20 years of Garma: Two decades of hope, honesty and determination

For the past twenty years, the Garma Festival has been a vibrant addition to our national calendar.

Each August, the Yolngu people from north-east Arnhem Land open their arms and their hearts sharing their culture with other First Nations peoples and the broader community.

Not just a colourful celebration of an ancient culture, the annual festival has now become a national platform to discuss matters of significance to Indigenous Australia.

Now in its twentieth year, the Garma Festival will embrace hope and honesty while determined to keep our political leaders to account.

Truth-Telling: How the Garma 2018 theme hopes to bring honesty to the table

As the sun sets on the sacred grounds at Gulkula, the bunggul comes alive.

The vibrant colours of the different clan groups strikes a stunning contrast to the Top End’s iconic red dirt.

As families line-up around the ceremonial circle, each waiting for their turn to perform – onlookers begin to gather.

Senior clan members tell the story of manikay, or song, against the sound and rhythm of clapsticks.

Suddenly men, women and children move alongside their families and clan groups performing their traditional dance – unique to the north-east Arnhem. A celebration and honouring of Yolngu culture begins, it’s a testament to the people of the land and their commitment to maintaining and preserving their culture and ways of life.

These spectacular scenes occur top the Dhupuma plateau, overlooking the remarkable Arnhem coastline. This is how Garma begins.

For the last twenty years, Garma has begun in this spectacular fashion.

The site of Gulkula holds special significance to locals and visitors alike.

For Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, a senior Gumatj Clan leader, it was particularly special.

A renowned artist even before his death, one of his most famous bark paintings is of Gulkula – his country. The site sits in a stringybark forest atop an escarpment of trees. In Yolngu culture the grey stringy-bark has many names, one Dhuwa moiety name is Gadayka.

The Yothu Yindi Foundation best describes the site's essence: ‘at night on the escarpment Gadayka seem to move in their stillness’ and in the late afternoon as the wind moves through the leaves the trees appear to dance, to communicate with each other. Trees are sung and their movement is danced in ceremony.’

The bark painting encapsulates the culturally significant site of Gulkula and tells of the many different layers of history. It was exhibited in New York in 1988.

Mungurrawuy Yunupingu was Galarrwuy Yunupingu's father.  Galarrwuy followed in his predecessor's footsteps to become a senior Gumatj Clan leader.

Like his father, Galarrwuy is a great champion of his people. His words speak volumes.

“It can be hard to tell the truth as the truth hurts some times. But it is important,” Mr Yunupingu says poignantly.

He’s talking about truth-telling, or Yuwalk Lakarana, the key theme for this year’s Garma. He says it is important the nation knows its own truth.

“My people are sovereign – when Captain Phillip came to Australia, and with those that followed, they met clan nations that owned everything that they encountered – the lands, the waters, the trees, the minerals, the animals, the plants, the very air that was breathed was owned by us – and speaking for my people, we still own it,” he says.

For decades, Mr Yunupingu has fought for his people’s rights and recognition.

In 1963, he helped draft the first bark petition tabled in the Australian Parliament in August of that year. The Yirrkala Bark Petitions were signed by 12 Yolngu clan leaders, including Galarrwuy’s father Mungurrawuy. Each contained a typed document written in both Yolngu and English expressing concern about bauxite mining encroaching on their lands.

Politicians did not respond as clan leaders had hoped. The mining went ahead and subsequently the Yolngu people took their case to the Supreme Court in the Northern Territory, but lost because the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ was still in force.

While the Yolngu people failed to get their justice, their campaign brought further attention and debate to the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout Australia.

The bark petitions were the first traditional documents prepared by a group of Aboriginal people that were recognised by the Australian Parliament, and have since become a watershed moment in the recognition of Indigenous rights.

Today, the bark petitions still hang on the walls of parliament in Canberra as a constant reminder of Yolgnu people’s fight, and more broadly, Aboriginal Australia's ongoing calls for justice.

“Despite our survival, and despite everything we do and everything we offer we still suffer enormous disadvantage and we remain unrecognised and without a voice,” Galarrwuy Yunupingu says. 

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions
These petitions from the Yolngu people of Yirrkala were the first traditional documents recognised by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Mr Yunupingu chairs the Yothu Yindi Foundation (YYF), a not-for-profit organisation that promotes cultural development to ensure Yolngu people direct and drive their own futures.

Set up in 1990, a sizable part of the foundation’s work is to provide educational outcomes for its youth. The vision of its founding Elders was to put education and culture at the heart of its work.

With the Garma Institute and Dhupuma Foundational Learning Project, the Yothu Yindi Foundation aims to support and develop individuals and communities through schools and higher education.

The Garma Festival is another core part of the Yothu Yindi Foundation’s work. As it celebrates 20 years, the annual festival will honour hope and honesty.

YYF CEO Denise Bowden says the telling of the truth is a vital ingredient to paving the way forward, “whether by ensuring Australia’s past is told honestly, or that the realities of Australian politics are fully understood, or the struggle of people's lives explained in full”.

“These conversations can be confronting to hear and challenging to conduct, but we will continue to search for answers to the difficult questions we face,” she says. 

This year's Garma theme is a continuation of last year’s focus on Makaratta - a Yolngu word that encompasses various deep meanings, including 'the settling of differences between two parties' and a 'coming together'. The concept of Makaratta has also been associated with Treaty.  

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten were both present at last year’s Garma Festival, which followed the historical gathering of around 250 First Nations people at Uluru in May last year to discuss pathways for constitutional recognition.  

The overwhelming message was the rejection of symbolic recognition in the Constitution, and instead proposed meaningful constitutional reform that would make a real difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians. 

Calls for a Makarrata and a truth and justice commission were also made to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations, as well as facilitate truth-telling about our difficult past. 

Three months later, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was again presented to both leaders at last year’s Garma Festival.

Month later, Mr Turnbull formally rejected the proposal for a constitutionally-enshrined voice to parliament, claiming it would be effectively be a 'third chamber of parliament'. 

A new Joint Select Parliamentary Committee was appointed to listen to First Nations peoples, and the broader community, about ideas on how to move forward on constitutional reform. 

'Overwhelming' support for Indigenous voice to parliament
The Joint Select Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Recognition has presented its interim report to the Parliament with a large majority of submissions supporting an Indigenous Voice to Parliament

The joint committee's interim report revealed there is ‘overwhelming’ support for an Indigenous voice to parliament.

The committee is continuing its listening tour of the country, and it's due to hand down a final report in November.

Watch: “Do not ask us if you don’t want to hear what we have to say!”

Truth-Telling: This year's Garma theme

Each year the Garma Festival honours a carefully selected theme of great significance to the community. This year, Galarrwuy Yunupingu hopes Australians “think about that [truth-telling] and what it is you have taken from us,” he says. 

“Think about the truth of the relationship between my people and the rest of the nation – it’s not very nice in truth."

Denise Bowden says the theme of truth-telling will renew efforts to find solutions to the most difficult questions.

“Sometimes our discussions are challenging to hear and challenging to conduct, but we must all forge our conversations together, being accountable if we’re truly fair dinkum in making Australia a country in its best & brightest form.”

The bunggul and the key forum are the highlights of the three-day festival.

The forum is where matters of national importance to First Australians are usually discussed. This year, like for the past two decades, thousands of business and political leaders, academics and journalists are expected to attend.

Some of our country’s biggest political issues like constitutional recognition and treaty will take centre stage, intertwined with matters directly facing communities including health, education and employment. 

Despite the disappointments, Galarrwuy Yunupingu hopes the past is honoured so the nation can remember, and move forward.

“That is the past and I choose to look to the future so think for me about what must be done to make it a meaningful relationship and to make it right, remembering all that you have taken from us.” 

The Garma Festival will be held Friday 3 August – Monday 6 August.