the late 1980's and early 1990's the Council was successful in securing funding from a major government program (the Town Campers Housing and Infrastructure Program). This funding provided for major upgrading of housing and physical infrastructure services (water, sewerage, sealed roads) and the improvement of the living conditions in the camps.

Most immediate housing needs have now been met, however a limited amount of new housing is still required to alleviate overcrowding.

The residents of each of the 18 town camps are incorporated into a Housing Association. Each Housing Association manages the housing in its camp, taking responsibility for decisions on issues such as allocation of housing to new tenants, design and location of new housing, collection of rent, and repair and maintenance of housing.

A Housing Office within Tangentyere Council provides advice and support to the Housing Associations as needed. The Housing Office has developed considerable expertise in designing housing for traditionally-oriented Aboriginal people which takes account of relevant cultural and social factors, both in town and bush communities.

In addition to its housing responsibilities, Tangentyere Council provides a range of urban services to the town camps, including garbage collection, sewerage maintenance, road maintenance and general environmental and landscape improvement.

    Economic and other community services

Over time Tangentyere has established a number of support services to assist the traditionally-oriented Aboriginal people in the town camps, many of whom have nomadic cultural backgrounds, to deal with the demands of living in permanent accommodation. These include home maker services which provide advice to tenants on the use of their houses, and assistance to older people to enable them to live with their families as long as possible.

Other services include recreation, after-school and holiday programs for children, and support for women to maintain a strong role in the life of the town camps, and to preserve and pass on their cultural traditions.

One of the major objectives of Tangentyere Council is to strengthen the economic base of the town camps and reduce the level of dependence on government welfare assistance. In this respect the Council is very active in supporting commercially-oriented activities such as nursery and land care operations and housing design consultancy services. It also provides employment for many town campers on community projects funded from government resources, enabling the people to develop appropriate work skills and habits that can lead to gaining longer term employment.

    Social and cultural issues

One of Tangentyere's most visible areas of success is in the way the Council has taken responsibility for addressing social and cultural issues associated with living in the town camps.

The dislocation of people from their traditional homelands has brought a range of different cultures together in an environment where factions and rivalries are natural outcomes. In addition countervailing pressures of Aboriginal and European cultures on town campers occasionally causes extreme tension. The Tangentyere Council has proved to be a unifying force in these circumstances.

Drinking alcohol has been identified as one of the most pressing problems, as it can cause underlying tensions to break out into violence and assault.

Tangentyere Council has taken major steps to deal with these problems. One of its most innovative responses is the establishment of a Night Patrol, a form of community policing which is designed to deal with instances of alcohol-related trouble involving town campers before they require police intervention.


Tangentyere Council is a comprehensive administrative body which provides basic social services and support to its community. Because the membership of the Tangentyere Council is drawn from the Aboriginal population in the town camps, it is able to accurately represent and respond to the often culturally specific needs of its members.

The Council has played a very important role in allieviating the poverty of the town camps, and in providing avenues for town campers to participate in urban life through creating employment and training opportunities, reducing crime, and ensuring the transmission of their cultural heritage.


  • 350 places created by the Community Development Employment Project.
  • Provision of housing and infrastructure for 1400 inhabitants.
  • Dramatic reduction in jail incarceration and people coming before the legal system through community projects such as the Night Patrol.


The Tangentyere model is a good example of indigenous self-determination in action. This principle, which has been endorsed by the different levels of government in Australia, recognises that indigenous people are entitled to be fully involved in the development of policies and programs that affect them, and to have responsibility for managing programs and services for indigenous people.

This process, while evident in Alice Springs over twenty years ago, has now been strengthened by the passing of legislation by the Australian Federal Government.

The Native Title Act, passed in December 1993, recognises the fundamental land rights of indigenous people through the existence of native title. Native Title is granted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who can demonstrate continuing links with their traditional lands. A National Native Title Tribunal has been established to deal with claims for native title and to clarify whether existing landowners might be affected.

In cases where the granting of freehold and leasehold title has extinguished claims for native title, the Indigenous Land Fund provides assistance for the purchase and management of indigenous land.
The aim of the Land Fund is to give Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders the chance to enjoy and rediscover their traditional spiritual and cultural links with the land, while at the same time giving communities the opportunity to move towards self-sufficiency through the economic benefits of land ownership.

The urban settlement administered by Tangentyere Council complements the activities being undertaken by the Federal Government. Its success is based on the sucessful partnerships which have been established between the various levels of government (Federal, State and Local) and between organisations and individuals representing the Aboriginal community at Alice Springs.

Tangentyere Council has established a number of simple but effective policies and procedures designed to improve the living conditions of the people in the town camps. The creation of stable and safe environment for the people in the area has improved the sustainability of the town camps as viable human settlements in Alice Springs.

In particular, Tangentyere Council has demonstrated that it is possible to design housing and infrastructure to suit the lifestyles of Aboriginal peoples, by consulting and working together with the people themselves.

Due to its initial success in addressing poverty and providing basic housing, Tangentyere's focus is gradually shifting from the provision of physical needs and concentrates increasingly on community development, social behaviour and employment and training issues.

One of the major reasons for Tangentyere Council's success is that it is fully controlled and administered by Aboriginal people. As such, Tangentyere represents an excellent example of indigenous self-determination, which can be adapted elsewhere.


    Tangentyere Council
    Alice Springs
    Northern Territory
    61 89 525 855


    Tangentyere Council, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia
    Tangentyere Council
    Alice Springs
    Northern Territory
    61 89 52 5855


    The Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission
    Mr Geoff Shaw CAM - Tangentyere Council
    Alice Springs
    Northern Territory
    61 89 525 855

    The Commonwealth Department of Housing and Regional Development
    Mr Ron Lisson - Tangentyere Council
    Alice Springs
    Northern Territory
    61 89 525 855

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