Garma Festival Tests Everything You Know About Yourself And Australia

Garma Festival Tests Everything You Know About Yourself And Australia

For the Yolngu people, Garma has been occurring in culture for over 50,000 years. Now in its 21st year, the four-day gathering in north-east Arnhem Land is the premier event for celebrating Indigenous Australia and discussing our country’s most pressing issues. Izzy and Olivia reflect on their Garma Festival experience and what’s been changed in their hearts and minds as non-Indigenous and Indigenous young people respectively.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following content may contain names, images or references to deceased persons.


Izzy Grutzner’s reflection

Garma Festival is a convergence of contrasting ideas and people organised by the Yothu Yindi Foundation. Yothu Yindi means ‘mother and child’ in Yolngu Matha, the local language of north-east Arnhem Land. Mother and child symbolises balance, and there is no better way for me to reflect on my Garma experience than through the lens of balance.

Firstly, the balance between politics and culture. Each day I would split my time between the key forums and the bunggul grounds. The forums were a chance to hear from Indigenous leaders, politicians, academics and business leaders about the issues and successes of Indigenous communities. At the ceremonial bunggul grounds, you experience Indigenous culture, from basket weaving to spear throwing, to the art gallery and live music by Indigenous artists, while meeting countless people from all walks of life.

Every evening at dusk we would gather and watch the local clans perform their ceremonial dances and visually tell the stories of their people and the nature that surrounded us. We were often invited to join in, which was a truly special experience, and another element of balance—between the Yolngu people and balanda (non-Indigenous people).

One of the song-cycles at the evening bunggul at Garma Festival

One of the song-cycles at the evening bunggul

There was also the balance of emotions. Often the key forums were challenging. Whether it was Denise Bowden, CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation and Director of Garma, accusing the Northern Territory government of financial incompetence, or the teachers from the Yirrkala homeland schools revealing that their funding had been cut, it was easy to feel frustrated and helpless about the state of Indigenous affairs in Australia. But there was also a strong theme of hope. From Zenadth Kes man and activist Thomas Mayor’s passionate speech about the Uluru Statement From The Heart to 21-year old Yolngu leader Michael Yunupingu’s moving words at the Welcoming Ceremony, there was plenty to be inspired by. 

There is something about Garma that is so truly entrancing, it’s difficult to articulate. Ultimately I came away feeling immensely fulfilled and, yes, balanced.

Olivia Morden’s reflection

Attending Garma Festival was something that I felt considerable reservation about, given my deeply personal struggle with proper reconciliation of my Indigenous identity. 

I was raised in a small, predominantly white town. I have pale skin and light hair. My level of Aboriginality seemed to always be up for personal and public debate. I was afraid of what I might feel at Garma, what I might learn about myself—whether I would feel closer to or further away from our First Nations People. 

My eventual decision to attend Garma will forever be one of the best of my life. I learnt priceless lessons about Australia’s initial culture, the essence of what it means to be Aboriginal in 2019, and the struggle. At Garma, all cultures are invited to become one. It was clear to me that the Yolngu people were ready to talk as long as we were ready to listen—and act. 

The 2019 program was packed full of opportunities. We watched ceremonies, speeches and performances that were different to anything I had ever witnessed. I could feel a change happening within me as I walked the dry, dusty land, hanging off every word of the Yolngu people.

Garma’s 2019 Gapan Gallery

Garma’s 2019 Gapan Gallery

Personally, the most impactful experiences were the traditional ceremonies. When a ceremony started, the talking of the crowd would abruptly stop. Women and men hummed and sang while others danced, kicking up red sand with their movement. I would lose my grasp of time completely; I felt an unexpected sense of reflection and meditation. Every preconception I had of community and expression was melting away. 

Upon my return to Melbourne, I felt an unbelievable sense of connection to myself and the land. I have been challenged politically, spiritually and emotionally, and have grown so much as a result. I am so thankful for the generous support of Ormond College and its benefactors to attend Garma and for giving me this gift of knowledge. Regardless of your heritage, Garma is something that will test everything you thought you knew about yourself and this country. 

I cannot recommend anything with more confidence to people with an open mind and heart, and a willingness to learn, reflect and change Australia’s future for the better. 

All images have been published with permission of the Yothu Yindi Foundation.