The first thing that sticks out about Garma are the tents. Rows and rows of them set up in designated areas: artists, volunteers, cultural tourists, paying attendees, academics, forum participants – all the way across the other side of the bungal ground to the Yolgnu camp. It’s a mini-city that exists for five days all set in the middle of a stringybark forest, which as you could guess makes for an interesting festival.

The theme of this years festival, the twelfth, was Indigenous Education and Training. The festival began with an open day for Yirrkala community, which included a visit to the school and art centre. Owing to transport problems I missed the school visit but did get to attend the art centre – an amazing building complete with perhaps the most comprehensive multimedia facility I have seen in a community. We’re talking 9 or 10 Macs complete with editing facilities. The centre also has its own cinema where films of past Garmas, ceremonies, footy matches, bark painting and pandanus weaving can be viewed.

These facilities are part of the Mulka project that runs out of the art centre. A project that aims, in the words of Dr Marika, the inaugural director, ‘to bring knowledge of the past into the present, to preserve it for future generations and to understand what meaning it has in the present day and age.’ At this year’s festival, like previous festivals, the Mulka project filmed each of the bungal to produce videos that can then be bought at the art centre. The project has archival footage of ceremonies from 1945 to the present.

After Yirrkala, it was time to head back to the official bungal, where dancers from Yirrkala, Mutujula, Elcho Island and Kununara (among others) performed ceremonial dances on the white sand of the bungal ground, moved to the rhythms of the yidaki and clapstick, twisted and turned their bodies to the music and the applause of the crowd. The night ended with some music from Warren H Williams and other acoustic acts.

Saturday was the official day for forums. The morning began with the revelation that Galarawuy Yungupingu wanted to revive Dhumpa College, a school that existed on the site back in the 1970s. It would be set up as a boarding school called the Garma Institute, which would teach both ways. Together with the architect who is currently designing the building Galarawuy told us how this would mean Gukala could be a boarding school for academics and teachers from around the country to visit.

Saturday also saw Noel Pearson talk for the only time at the festival in spite of being advertised at numerous events. To witness him speak was to witness a formidable intellect, but one with some worrying ideas. Like when he told the audience: ‘you have to win conservative people like John Howard onside, that way you will have 95% of the people to the left of him.’ As much as this may be true, it seems a little defeatist to succumb to the conservatism of this country, that instead of attempting to push for more progressive changes you bring your ideas down to a conservative level and live to accept and expect less.

Saturday also saw forums about sustainable approaches to housing. The Jack Thompson foundation spoke about the timber project they had been doing in NE Arnhem and showed off some of the beautiful outdoor table and chairs they had created. Later they showed a movie about the making of a house. (Later I learned that they are looking at building rammed earth housing in Central Australia next year.)

Sunday saw the forums pick up pace with a particularly interesting forum on Garma maths: western maths taught in Yolgnu. The idea is to ensure that Yolgnu have a thorough understanding of their culture for the conceptual knowledge and that this Yolgnu knowledge ensures a good basis to develop and understand western mathematical concepts. Two examples of this were given:

1) knowing the best places to hunt shows an understanding of percentage and chance
2) knowing your skin relations and where you can sit in regards to this shows an understanding of order, place and distance between – which is what numbers are all about

The day also included a bit of political wrangling with Jenny Macklin announcing Labour Indigenous Election Policy. (Many in the main forum felt it was a bit of a waste of time, particularly given she didn’t even allow for questions. She simply turned up, announced a whole list of facts and figures and ideology that deserve to be challenged, then got back in her hire vehicle to catch a flight to Darwin.)

Monday was the last day of the forums, the highlight being a forum on cultural heritage in digital recordings. The head of the National Film and Sound Library and an academic from the University of Melbourne talked about concepts of digital repatriation: the idea that digital material can be returned back to traditional owners. As they pointed out, it’s an oxymoron as the beauty of digital means that multiple copies can be made. So what does this mean for the cultural integrity of sacred knowledge if it’s recorded on digital formats and the master is still owned?

As you may imagine, this spun out into a conversation over copyright ownership, the difficulties under Western law of copyright being owned by whom, and how the lapse can create difficulties where institutions are involved. As well as ways in which cultural knowledge can be enshrined and protected in law, the accessibility to this knowledge, and how to preserve digital CDs from damage were also discussed. It was certainly a forum that opened my mind to a topic that needs a lot more exploring.

The day ended with the closing bungal, by far the best bungal of all. Having seen the others, people were jumping up from the crowd to join in the dances of other clans. The Kununnura dancers were joined by songmen and dancers from Yolgnu clans. The crowd cheered loudly as each dancer arose from the crowd and joined in. All up the dancing lasted an extra hour, well after the sun had set.

It was then time for the screening of Our Generation, a film that looks at closely the impact of the Federal NT Intervention. A film that is definitely worth seeing because it reveals the feelings of resentment and frustration that many Yolgnu feel over the Intervention, a frustration that many Aboriginal people across the Territory feel. Distrust, hurt, anger, confusion are but a few of the emotions that the film portrays.

After the screening, the floor was opened for a discussion, beginning with some of the Yolgnu people featured in the film. The 300 people in attendance heard about the difficult emotions this film brings up, the frustration, the desire that people who saw the film were motivated alongside Yolgnu to see an end to the Intervention. As the evening progressed the conversation became a session for people to brainstorm about what they could do to help, to learn more about what they didn’t know. Forming groups around the country was suggested, among a host of other ideas.

Out of all the forum discussions, this was the most interesting and provoking with many people commenting about the film and the session the following day. As one person remarked: ‘if the film had have been shown at the start it would have been a different festival.’ An observation that was spot on and showed that for all the academic talk and cultural exchange that goes on, part of the reason that many people attend Garma is to get an understanding of the day-to-day life of Aboriginal people living in remote areas. And that means the Northern Territory talking about the Intervention.

A slightly shorter version of this appeared in Waiquarterly winter-spring 2010, which can be found at Black Kite Press.

Scott Foyster

Scott Foyster lives in Mpartnwe/Alice Springs where he writes and collects stories to share. He is one of the editors of Wai, an independent quarterly national newspaper on social jusice and environmental issues around the country/region, and is also one half of Black Kite Press, an independent press that is currently working on it's first publication.

More by Scott Foyster ›

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  1. If only we could get the rest of Australia talking about the Intervention. Thanks, Scott, for the insight into what’s going on in north east Arnhem Land.

  2. there’s little pockets out there but they are few and far between. bob gosfords blog the northern myth on crikey, amongst the birds and cycling, has some good reports on in depth info about issues around central australia.

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