The Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, Laura Quinkan Dance Festival and Winds of Zenadth… these grassroots festivals celebrate the traditions, storytelling, song and dance of First Nations and indigenous communities, the longest living culture in Australia. We talk to some of the people behind the festivals and how visitors can take part in the experience.
The flight to Nhulunbuy, the unofficial capital of Arnhem Land, takes off from and touches down on the Australian mainland. After the perfunctory buckle-up and close-your-tray-table spiel, the flight attendant officially acknowledges the traditional owners of Arnhem Land: The Yolngu Nation.
Arnhem Land is a pristine swathe of Aboriginal-owned land in northeast Northern Territory, bracketed by Kakadu National Park to the west and the Arafura Sea to the north. Sprinkled among its escarpments, monsoon forests and white-sand beaches are outstations—micro-communities where the various Yolngu clans strive to live in harmony with their environment, more or less as their ancestors have for over 50,000 years.
Arnhem Land is just one of around 500 geographically-defined Indigenous nations of Australia, many of which early colonizers tried their best to wipe from existence—sometimes ‘successfully’. But the Yolngu fought tirelessly for land rights, fishing rights and, most importantly, their human rights. Fittingly, Arnhem Land is home to one of Australia’s most important and powerful festivals: Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures.
Yet Garma is just the most high-profile example of buoyant nations celebrating their culture. The smaller-in-scale but no less intense Laura Quinkan Dance Festival and Winds of Zenadth Cultural Festival also fly under the travel radars of most non-Indigenous Australians, who usually spend their time and money in the countrysides of Europe and Southeast Asia.
What are the festivals all about?
At their core, these are grassroot celebrations of intensely local culture; indigenous festivals for indigenous communities, each one with its own language(s), art, aesthetic and stories.
Garma began as a ‘backyard barbecue’ in 1999 for the region’s 13 clans (incorporating 25 languages), showcasing the Yolngu’s miny’tji (art), ancient story-telling, manikay (song) and bunggul (dance). The annual, four-day event now draws a cross-section of greater Australia, from school groups to political and corporate power-brokers.
“Garma is the place where the freshwater and the saltwater meet, intermingle and flow on,” says Denise Bowden, festival director, CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation and a descendent of the Tagalak people herself. “It’s very much a meeting ground, a melting pot of different people and activities. A celebration of Yolngu culture and the philosophical thinking behind it.”
Laura Dance Festival takes place on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, 300 kilometres northwest of Cairns (on Australia’s pointy top-end). Every two years, 20 tiny Cape communities traverse rutted red-dirt roads bound for Laura, a key (80-strong) settlement on the Ang-Gnarra people’s traditional lands. You can hear conversations spoken in 30 different Indigenous languages at the festival.
“It’s all about our connection to ‘country’,” says Laura’s deputy director, Gene Ross. “Laura is like a gateway to The Cape. We don’t always see each other through the year so the different mobs and clan groups come down. It’s how we stay connected.”
The dance festival officially began in the 1980s, a natural progression of what came long before it.
“The whole experience is mind-blowing for some people: The escarpment, the paintings and just meeting people of Aboriginal Australia.”
Gene Ross, Laura Dance Festival
“Basically, we’re doing what the old people [ancestors] have done before us,” says Gene, an Olkola man (his tribal group), whose connection to Quinkan Country runs deep on his mother’s side.
“The dances you see are our Dreaming stories, passed down from generation to generation,” he says. “Stories about hunting with spears and boomerangs, catching kangaroos, even fishing. The storylines also go throughout the country [following ‘songlines’], where people walked and traded with others. It’s about keeping our culture alive and strong.”
The realities: Getting there, roughing it, culture shock
For those outside the tiny host communities, these festivals can seem impossibly remote. Biennial Winds of Zenadth takes place on Thursday Island—drawing in communities from across the Torres Strait— closer to Papua New Guinea than any Australian city. However, each festival is within reasonable transfer distance from a regional airport: Garma (Nhulunbuy), Laura (Cairns), Winds of Zenadth (Horn Island).
Welcomes are universally warm, but it’s important that visitors embrace that they are traveling to places without mass-tourism facilities. At Garma, even the VIPs must sleep on camp stretchers inside tents and queue for showers. “We get lots of calls beforehand from people panicked about Garma’s remoteness,” says Denise. “They think that they’re going to die when they drive away from Darwin [she laughs].”
Once on country, the differences compared with mainstream Australia “blow people away”.
“English is a definitely a second language here,” says Denise. “People don’t understand what it’s like to live in a community with people speaking Yolngu Matha. Also, I don’t know how to say this gently, but some people are very nervous, because many haven’t met dark-skinned Aboriginal people. They’re a little bit star-struck initially.”
The Laura site is the definition of wild Austral landscape: An imposing escarpment, huge tracts of dense eucalyptus woodland, ribboned by the crocodile-harboring Laura River. Nearby, sacred caves replete with Quinkan spirit figures make Laura one of Australia’s most prolific rock-art sites.
“The whole experience is mind-blowing for some people: The escarpment, the paintings and just meeting people of Aboriginal Australia,” says Gene. “Laura was a place where people came together for dancing. An old fella would sit on the side and pick out the best person for you [arrange marriages].”
“Massacres and warfare in our history are always a sensitive subject but you can kind-of deal with it in a respectful way at Garma… I feel a lot of the work we do is very much reconciling our nation—that’s quite a burden.”
Denise Bowden, Garma Festival
While some sacred elements of these complex cultures are shared generously, others are strictly off-limits. For example, female visitors to Garma are invited to take part in an intimate ceremony at the women’s healing place. However, if you hear the phrases ‘secret men’s business’ or ‘secret women’s business’, take the hint and don’t ask.
Safe spaces for tough discussions
The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is appallingly wide in just about every metric, from infant mortality to incarceration rates. These inequities are woven into Garma’s narrative in an effort to understand issues and reimagine a better future.
“Massacres and warfare in our history are always a sensitive subject but you can kind-of deal with it in a respectful way at Garma,” says Denise. “We all don’t have to agree, but some of these matters have to be discussed. This is a respected environment to have that conversation. I feel a lot of the work we do is very much reconciling our nation—that’s quite a burden.”
Denise has witnessed many an epiphany from non-Indigenous visitors (known as balanda in Yolngu Matha) at Garma. But the path to epiphany can be, she says, “a roller-coaster ride” of culture shock.
“I see in some people’s eye that I need to watch them,” she says. “I know that they’re going to need a bit of attention.” Denise remembers when she had “to counsel” actor Simon Baker, who seemed frantic during his first Garma visit.
“Simon said to me, ‘My God, how do I not know that this is how you live and that this is the way things are. I’m your average Aussie bloke and I had no idea’. I said: ‘Look, don’t go mad about it. You know now. Good on you for understanding and wanting to’.”
Buoyed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a call for a greater First Nations voice and Indigenous recognition within Australia’s Constitution, and the Black Lives Matter movement, this year’s Garma, Laura and Winds of Zenadth are more relevant than ever. (All were cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19).
And these festivals are not just spectacles to behold in their own right, but also distillations of tens of thousands of years of wisdom. And surely the oldest continuous cultures on earth can offer solutions to questions that the Western world is only seriously beginning to ask, especially in relation to our connection—or lack thereof—to the natural world.
It all starts with a simple, heartfelt invitation for Australians to come together. “Come up and experience the longest living culture in Australia,” says Gene Ross. “It’s the best way we have to share our culture.”