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Truth-Telling and the bunggul at Garma

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Indigenous woman with face painted in white and yellow, wearing red clothing at the Garma Festival.
Indigenous woman at the Garma Festival. Image supplied Wayne Quilliam, do not use without permission.
3 Aug 2018

Set amongst the stringybark forests and looking out to the Gulf of Carpentaria, Gulkula is an ancient place. It’s where the ancestor Ganbulapula brought the yidaki (commonly known as didjeridu) into being among the Gumatj people, and where Yolngu have gathered to share culture and ceremony for tens of thousands of years.

‘From the beginning of time, within the cycle of the Yolngu world, Gulkula has been an assembly place for all clan groups to talk about issues,’ Djapirri Mununggirritj, Yothu Yindi Foundation Board member, said.

‘It has always been a place to discuss our lore, our culture and our beliefs.’

In more recent times, Gulkula has become the site of another important gathering – the Garma festival. Now in its 20th year, Garma is one of Australia’s most significant Indigenous events, annually attracting 2,500 people to North-East Arnhem Land to discuss pressing issues facing Indigenous Australians.

The Key Forum, which encompasses a range of dialogues and plenary sessions, is attended by community, business and government leaders, as well as educators, students, and artists, and is an opportunity to discuss topical issues, and find real and practical solutions. 

The theme of this year’s forum is ‘Truth-Telling’.

‘It’s a chance for us to think about what we are trying to find in truth-telling. It’s about education, enlightenment, and sharing knowledge,’ Djapirri said.

‘We Yolngu are an open-armed people. Here at Garma we say ‘come with me – I’ll learn from you, and you’ll learn from me’’.

But Garma is much more than a political forum. It’s an important celebration of Yolngu culture, and an opportunity for visitors to learn and share in one of the world’s oldest living cultures.

‘With our culture, we are so connected to this country, and at Garma we can pass that connectedness and knowledge on,’ Djapirri said.

Child on ground being painted by woman to get ready for the Garma Festival.
A child getting ready for the Garma Festival. Image supplied Wayne Quilliam, do not use without permission.

Each evening the whole campsite with gather for the bunggul, a ceremony of traditional dance celebrating the rich culture of the Yolngu. The sound of the yidaki will call guests to the ceremonial dance grounds, where clan leaders share their ancient stories and songlines.

Garma is an occasion where everyone is welcome, and Djapirri says that each year she notices more young people making the journey to Gulkula.

‘As a community member, I’ve noticed that more and more schools from the southern states are coming to Garma with their students.’

‘To feel and experience Indigenous culture, on this land, and to see how it can blend with modern culture, is very powerful and moving. It’s incredible how Garma can change the way visitors look at Aboriginal people.’

This year’s Garma Festival runs from 3 – 6 August. 

Find out more

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet contributed funding under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

For more information about the festival, visit Garma Festival.

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