In far north-east Arnhem Land, the red dust settles on the sacred Gulkula site, signalling the closing of the iconic Garma Festival for another year.

In its 21st year, Garma Festival brought a pilgrimage of people from across the nation.

Both First Nations and non-First Nations people flocked to Gumatj country to celebrate Yolngu culture and hear First Nations leaders create dialogue around issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation (YYF), the celebration saw conversations spark around Constitutional reformation, Treaty, native title compensation and the role of youth in the nation’s future.

YYF CEO, Denise Bowden, said Garma Festival was an immense success, judging by the overall community support and drive.

“We’ve had grassroots people from down south, to corporate Australia, to kids in the Youth Forum who are our next generation and they were sending amazing messages,” Ms Bowden said.

This year’s theme, ‘Pathways to our Future’ inspired conversations surrounding Voice to Parliament, which was furthered by the presence of the Indigenous Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt.

“We had a rejection of the Uluru Statement and now have an Indigenous Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs – he has to lead but he has to convince his own cabinet at the same time,” Ms Bowden said.

“We are being told there is bi-partisan support from both the Opposition and the Coalition Government, but I think that if we keep stepping forward, we’ll find support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.”

“We have truth, Treaty and Makarrata, sizeable things, so how we move forward responsibly in the coming 12 months is very important.”

Ms Bowden hopes the conversations started at Garma Festival will move forward without mischievous commentary.

“This isn’t a grab for cash, we all need to contribute and move forward. There are very real issues in remote communities, and I hope that our urban counterparts are aware of what is happening in these very remote regions because the dissimilarities are disparaging,” Ms Bowden said.

“Minister Wyatt has had the Indigenous portfolio of Health before, so he comes with the intellect behind remote WA communities, but I do believe that coming to Garma has given him an insight into the north-east Arnhem Land region.”

Kids of Garma 2019. Photo by Peter Eve, Yothu Yindi Foundation.

A monumental moment of the festival occurred as YYF chairman, Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM Hon LLD cautioned Minister Wyatt that without constitutional recognition, the Yolngu people will throw the founding document out of Australia and into saltwater.

“The Chairman has obviously devoted his entire life to trying to bring about change on behalf of our nation. He has used the metaphor to say we have to stop stalling,” Ms Bowden said.

“He has been quoted before saying, he wanted smart words – he wanted meaningful progress to happen and it hasn’t.”

Dr Yunupingu also took to the stage to declare his intent to lodge a native title compensation claim against the Commonwealth Government for the mining and exploitation of resources on Gove Peninsula.

The mining lease for the land was granted to Nabalco, a Swiss company in the early 1960s. In 2007, the lease was taken on by Rio Tinto.

Dr Yunupingu states that Traditional Owners were excluded from this agreement and the mine has damaged significant Dreaming sites of the Gumatj people.

This follows the $2.5 million Timber Creek settlement in March this year which created a benchmark for future compensation claims introducing cultural loss and spiritual harm.

Managing Practitioner Director at Arma Legal, Hema Hariharan said prior to Timber Creek, compensation would usually be confidentially discussed between state and native title parties.

“Timber Creek changed the dynamic in negotiations with the State, and mining companies and other proponents. It gives Native Title Holders and proponents a benchmark, to then talk about compensation, economic loss, interest and cultural loss,” Ms Hariharan said.

“Cultural loss is bigger than damage to a site of significance. It is the inability [of Traditional Owners] to practice those rights and interests – inability to connect [or] access traditional land.”

However, Dr Yunupingu’s claim will be new territory for native title compensation claims.

“Generally, it’s known that compensable acts are those that occurred after the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 came into effect. Dr Yunupingu is lodging compensation application for acts pre-1975, so this is a new area of the law again,” Ms Hariharan said.

“It’s the next step after Timber Creek – there are likely people living today that will remember what happened when that mine came through and how it did damage the culture and community.”

Although a massive announcement by Dr Yunupingu, YYF notes that it is a personal journey and the organisation is not affiliated with the claim.

“This is a Gumatj situation, the Yothu Yindi Foundation are hosts of the Garma Festival, which is the platform for people to voice their own material,” Ms Bowden said.

“This is a personal journey that our Chairman has been talking about for some time – the Gulkula site is deeply significant in ceremonial history. For our Chairman to discuss those things are of his own making.”

“It is interesting thinking though, and I think we all need to watch that space.”

Garma 2019 sent waves of change across the nation and there has been a commitment from both the YYF Board of Directors and the local community to continue the festival for another 21 years.

“The Garma Festival has become a significant platform to advance matters that five years ago weren’t on the table – the issues and messages coming in and out of Garma are serious matters. Indigenous Australians are saying we want more ability to input as [to] what the future looks like,” Ms Bowden said.

“It has made people think about things, but now it’s time to step back and challenge some of the thinking because we can’t leave it to government – it’s up to us.”

To view speeches and forums from Garma Festival 2019 visit: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheGarmaFestival/featured.

By Rachael Knowles