Aurukun, a coastal town, sits on the western side of Cape York Peninsula, 80 km south of Weipa and 460 km north-west of Cooktown. Aurukun began as a Presbyterian mission in 1904, supervised by a Moravian missionary, Rev Arthur Richter and known as the Archer River Mission Station. "Aurukun" was derived from an Aboriginal word associated with a large lagoon on the Watson River, south of the town.
When an Australian superintendent arrived in 1924 Aurukun comprised 20 or so messmate bark huts with beaten-antbed floors, with most Aborigines living out in the bush. An elementary school was conducted in the church hall. When a purpose-built school was opened in 1964 the average enrolment had increased from 40 children to 140. By then most of the houses were raised timber constructions with two or three rooms and a small verandah.
In the 1950s the bauxite deposits known for some years at Aurukun and Weipa were assessed for mining potential. The Weipa site was chosen, but in a contentious 1975 decision the Bjelke-Petersen State government authorised mining at Aurukun and placed the community under direct State control. The local community petitioned the Commonwealth government for assistance, and after several years of dispute and negotiation, the Wik people of Aurukun were given a 50 year lease of the former reserve, administered under the Local Government (Aboriginal Lands) Act 1978. The elected shire council administers an area of 7500 sq km, the Uniting (successor to the Presbyterian) Church having ceded any rights it may have acquired. Native Title was acquired in 2004. The shire extends southwards from near Weipa to the Holroyd River.
Aurukun has a combined primary-secondary school (1974), a Uniting Church, an arts and crafts centre, a general store, a clinic and a tavern. Alcohol consumption was restricted to the tavern, with no take-away sales nor alcohol allowed to be brought into the shire. The tavern canteen was closed by the State government in 2008. Entry to the shire is restricted by permit.
In a controversial case, nine Aurukun males (three men and six juveniles) were convicted of raping a 10-year-old girl in 2006 and originally given non-custodial sentences. This was overturned on appeal in 2008 when five custodial sentences were imposed.
The Beattie State government introduced the Wild Rivers legislation in 2005 to restrict development near pristine river systems including the Archer River. The legislation was repealed by the Newman State government in 2014.
Census populations have been:
At the 2011 census, nearly a third of the population is 14 years old or less, compared with one-fifth for Australia.
Geraldine MacKenzie, Aurukun diary: forty years with the Aborigines, Melbourne, Aldersgate Press, 1981
Jan Roberts, Massacres to mining: the colonisation of Aboriginal Australia, Melbourne, Dove Communications, 1981