A festival like no other in remote Arnhem Land. Words by Kate Hennessy

By Kate Hennessy, 9/9/2015
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EVERY August since 1998, people have come from Australia and overseas to experience Yothu Yindi Foundation’s Garma Festival. Held in a remote coastal corner of Arnhem Land, rich with land and sea rights history, there is fiery debate by day, traditional dance in the afternoon and music by night. One of those performances is the bunggul – and on Garma’s final day it seems like it will go forever.

I’ve slipped forward to sit in the powdery red dust that is sprayed out by the dancers’ heels. Each of the Yolŋu nation’s clans dances in a different colour: red fabric for Dhalwangu, blue for Mangalili, yellow for Gumatj, and so on. And now, a group of women advancing with water-bird grace, slapping their shoulders with gum leaves, wearing rainbow-coloured fabric to signify – I don’t know. I could ask but I’ve learnt it’s good to stay silent too; to just watch. To not know everything or expect I should. I close my eyes to let the drone of bulmi (clap sticks), yidaki (didgeridoo) and voice take me on its unbroken line to an older time.

Members of the Rirratjingu (Rirratjingu) clan performing ceremonial bunggul (dances) at the 17th annual Garma in northeast Arnhem Land. (Photo: Peter Eve / Yothu Yindi Foundation)

People Of The Fire

“At the core of our indigenous sovereignty is the bones and dust of our ancestors. That’s what we share with white conservative philosophy – respect for our dead. But on this continent our dead ancestors out number yours by incomprehensible millennia.” Noel Pearson, Garma 2015

THE Gove Peninsula in northeast Arnhem Land is Yolŋu land. Birthplace of land rights, sea rights, bark petitions and a trailblazing dynasty of leaders and musicians: the Yunupingu family of the Gumatj clan. When I say blaze – they did, and do.

“We are setting fires to our own lives … and the flame will burn and intensify,” wrote clan leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu in The Monthly magazine. “An immense smoke, cloud-like and black, will arise, which will send off a signal and remind people that we, the Gumatj people, are people of the fire.” Galarrwuy’s brother, Mandawuy, was Yothu Yindi’s front man; Gurrumul is their nephew.

Our charter flight from Darwin to Nhulunbuy lands at night. “It’s so dark,” says a former flight attendant, seeking the runway even as we thud onto it. The plane is full of Garma attendees. Nhulunbuy is a 12-hour drive along Central Arnhem Road from Katherine, passing through traditionally owned homelands with permits to travel given – or withheld – by the Northern Land Council. It is rare, but possible, that sorry business (funeral ceremonies) could close the road. Flying is a more realistic option.

The Gumatj are the traditional owners of Gulkula, the Garma site. Gulkula’s escarpment overlooks the forest and sea; endlessly gaze-able. On the Queensland side of the Gulf is Australia’s northernmost tip, Cape York.  I drew these jagged coastlines through tracing paper as a kid; committed them to muscle memory. I loved their names. The Gulf of Carpentaria. The Arafura Sea. Galiwinku. Alone on the dark escarpment edge, I marvel at how much land lies at my back.

The closest hub is the ex-mission town of Yirrkala, “basically an island with a mine around it,” says our driver and cultural advisor Colin Lane over breakfast. Most of the Gumatj, he continues, live at Ski Beach “next to a whacking great industrial plant”.

Colin, a former National Parks ranger, was travelling from Perth to Darwin in 1985 when he happened on a corroboree. “I asked if I could take a photo and they got mad. Then they busted up laughing. The humour, that’s what hooked me in.”

Alone on the dark escarpment edge, I marvel at how much land lies at my back.

He tells me about the little balls. They look like those left on a beach by sand bubbler crabs – only they’re red, and underfoot everywhere. “It’s bauxite. Used to make aluminium.” To mine bauxite, you fell the trees then strip and stash the nutrient-rich topsoil. You remove the bauxite – found only in the top few metres  – return the topsoil and plant new trees. The land lies lower and flatter than before, sure, but compared to the open cut uranium mine down Kakadu way, it’s pretty non-invasive. It’s just dirt.

But what if your identity is defined by the dirt you and your ancestors come from? Dirt that nourishes calendar plants that tell you when to fish, hunt or harvest; dirt that is home to totem animals you are spiritually tasked to protect? The Yolŋu fought to stop bauxite mining here in the 1960s. “They didn’t want the mine or the development that came with it, the town, the alcohol, all that,” says Colin.

They lost. Nabalco began mining in 1963 and continued after Rirratjingu man Dadayna ‘Roy’ Marika spearheaded Australia’s first native title case in 1971, in which Justice Richard Blackburn determined native title wasn’t legal. Had those rights once existed, Blackburn held, they had been extinguished. The case is immortalised in the 1984 Werner Herzog film, Where The Green Ants Dream.

In 2011 Rio Tinto (previously Alcan, previously Nabalco) inked a 42-year lease to continue mining, and formally acknowledged the Yolŋu as traditional owners for the first time. And this year, at Garma, Rio Tinto formalises its financial support for a small bauxite mine to be operated by the Gumatj people. “Our vision is to build a sustainable Indigenous-owned business that will reap long-term economic benefits for Yolngu people,” says Gumatj Corporation’s Djawa Yunupingu (Galarrwuy’s brother).

The wounds may not heal for elders, however. The chairman of Lirrwi Tourism, Timmy Burruwanga, says: “Our old people worry about old times – mining.”

Red flag dancers from Numbulwarr (Numbulwarr) kicking up the dust as they perform ceremonial bunggul (bunggul) dances at the 17th annual Garma in northeast Arnhem Land. (Photo: Melanie Dove/Yothu Yindi Foundation)

People Of Garma

“Go and ask all those people who march on Anzac Day if symbolism is important.” – Mick Gooda, Garma, 2015

GARMA is a camping festival. There is no upgrade for VIPs, bar bumping down a dirt road to the highway to arrive 30 minutes later in the curiously sterile mining town of Nhulunbuy. CEOs, Yolŋu, high-schoolers, doctors, anthropologists, public servants, dignitaries, politicians, arts administrators and PhD candidates all sleep in identical silver and blue tents that bulge from beneath the trees like gargantuan fungi.

Meals are served in a mess hall with escarpment views and connections are made when people squeeze in wherever is free. You might eat next to a teen from Indigenous Youth Leadership, admire the wizardly beard of Indigenous leader Patrick Dodson up close, or marvel at how Neil Murray from Warumpi Band looks casually rock’n’roll even when he’s eating Weetbix. Conversation is always good – colloquialisms, even better. I’m sitting with the co-ordinator of Garma’s youth forum, Madge Fletcher, when the hip-hop facilitator approaches to ask about a screen. “It’s been packed up,” says Madge. “OK, I’ve got pegs and a sheet,” he shrugs. “Great,” she replies. “Bush way.”

By day, Garma is a busy – and business-y – conference where people can hear at respectful length from leaders and luminaries such as Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson, Mayatili Marika and Mick Gooda on topics including constitutional recognition, kidney disease, Indigenous empowerment and family violence. For three days, issues are hammered out in Garma’s Key Forum – also with an escarpment view, which helps when topics trigger emotional responses. Last year Tony Abbott swung by. This year the #auspol contingent is Senator Nova Perris, NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion and Member for Lingiari Warren Snowden.

There are the Garma guests who don’t want to go at all – craving a deeper connection.

For some, Garma is an annual pilgrimage. A young women working at the cafe says: “I come every year – it’s my sabbatical.” The cafe’s perpetual queue portraits Garma’s primary demographic: city folk who’ll shower in thongs and toss and turn in tents but will draw the line at choking back a Nescafe come morning.

Delegations from some of the Big 4 banks and other large businesses are here too: senior executives and managers of diversity, inclusion and Indigenous careers. Many return reeling with insight. “It was a revelation,” one exec says.  Snippets like “you start from human rights and work backwards from there” are frequently overheard and coupled with t-shirts printed with statements like “providing opportunities, building futures, funding dreams” you’d be forgiven for thinking no-one around here is jaded. You’d be wrong.

Talk to a few long-termers and you’ll hear about the difficult reality of implementing three-year cycles of government policy. “Don’t touch Aboriginal affairs for 10 to 15 years,” Senator Perris says at Garma. “Leave it alone and let Aboriginal people make decisions for themselves.” An Indigenous Affairs public servant, originally of Sydney, tells me that after decades here she feels stuck, not belonging down south anymore but not here either. “There are days I crave a return to a culturally-synced cosmos,” she says. “I understand what burn-out is now and how dangerous it is.” People come and go fast in the Top End. Mark Grose of Skinnyfish Music (label of Gurrumul) told me last year: “The pattern up here is 18 months gone, 18 months gone. Even in Darwin, the turnover is phenomenal.”

But then, there are the Garma guests who don’t want to leave at all – craving a deeper connection. “After the festival, people go back to their homelands,” Colin says when I ask what happens next. “They politely tell [whitefellas] they can’t come too.”

To some degree, I understand the impulse. From Galarrwuy again, this: “My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means the area on the horizon that merges with the sky.” My mum called me Kate because it went well with Hennessy. It’s not jealousy I feel, exactly, when I read about Galarrwuy’s naming but it’s not far off either. It’s the same emotion – yearning? awe? – that settled over the audience at Gurrumul’s Sydney Opera House show last year when, in sparkling footage from his Elcho Island home, his auntie explained Gurrumul was special because he was born “covered with rainbow”.

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Members of the Rirratjingu (Rirratjingu) clan performing ceremonial bunggul (bunggul) dances at the 17th annual Garma in northeast Arnhem Land. (Photo: Peter Eve/Yothu Yindi Foundation)

“They’re Going To Cry”

“We learn at a young age about country, trees, bush medicine. A little we can give to balanda.” – Valerie Milminyina Dhamarrandji

WE’RE told on the path to the open-air Gapan Gallery to switch off our torches. I sit beneath a tree as people gather – murmuring, quietening. The clearing is silver-bright under the full moon and for 20 minutes we wait in silence. When did you last sit with strangers in the bush, no one speaking? Darkness glides over us as the moon is obscured, then the cloud passes and it brightens again. The sequence repeats, transfixing us to the utterance of the physical world – a break from all the headwork of Garma. There is little point holding this event on country unless we are still and quiet within it, at least once.

Finally, Djalinda Yunupingu stands; slim arms and white hair. “These are my aunties and they’re going to cry.” She talks about a spider, the sun, a giant and the morning star and then women begin to ululate, their voices entwining in ropey, mournful harmony. When they stop, spotlights snap on to reveals prints, inspired by bark painting designs, framed and hung on the tree trunks. We blink up, awed, until Djalinda breaks the nathi (crying ceremony) spell. “That’s it. You can stand up now.” Gapan Gallery is officially open.

Many of these women are growing skilled at showing tourists their culture. At the women’s healing centre near Garma, two babies are blessed in smoking ceremonies, and their mothers too, standing over the smoke, sans underwear, to cleanse and promote milk production.

Five years ago, a bright new venture called Lirrwi Tourism launched to connect tourists to aboriginal people in Arnhem Land and create a new economy for the Yolŋu. During the seven-day dilly bag tour – for women only – hosts share their knowledge of the bush, their ancestors, the sky and the universe. Just the little things, then.

Set among the stringybark trees of the ceremonial grounds at Gulkula in northeast Arnhem Land, the Gapan Gallery at Garma showcases works from local artists. (Photo: Melanie Dove/Yothu Yindi Foundation)

Dancing The Stories

“Westerners need to sort and categorise everything in order to make sense of the World.” – Richard Bell, artist

EACH afternoon, the bunggul begins. And each afternoon, it is exciting. The men’s manikay (traditional vocals) have extraordinary carrying power. When napping one afternoon, my camp buddy is convinced the bunggul was happening outside his tent. Another theorises its carrying power is custom-fit to Australia’s size. “It had to be heard across long distances, you know?” A field recorder tells me its volume is due to the “focused intensity of frequencies within the head of the singer” and how it is projected.

At the first bunggul, MC Witiyana Marika (also of Yothu Yindi) coaxes visitors to dance but few do. Three nights on, a swarm of white ladies need no encouragement. They move their hips a lot and get caught out when the music stops but it is good spectator sport to watch them try, laugh and get better.

The coming-together I witness at Garma is swift and unequivocal.

The aboriginal ladies – in long, swaying colourful skirts – dance as though in a temporary trance; not acknowledging the eyes on them, never missing a beat. Unsteady toddlers dance too and old people – it’s all in. When the songs end, the dancers disband, only to reform a few seconds later. It seems episodic and casual but every body marking, move and word has meaning. There are senior men and women watching and, under their eye, the ceremony is done to perfection.

One afternoon, something different happens at the bunggul grounds. To the sounds of Yothu Yindi song, ‘Tribal Voice’, a dozen dignitaries from the University of Melbourne, in caps, gowns and capes, walk in slow single file to the stage. Galarrwuy Yunupingu is with them, also in an academic robe, and is awarded an honorary doctor of laws, the university’s highest honour. It’s a wonderful moment to witness.

During Garma, the Adam Goodes affair reaches its zenith, its topicality derailing conversations on other subjects. The festival’s opening bunggul is dedicated to him with dancers young and old painting 37s on their backs. While Indigenous Australia is full of diverse opinions, it unites when one of its own is unfairly maligned.  The coming-together I witness at Garma is swift and unequivocal, bringing to mind Gurrumul’s song ‘I Was Born Blind’. “United we stand, divided we fall/Together we’ll stand, in solidarity”.

Members of the Gumatj (Gumatj) clan added a red V and the no.37 to their traditional paint in a show of support for Adam Goodes. (Photo: Melanie Dove / Yothu Yindi Foundation)

Cut ‘Em Down, Burn ‘Em Up

“Recognition is a mirror. It is about recognising the whitefellas as much about recognising blackfellas.” – Noel Pearson, Garma 2015

I’M hot on the tail of David Nipari, a Laynhapuy Indigenous Protected Area ranger. Others are in pursuit too, hustling in single file along a bush track through the pandanus and Stringybark forest we’ve been gazing over for days. It’s humid and the path is swampy but the vibe is keen as mustard. We are here for knowledge. Hungry for it.

David stops to show us a tree he’d use for a spear. “Look at the shape, it is straight and nice.” More detail David! A volley of questions is fired – he waits. “Spear plants, that size. Cut ‘em down, make fire, burn ‘em up, take skin off, put ‘em in the sun for a while to dry.”

Next is a white fruit he says is good to eat.

“What is it called?”
“When do they season?”
“Do you eat the whole fruit?”
“How many years until you could tell one tree from another?”

David shows us the bark used for paintings and a medicinal plant you rub on bites. In the wet, this land is home to saltwater crocs, so he qualifies. “Like, small things, itchy things.” Still, there are questions. We crave every crumb, every drop. Or maybe, more charitably, it’s how we express our interest in a culture we don’t know much about.

On the oval’s far reaches, local women teach white women how to make dilly bags from dried and dyed pandanus leaves. The lessons are demonstrative and reward observation in favour of interrogation. Which makes sense when you figure English may be these ladies’ third most-spoken language. Questions seem lazy, in any case, like an attempt to ingest too quickly something better learnt the slow way, replete with context.

Though I might be wrong. “How do you feel about us all coming here and asking questions?” I ask Milminyina Dhamarrandji. She is quick to answer.Very special, very privileged that you come here to learn our culture and be exposed to what Yolnu will give to you. It’s the traditional way here. I hear in other states they go back to school to learn their language.”

Language is key, not only in preserving Indigenous culture with all its complexity and nuance, but in hoping to better connect. No faces light up when I ask questions in English the way they do when Colin asks some kids in ‘baby Gumatj’ language: “Where are you from?” They swarm around, faces splitting into smiles. “Maningrida mob,” he reports back.

A Rirratjingu (Rirratjingu) girl is painted in her clan’s traditional colours as she prepares for ceremonial bunggul (bunggul) dances at the 17th annual Garma in northeast Arnhem Land. (Photo: Melanie Dove/Yothu Yindi Foundation)

THE constitutional recognition panel is on Garma’s last day. Moments before it begins, news arrives that the government has refused to support a series of consultations proposed by Noel Pearson and Patrick Dodson to allow Indigenous people to arrive at consensus. “I’m reeling from this,” Noel admits.

Later, at the cafe, I ask National Indigenous TV reporter Natalie Ahmat if she thinks Garma’s overall positivity will be soured by the bad news. She smiles and shrugs. “It’s pretty common in Aboriginal affairs that something negative happens and there’s no way to spin that. But we have a really resilient spirit.” The cafe is packing up, sweeping out days of coffee grounds to Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’. Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.

As we drive out, kids are scooping up balls of bauxite, rolling them into hollow tent poles, and blowing them out the other end. Resilient spirits, and really good shots.

(Lead image: Red flag dancers from Numbulwarr [Numbulwarr] performing ceremonial bunggul [bunggul] dances at the 17th annual Garma in northeast Arnhem Land. Photo:Peter Eve/Yothu Yindi Foundation)

Kate Hennessy visited Arnhem Land as a guest of Garma Festival and Qantas. Click here for more information on Garma Festival.