Wies Schuiringa, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Wies at Nightcliff Beach, Darwin

Wies at Nightcliff Beach, Darwin

The Garma Traditional Culture Festival is held annually in Northeast Arnhem Land on Yolngu land. The Festival is held under the auspices of the Yothu Yindi Foundation established in 1990 to promote Yolngu cultural development with community leaders and persons of authority from five regional clan groups. The leadership and innovative program development of the Foundation are considered significantly positive forces supporting Indigenous cultural maintenance, not only in Northeast Arnhem Land, but throughout the country and internationally. Yothu Yindi has several meanings: mother and child, where salt water and fresh water meet, fire and smoke. It is also the region where the Yothu Yindi folk/rock band came from.

About 2500 people can attend this annual festival. This is the limit of the facilities on a large property owned by the local people and paid for by the royalties of the local bauxite mine. Non-Aboriginal people are encouraged to come. The ABC broadcasts from the Festival and I had been interested to attend for many years. What I was hoping to experience was the wide range of current Aboriginal cultural and political expression, organised and owned by Aboriginal people. We often get caught up in the politics and difficulties of Aboriginal communities and I was looking for identity, strength, hope and optimism.

The Festival included morning and afternoon panel discussions with national and local Aboriginal leaders about the current state of affairs for Aboriginal people. Many of these panels were chaired by Professor Marcia Langton. It was a great line-up: Pat Dodson, Mick Gooda, Jackie Huggins, Noel Pearson and many local leaders who I did not know so well. Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten spoke well; he stayed at the Festival with his wife and youngest daughter. Fred Chaney played a role. Actor Jack Thompson is a long-time supporter and has been accepted into the Yolngu nation. Journalist Stan Grant recorded a lot of material for NITV. The Northern Territory Chief Minister, Adam Giles, did not deliver his speech. The TV programme about the mistreatment of young inmates at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre had just been aired, and he was not going to make himself vulnerable. All speakers mentioned the program and the deplorable state of affairs.

Every afternoon there was dancing by the Yolngu clans of their song lines accompanied by singers, clap sticks and didgeridoo. White people, the balanda, were always invited to join in and they did. (I finally established that the word balanda is derived from Hollander. The Macassans who traded with the Aboriginal people in the north introduced this word to identify all white people.) Then there was a lot of modern music performed by mostly local bands. Archie Roach also performed. There were corporate groups from e.g Telstra, CBA, Westpac who needed to understand better how to relate their business to Aboriginal people. There were First Nations people from Canada who spoke and performed. I caught up with the executive officer of the Mental Health Council of Australia. There were school groups from Brisbane and private school boys from Melbourne.

There was an art exhibition, organised by the local, not-for-profit Aboriginal art centre. It was a bit like the Quaker Yearly Meeting and it was easy to get talking with others about our reasons for being there as well as our reflections on what we were experiencing. About half the people at the Festival were from the local clans and I had no interaction with them. They all spoke in their own language and we seemed to keep our own company. Representatives from a land council in Northern Queensland socialised more with the white people. Something to be more mindful of and pro-active about if I ever were to go again.

There was a village of tents and, being a non-corporate attendee, I had a small tent for an individual. I am glad that I go to an exercise class as the crawling in and out of the tent, on rocky ground and balancing on a wobbly air mattress required some “Garma yoga”. (At the QSA study tour in India, we did “Toyota yoga”: awkwardly clambering in and out of a Toyota people mover.)

After deciding that 2016 was going to be my year of attending the Garma festival, I then had to decide how I was going to travel to the Northern Territory and how long I would stay. I decided that to get the full experience of the Festival, I needed to spend more time in the Northern Territory to absorb the context of the Aboriginal people in their region. I spent six weeks in the Northern Territory, four of them in Darwin and the rest travelling. What can I say? At times it is a matter of “the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know”. As a tourist, it seemed to me that the parallel communities of the white people and the Aboriginal people seemed to continue. The tourism industry is mostly run by backpackers and the only Aboriginal people I saw were sitting under trees in the parks or on foot paths. The colonialisation of the Northern Australia started in the mid-1800s and because of the remoteness there were still instances of “first contact” in the mid-1900s. This is very different from the Sydney area and my experiences in Sydney with Aboriginal people. The 50 year commemoration of the Wave Hill walk-off happened while I was in the Northern territory. At the Garma Festival I saw both worlds: the extensive dancing with strict protocols of how the dances were to be performed, called in the local language and performed by people who speak little English, as well as competent, forward looking speeches by national and local Aboriginal leaders about Constitutional recognition, economic development on traditional lands, health care and models of education. What I have taken away from my experiences is a stronger realisation and affirmation that the Aboriginal community is very diverse with different ambitions, opinions and ways of behaving. This requires my respect.

NB: During the Garma Festival, the term “First Nations People” was only used in reference to the Canadian visitors. The words Aboriginal and Indigenous seemed interchangeable. I think that in different Aboriginal circles, different words are used.

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