If you were to fly above Mowanjum, a small Aboriginal community known for its art centre located on the outskirts of Derby in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, you’d see the shape of a Wandjina Spirit at its centre, a figure that holds significant meaning for the Traditional Owners.
And every year, this small community becomes the centre of one of Western Australia’s largest cultural celebrations, the Mowanjum Festival.
For years, the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people would gather and dance for each other and use the time as a family gathering. For the past two decades, the dance gathering has been transformed into a bigger celebration for everyone, including people from outside the community and tourists who have travelled from around the country to be there.
Local Indigenous cultural support officer, and one fo the event coordinators Rona Charles described Mowanjum Festival as a beautiful exchange of culture.
“This is our 21st festival now, where the community people get together and show their art, their culture, and also showing other people, visitors that are coming to the festival, looking at our artwork and our Corroboree, our Junba,” she told NITV News.
During the festival, two dances are performed: the Jadmi Junba and the Galinda Junba.
Ms Charles explained the Jadmi Junba is the type of dance that is only performed by males and the dance represents animals that have special cultural or historical meaning to the Traditional Owners.
One of the performances, The Bullock Dance, hadn't been performed since 1938. The dance represents mustering cattle and was composed by Gambere man Bobby Wundhalmanja. Many Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region have a history of working as stockmen and women, and mustering is a big part of the Kimberley Aboriginal's lives.
The second dance, and the more commonly known dance for the festiva,l is the Galinda Junba. It’s the dance where the males are holding boards with their totems on it.
“Because our people, the Wandjina people, were moved away from their country, Galinda is mainly based on holding the board, the totems, and Country, their Country is painted on the board so they felt more at home when they’re dancing with Country and bring their country to them,” Ms Charles said.
The women dance on either side of the men but they don't hold any totems, the totems held by the males weren't chosen at random either, the selection has been made prior to the festival and each dancer is in charge of painting their own totem.
Worrorra man Peter O'Connor has been dancing at the festival for the past eight years and he told NITV News he has an out-of-body experience when he performs.
“Every time I dance and perform, it’s like the spirit of that song, when them old people sing, it’s like the spirit he come and dance with me,” he said.
“That’s what I feel every single time I dance, them old people and them ancestors dancing alongside with me.”
Peter – or Big Pete as the local kids call him – said he grew up away from his culture, but returned in his later years and was inspired by his grandfather.
“I kind of seen my grandfathers, they were leader dancers back in their prime days and I seen them dancing and kind of growing up away from my culture and coming back and seeing recordings of them is what got me interested,” he said.
Big Pete has slowly become one of the leaders for the young people and over the week he was teaching the young boys their part of the dance and explained the meaning behind it.
“A lot of these kids come up to me and they’re like ‘oh Big Pete, Big Pete you’re a deadly dancer’ and that just makes me happy you know, these little kids they look up to me and I look up to them,” he said.
The 24-year-old ranger says dancing is more than just a fun pass time: the traditional dancing is all about culture.
“I’m telling you a story of who I am and where I come from, and I guess that’s what we try to teach these kids you know, and get them to dance and learn their culture and get their identity and take them away from this thought that they’re not no one, and get them into this identity of you are who you are,” he said.