Decendent of the Tagalak people and born on Jawoyn country, Denise went from being a small town Katherine kid to the CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, and the Director of Garma. She sheds light on the importance of passing on Indigenous Australian knowledge.
Laura Morelli

11 Jan 2017 - 4:11 PM  UPDATED 19 Jan 2017 - 11:29 AM

"My childhood was spent on the banks of the mighty Katherine River, three hours south of Darwin. Picture clear tropical fresh water, pandanus overhang, crocodiles, king browns, kookaburras and the picturesque rock gorges.

Katherine is an interesting cross road - where Indigenous communities from remote bases, tourism, the pastoral industry and the Tindal RAAF defence base collide. I grew up with a strong Indigenous mother who managed the Kalano community, an Indigenous base on the fringes of town. My Mother was also the first Indigenous woman alderman of Katherine, which in her time, was a ground breaking acknowledgement of her influence in a town that was just plain tough.

"In Katherine you worked hard, you played hard, you loved hard, and there was nothing in between."

One of my earliest childhood memories was of an annual family trip from bush into the township of Katherine; I must have been eight years of age at the time. We would get so excited to be visiting the ‘big smoke’. Mum had sewn her three daughters a dress each for the occasion, including a fashionable shoulder bag. We were clearly the best dressed kids in town that day – and we girls loved the new clothes, the social atmosphere and the shopping.

Given my mother had lived through the 70’s - she was probably still living within the period of assimilation into mainstream white society. So, there was absolutely no way my Mother was letting anyone take her children, and she protected us fiercely by having a spotlessly clean house (probably over the top clean), and she’d work just as hard, if not harder than her male colleagues.

I was holding my mother’s hand as we were about to enter the local supermarket, when I was pulled to one side by the hand of my mother. I was astute enough to realise that mum was trying to protect me from seeing something that was taking place. Inadvertently she’d tried to shift my attention from something, so, filled with curiosity, I knew to look to what she didn’t want me seeing regardless of the consequences.

We were witnessing the air force base convoy of trucks, ferrying their men to their base 15 kilometers south of the township of Katherine. The trucks were loaded, primarily full of non-Indigenous army men, and as the trucks slowly drove through the main drag, many male hands were waving bills of money out the back of each truck. As they waved their bills, Aboriginal women were running after the trucks to grab the bills, only to be lifted by many male hands into the back of the trucks. The commotion was witnessed by the likes of my family, and other locals who were obviously gob smacked by what was unfolding in front of their eyes. The trucks did not stop to off load the women, they continued to roll through the town.

"I guess you could say that single experience molded my personality there and then."

The 70’s and 80’s was an interesting time for me as an individual. My family used their bodies as a tool, they used their muscle to build, or grow a project or progress a situation for the better. I grew up in a family that built fence lines, bumping thousands of pickets and tying them off – the black tar covering the pickets melted in the extreme heat, leaving scar marks on our sensitive, small hands. We’d sink bores and we’d muster cattle with our parents for the family meat. In many ways it was educational – I know where to find the heart of a bullock, where the prized rump steak is butchered from and also how to make homemade sausages.

At the cross roads of Katherine I saw Indigenous people fringe dwelling. It was normal to see Indigenous people passed out in public, inebriated, or fighting on the streets. And when that is happening at the same time as people are using their muscle, their bodies to make a living – well, non-Indigenous perceived that as being lazy, or good for nothing – they can’t see beyond that, and they’d feel they were wasting their time dwelling on a situation that wasn’t an outcome.

Not all Aboriginal people behaved like that – those that had a decent education could provide for themselves and their families, but a lot didn’t have a solid educational background to contribute to society. To be fair, there was a staunch loyal non-Indigenous community that did not have negative attitudes toward Aborigines, but peer group pressure had a lot to answer for. There was, however a select number of Indigenous leaders that were responsible, doing the hard yards, Mum was one of those people. However they were far outweighed by a vast amount of other Aborigines and non-Aboriginal people mind, who sought refuge at the bottom of a cask of moselle. Brutal fighting, on the streets, people lay out in the main drag of Katherine unconscious, passed out - they littered the one road in and out of Katherine. You had three directions to choose from - West, South or North, and if you were going to Alice Springs, Kunnunnurra or Darwin, the word spread that Katherine had a lot of work to do to make the town a lot more pleasant for visitors and residents with such a vast number of people from different backgrounds. This was the 70’s and 80’s mind.

"In its living form, Indigenous culture is one of the most respectful and mesmerising cultures, and to accept it’s full meaning means more than to simply dance the bunggul, play the didgeridoo or speak in language."

I have always wanted to leave in my trail, a more peaceful and calm life for my own children. I didn’t want them to deal with the racism that I experienced throughout life. I wanted them to lead a decent position in life, purely out of respect for those who worked so hard before our generation’s time. Our motto has been to grasp your life and make it what you want it to be. If you want to be treated a minority, then so be it. If you want to pave the way forward – don’t wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder and give you the permission to do so – you simply seize the opportunity and YOU make it happen. You don’t complain about life in general, you lay down the hard work over many years to wait for good return. Only then will respect come. Your community will acknowledge your work and they’ll trust in your ability to deliver. We never asked anyone for anything, and if you did – you’d pay them back tenfold for the trouble.

I have quite simply, a very high regard for Indigenous Australian culture. In fact I’ve personally placed Indigenous culture on the same pedestal as a devoted Catholic would toward their religion. I see nothing but deep philosophical beauty for Indigenous Australian culture, and I don’t accept any reasoning as to why anyone would disagree with me. In its living form, Indigenous culture is one of the most respectful and mesmerising cultures, and to accept it’s full meaning means more than to simply dance the bunggul, play the didgeridoo or speak in language. There are so many aspects that require deeper thinking, and no one learns that overnight. That knowledge is picked up over many years.

That brings me to Garma. I have been the Director of Garma Festival for the past six years. Garma has a purpose – it is where the fresh water and the salt water meet, where they mix together, and flow on. That meaning, right there, is a simply beautiful meaning, especially when you think about 2650 people descending upon the Garma site – meeting, mixing, sharing, and learning together, black and white, young and old. When individuals are relaying that information back into their homes, organically – not because a government told you so, or a multi-funded public campaign alerted you to it – it works for itself and makes complete sense to an individual. The Garma message is not massaged; it is pure in its content.

Since I have worked in Indigenous Affairs, it’s more likely that the general public’s exposed to the more unattractive side of Indigenous Australia. How many times has the media reported on beatings, murders, drunkenness, disadvantage, children in homes due to the hopelessness of Indigenous people? The general media saying is: “If it bleeds it reads.”

Well, at Garma we prove that Indigenous people aren’t all useless. Some of us do look after our kids, some of us don’t beat our partners, some of us work bloody hard, some of us own property, some of us have our own business, most of us send our kids to school, some of us are trying – and at Garma, amongst other activities, you can hear these stories of success.

"Garma has a purpose – it is where the fresh water and the salt water meet, where they mix together, and flow on."

I am the Director of the annual Garma Festival, and I have played a major influential role in the past six years - in lifting the event from a pure rock concert type of event to a more serious political platform. And while the Key Forum conference is now an important feature of our programming, Garma is still a cultural gathering at its heart, where our guests can immerse themselves in the traditions and practices that have sustained the Yolngu for tens of thousands of years - experiencing the bunggul, learning the language and taking part in cultural workshops."

Ep.3 of Family Rules explores country, culture and tradition. It airs tonight at 7.30pm on NITV Ch.34 

You can catch any missed Episodes here at SBS On Demand 

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