From cultural traditions rarely seen outside remote communities to performances by the likes of Archie Roach, from forums on hot topics like Constitutional recognition to property rights, the annual Garma Festival in the Top End is preparing for an action-packed four days.
A capacity 2,500 people are expected at Gulkula, an important ceremonial site about 30 minutes from the town of Nhulunbuy on the Central Arnhem Highway, for the nation’s premier indigenous festival which runs from July 29 to August 1.
The program this year includes everything from spear making to basket weaving, fireside poetry readings with actor Jack Thompson (The Man from Snowy River star is an ambassador), a star-studded line-up of musicians from Roach to Clare Bowditch, the opening of a new cinema with celebrated film director Rachel Perkins, and live broadcasts from NITV’s Stan Grant.
It is Australia’s biggest celebration of Yolngu culture.
At the business end of town, guests at the economic, social and business forums will include Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership founder Noel Pearson; the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commissioner, Mick Gooda; anti-domestic violence campaigner Lani Brennan and leading academic Marcia Langton.
International guests will include Chief Maureen Thomson and Reuben George from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation — People of the Inlet — in British Columbia, Canada.
The forums have been described by organisers as the Indigenous equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
Central to this year’s festival, which is organized by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, will be the theme Wanga Ngaraka Ga Bundurr — the Land is Our Backbone — in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
YYF chairman Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the brother of the late Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu, who fronted the iconic rock band Yothu Yindi, says visitors to the festival will be able to immerse themselves in the Yolngu way of life.
He says the festival exists for the exchange of knowledge and will also be a time of reflection.
“And when you see the ceremony in full flight, hearing the manikay sung and watching the patterns and design that are presented to you, take some time to think about the Aboriginal people who have had these jewels of life taken from them in the short history of our nation,” he says.
“I say this not to condemn your forebears, or yourselves, but to merely state the truth. Even today the truth is hard to bear, such is the loss suffered by so many Aboriginal people, continuing to this day.
“The truth may help you understand your own life better and allow you to be a contributor to the challenges that lie ahead in making a settlement between our people within the nation.”
YYF chief executive Denise Bowden says an education fair on the opening day of the festival will be a new innovation.
“Education is at the heart of everything we do, and one of the main aims of Garma is to share knowledge, to foster a greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” she says.
About 250 school children from Sydney, Melbourne and local areas are expected to attend.
The Garma festival has been running for 18 years and has its roots in a music and knowledge-sharing event which has become the biggest of its kind in Australia.
The YYF was set up in 1990 to promote Yolngu cultural development with community leaders from five regional clans — Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Galpu and Wangurri.
THINGS TO DO AT THE GARMA FESTIVAL
Award-winning artists Archie Roach and Clare Bowditch will head a star-studded line-up of musicians which will also include Gawurra, Radical Son, Warren Williams, East Journey, Jessie Lloyd, Matjala, Sol Nation, Wild Water, Barra West Band, Ezy 5, Next Generation, KK Band, Garrangali Band, Dhapanbul Yunupingu and Salt Land Band. Music will range from hip-hop to roots, rock and Indigenous sounds.
Take a language class, learn the art of spear-making, go on a bush walk or try an astronomy tour. Activities are spread across the four days of the festival. Also not to be missed: the evening bungguls and the opening and closing ceremonies.
A day-long Education Fair will help kick off this year’s festival. Hundreds of students from local and interstate schools will have a chance to learn from an Indigenous curriculum, including the history of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
THE BIG ISSUES
Forums and think tanks will discuss the issues of the day. Watch out for the Land Rights forum on July 30 hosted by much-loved NT sports commentator Charlie King. Others will include a health forum on July 31, an anti-domestic violence forum the same day and debate about Constitutional recognition on August 1.
For full program information and to book tickets visit www.garma.com.au