: Garma: Culture on Country

Garma: Culture on Country

Kate Galloway

A cultural exchange hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, and celebrating the cultural inheritance of the Yolngu people in North East Arnhem Land, the Garma Festival is undoubtedly a leading cultural and intellectual event in Australia, if not internationally. A superb blend of culture, ideas, economics, politics, it provides the opportunity to re-orient our thinking with a focus on Yolngu experiences and priorities. This offers the chance to put into context so many issues presently on the political and policy agenda.

In August this year I made the trek to the festival at remote Gulkula in the Northern Territory. I met up at Cairns airport with travellers from around Australia to fly to Nhulunbuy — Gove — arriving after dark to be collected by the festival bus and taken to the Garma campsite. Tents were at the ready, and we made our introductions around the campfire. We fell asleep to the sound of trumpeting by Cat Empire musician Harry Angus.

The morning revealed a magnificent view from our site at the top of an escarpment, out to sand dunes and over the Arafura Sea. Making our way to the communal dining room the layout of the Festival became clear. A tent city was well-served by amenities blocks, communal eating area, a coffee shop and library. White gravel paths allowed easy way-finding among the stringybarks to the key forum, the meeting place for the Festival’s formal business.

Participants were graciously welcomed by Yolngu leaders and the key forum hosted four days of a program that challenged us 
to consider the efficacy of land rights in the context of economic development; of empowerment through local governance structures in the face of governmental regulation; of two-way education to serve the needs of Yolngu people; and of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

What struck me was the variation in tone as well as the content of sessions in the key forum. After a session marking the 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala bark petitions, including presentations from the then-principal of the Yirrkala School and descendants of the signatories, the Leader of the Opposition and his media contingent descended on the Garma site. This followed funding announcements the previous day by the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and preceded calls from the chair of the Central Land Council for empowerment of Indigenous Australians including through land ownership and financial compensation for land.

These political interludes in turn contrasted with celebrations of achievements by Yolngu people through the inaugural awards for Yolngu Heroes, announced by actor Jack Thompson, and a showcase of educational achievement and aspirations of local leaders in education.

The festival welcomed the Recognition team on their way around Australia, and we heard from — and asked questions of — members of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Reform. In a moving bunggul (ceremony) on the first evening, members of the Recognition team joined in the traditional dancing as part of their welcome to Gulkula.

Each day concluded with a bunggul — traditional dancing — in the central ground, followed by performances that included Circus Oz, the sublime voice of Deborah Cheetham and a number of local bands. In fireside chats around the camp ground, we could participate in poetry reading, stargazing or simply exchange ideas with locals and travellers alike.

The Gapan Gallery featured an array of beautiful local prints, and was open by candlelight as well as during the day. Artist talks invited visitors to consider Yolngu ways of knowing and to experience the world in a different way. Likewise, we were treated to a visit to the Yirrkala art gallery and museum, featuring the famous bark panels from the old Yirrkala church — the same panels that inspired the Yirrkala bark petition.

During the day a range of cultural events took place around the site, particularly as part of the youth forum. Spear making, basket weaving, beading, print-making, musical and language sessions engaged us all in a wealth of cultural exchange with local experts. The night cultural program included a showcase of Indigenous films.

A highlight of the festival was the opportunity to meet and talk with a diverse array of people during mealtimes and around the campfire. Business managers, schoolchildren, professors, suburban dwellers, artists, politicians, journalists, campaigners from around Australia and local Yolngu people all shared their stories.

The festival makes clear the unity of culture, history, education, politics, economics, law and country in achieving self-determination and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. These aspirations have a hollow ring without understanding two things. First is the need for an integrated and holistic approach in developing policy and regulatory responses to issues affecting Indigenous Australians; second is the importance of recognising the diverse contexts experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around the nation. The ideas shared at the festival offer a starting point for exploring how these aspirations might be achieved.

Key forums can be viewed on the Garma website: — 

KATE GALLOWAY is senior lecturer in law at James Cook University, with an interest in land law and social justice. She has previously worked in a native title representative body.

(2013) 38(3) AltLJ 204
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