Michael Yunupingu (left) sits with other dancers at the Garma 2019 opening ceremony. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
A showcase of more than 50,000 years of Yolngu culture, the Garma Festival — now in its 21st year — also aims to address contentious political and social issues affecting Indigenous Australians.
Overseen by the Yothu Yindi Foundation the four-day event has begun, once again attracting political, business and industry leaders to Gulkula, a sacred Yolngu site in north-east Arnhem Land.
Perched upon an escarpment of stringybark trees known as gadayka in Dhuwa moiety, the Gulkula site possesses stunning views across the Gulf of Carpentaria.
“My people picked this land for Garma because it’s very significant to us and also because of the story of Ganbulabula,” said senior Yunupingu family member Balapulu Yunupingu.
Gulkula is deeply connected to the actions of the Yolngu ancestor Ganbulabula and his famed search for honey and bees.
“Ganbulabula is a very important man. He roamed all over. He named all the places around here. He named the trees and all the animals and that’s why the trees and animals are so important to us.”
Senior Yunupingu family member Balapulu Yunupingu is a key host at Garma 2019. (ABC News: Davis Heyne)
Ganbulabula is also responsible for bringing the Yidaki (Didjeridu) into being among the Gumatj people.
This sacred knowledge is manifested in various designs and motifs painted on the body’s of Yolngu men and women during ceremony, carefully showcasing and preserving it for future generations.
As usual, Garma opened in spectacular style with the Yolngu performing a traditional welcome, known as bunggul.
The bunngul occurs once the Yolngu songmen summon everyone to the ceremonial grounds for an event which connects the Yolngu to not only their land, but also each other.
Each bunggul is distinctive among each Yolngu clan group.
“When we are performing, the dance and the song is from this area. Every other clan that performs here has their own way of dancing and singing,” Mr Yunupingu said.
The Top End’s iconic red dirt provided a stunning contrast, as the ancient sound of the yidaki (didjeridoo), rhythm of the bilma (clapsticks), and voices of the Yolngu songmen echoed throughout.
In a subtle nod to this year’s theme ‘Pathways To Our Future’, young and old took part in a multigenerational showpiece of dance, music and song.
“The dance is very important for Yolngu kids. When I was about 10 years old I started to learn dancing, just looking at the older people and seeing how they react, and picking up their actions,” Mr Yunupingu said.
It was a chance to hear the unfiltered voice of Indigenous Australia.
A time for meeting
Across the weekend, politicians are expected to meet with the country’s most influential Indigenous leaders and Yolngu community members.
Addressing crippling social issues and discussing innovative ways to improve economic opportunity for the Yolngu and broader Indigenous community will be high on the agenda.
The forums are also expected to consider the impact of constitutional reform and reflect on the progress of treaty negotiations on both a state and national level.
At Garma, Uluru Statement custodian Thomas Mayor said the rejection of the proposal in 2017 came as a slap in the face.
“It was something that was expected though,” Mr Mayor said.
“We wrote the Uluru Statement to the Australian people so it wasn’t for the Prime Minister to say ‘no’, it was for the Australian people to get behind.”
Uluru Statement custodian Thomas Mayor said it was about the Australian people getting behind the call for a First Nations voice. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
This year’s NAIDOC Week theme ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’, and increased speculation on the makeup of the referendum proposal put forward by Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, has thrust the Uluru proposal back into the spotlight once more.
Mr Mayor said he was optimistic about advancement in Indigenous affairs now that Mr Wyatt has been appointed to the portfolio.
“I think it’s already had an impact, but I think it comes down to how far the party allows him to take this,” he said.
“But this is more about the Australian people getting behind the call for a First Nations voice and giving Minister Wyatt and Linda Burney the space they need.”
Labor have been urging the Government to declare their position on constitutional change, particularly the prospect of a constitutionally-enshrined Indigenous Advisory Body — a proposal which has caused angst among conservative MPs.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has done his best to downplay any suggestion of his support for such reform, but with bipartisan support from the Labor Party pressure is mounting.
At Garma, Western Australian Senator Patrick Dodson urged the Government not to downplay the difficulties they could face in achieving constitutional reform.
“‘Referendum’ is going around as if it’s easy to achieve,” he said.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies CEO Craig Ritchie said he felt as though the current political climate was favourable towards advancement in Indigenous affairs.
“You can feel something at this event. The moment now is different. We’ve got a new cohort of young Indigenous leaders we are spurring as one, so that gives us great cause for hope,” Mr Ritchie said.
“I hope we go away from here with a great sense of optimism.”
It is the first time Mr Wyatt and his Labor counterpart Ms Burney have attended Garma in their new roles.
Discussions are set to escalate over the weekend, with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese also expected to attend.