There has been an indigenous community at Yirrkala throughout recorded history, but the community increased enormously in size when Yirrkala mission was founded in 1935. Local governance and planning are now the responsibility of the Yolngu-led Dhanbul, which is roughly equivalent to a Shire Council in non-indigenous communities.
Yirrkala is also home to a number of Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots and engineers based in Arnhem Land providing air transport services.
It is also a traditional home of the Yidaki (didgeridoo), and some of the world's finest didgeridoos are still made at Yirrkala.
Yirrkala played a pivotal role in the development of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians when the document Bark Petition was created at Yirrkala in 1963 and sent to the Federal Government to protest at the Prime Minister's announcement that a parcel of their land was to be sold to a bauxite mining company. Although the petition itself was unsuccessful in the sense that the bauxite mining at Nhulunbuy went ahead as planned, it alerted non-indigenous Australians to the need for indigenous representation in such decisions, and prompted a government report recommending payment of compensation, protection of sacred sites, creation of a permanent parliamentary standing committee to scrutinise developments at Yirrkala, and also acknowledged the indigenous people's moral right to their lands. The Bark Petition is on display in the Parliament House in Canberra.