Worried Sick

In his opening address to the 2007 Garma (“both ways learning”) forum, Gallarrwuy Yunupingu told us that he was “worried sick” about the effects of the current Northern Territory intervention legislation before the Senate.

This year’s theme of Garma, a two way learning festival for the non-Indigenous community and Yolngu community, was, appropriately, Indigenous health. Garma has become a most important annual gathering of Indigenous leaders, partially because it is completely above mainstream politics. Garma is much more important than politics. It occurs at Gulkula, near Nhulumbuy, a place that is sacred for the Yolngu. Gulkula is the place where the ancestral hero Banbulabula brought the Yidaki (digeridu) into being amongst Mr. Yunupingu’s Gumatj clan. Each year in the first moon of August a special feeling of joint learning pervades the gathering. The festival has become famous internationally and each year a large group of visitors from all over Europe, Asia, North and South America attend.

The reason that Garma has become so revered is that it is a time when the spirits of the Yolngu ancestral heroes are almost palpable. No matter who you are, what your political persuasion, what mistakes you may make, or your level of ignorance about Indigenous Australia you will be welcomed and patiently respected as an honoured guest at Garma. To understand what is going on, outsiders have to immerse themselves in the Yolngu culture as a matter of course and, as such, learning about traditional Indigenous culture, even when visitors have no real intention of doing so, readily occurs. Sometimes it occurs the hard way when non-Indigenous visitors really put their foot in it as I have done on more than one occasion.

But to be invited to Garma is an honour, to not turn up and to lose the opportunity to learn and communicate on such an auspicious occasion is a matter of some regret and consternation. Mal Brough’s refusal to turn up this year, after being invited, was viewed as not just a political snub but a point of bemusement. It was not the Yolngu people who lost from Brough’s failure to front, but Brough himself. There would never have been a better chance for him to establish the fact that he really was concerned about Indigenous child abuse in the Northern Territory than at Garma.

Each day a bungul (dance exhibition for visitors) occurs daily during the Festival from 4pm to sunset. Dance and music are not incidental to the learning of Garma. In fact there is more to learn at the bungul than in most other events of the festival. For it is here that the Yolngu community show outsiders their history in the most sophisticated ways. Whether it be the re-enactments of the first encounters with Macassan traders over past centuries or the exquisite mimicry of a bird or animal – the dancers artistry (which includes children and men and women of all ages) is all encompassing. It takes at least two visits to Garma to appreciate the complexity of the dance – one must watch the aura of the dancer and the shapes created by the sand. After you have started to develop a crude vision of the dances, you must then understand and listen to the music and song. This has many levels and a lifetime of study is needed to master its nuances. Yolongu song is the equivalent of the white man’s encyclopaedia. In all this there is a tapestry as deep and rich as any thing Western culture has on offer.

Mr. Yunupingu sometimes splices his commentary of the bungul, broadcast over the dance ground, about the size of a football ground, with philosophical observations. He continued on from his opening remarks at the forum of academic discussion with several remarks this year. At highly symbolic moments he would remark, as if describing the dance, ‘there can be no health for us without our land’. This everyone started to understand was not just a cliché synonomous with an idealistic protest movement. Just as the spirit of Gulkula each year allowed the constructive forces of Garma to exist, so too guardianship over all of the dimensions of the Yolngu cosmos in the land and sea, was the key of Yolngu health and life. It was not some individual or event or government that could threaten the Yolngu life and culture it was the inability to practice the guardianship of all the aspects of the cosmos. In this culture, where it is apparent to all, that little children are indeed sacred, the threat of untrammelled access by white fellas to lands through the lifting of the permit system, and losing the right to stop the destruction of sacred places and territories, was the ultimate horror. It would prevent the active guardianship and practices that ensued the health of the people. It would mean a wholesale destruction of the places and practices that maintained the health of the land and its people.

Garma above all shows, that what Helen Hughes and the writers of the Centre for Independent Studies see as a closed society rewarding sloth and laziness, is a great  and dynamic culture. Hughes et als recipe is to open up the community to "market forces". This is not something that the Yolngu shy from they managed trade with the Macassans over centuries. Today the unique Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre is one of the most successful, rigorously curated and profitable art and culture centres in Australia. But the mores of this unique commuity are very different to those of Western European society. To open up the community and to rescind the traditional law and culture of the people would be to destroy them. It requires great dedication, scholarship and knowledge to understand and appreciate the Yolngu cosmos. The famous church panels painted by Yolngu elders in the 1960s were developed to help outsiders to understand, and most people who are given some access to Yolngu culture do come to understand, at least a little. Moreover, as at Yirkala school, where the best of Yolngu culture and school learning is put together in a unique way, extraordinary levels of excellence are achieved. This is not to mention the international success of Yothu Yindi itself which takes traditional Yolngu concepts and expresses them in the most vibrant way in the international music market place or Garma itself which is a million dollar exercise that involves an annual logistics exercise that rivals some of the major events of the Sydney Olympics in a remote region.

The miracle of the unbroken preservation of Yolngu culture was made possible by the indomitable spirit of the people and the wisdom of past and present leaders -  a combination of inspired intellectual, political and physical resistance. On the non-Indigenous side, the gazetting of land by Billy Hughes in the 1920s, wisdom, knowledge and agreements between the anthropologist Donald Thomson, Aboriginal leaders ofArnhem land and successive Federal governments also helped.

From the strength of Yolngu culture came the heart of the current NT legislation after their case to stop the mining of bauxite at Nhulumbuy,  Millirrpum v Nabalco in 1971, failed. When Gough Whitlam came to office in 1972 he appointed the Yolngu’s counsel Woodward to conduct a royal commission into Indigenous land rights and its recommendations subsequently became the basis of the Northern Territory legislation that is to now to be repealed by the Howard government and Rudd Opposition. Mr. Yunupingu acted as a translator for his father in the famous Millirrpum case. When it was lost, within three months Nabalco was gouging bauxite from Yolongu sacred sites. Mr Yunupingu watched as his father then stood in front of bulldozers to stop them clearing the trees, and chasing away bulldozers with an axe. He resisted to the end as a sacred water hole, a dreaming place and a source of water, was bulldozed.

All this must have come flooding back to Mr Yunupingu at this year’s  Garma. He must have thought that the current legislation, which would overturn all his father had fought for, meant that the effective treaty of thirty five years duration was now to end. It was to be war again.

At the second bungul of Garma this year there were some magnificent moments. An aura of magic came over the place as Peter Minygululu, of Ten Canoes fame, and his countrymen from Maningrida danced in tribute to Mr. Yunupingu and the clans of the Yolngu. The women of the Gumatj clan ran out to give the Maningrida child dancers money as a symbol of their love for them and in tribute to their common ancestral heroes. By accident I was seated not far from Mr. Yunupingu and I could see he was deeply moved. It is a mistake for whitefellas to interpret moments like this. Just like the dance there are many levels and protocols to observe and learn about. Mr. Yunupingu could have been moved by the beauty of the dance and the common ancestral heros of Mr. Minygulu’s dance.  But I could not help think that Mr Yunupingu was moved in the thought that once again, like their fathers and grandfathers, the Yolngu people would have to fight for their lives.  

Once again, despite all Mr Yunupingu’s achievements, despite the wonder of Garma, the ignorance of white law had passed its dark spell across the country. It is up to us all to now stand side by side with Mr Yunupingu and his forefathers to overturn the legislation that is likely to be passed by the Senate over the next few days. This legislation which pertains to be about child abuse represents a direct threat to the precious Yolngu culture and civilisation and other Northern Territory traditional culture and rights.

No one doubts the bona vides of Sue Gordon and Noel Pearson, these are great Indigenous leaders, determined to stamp out the problems and excesses of particular families and communities, but the dramatic weakness of the Howard/Brough legislation is that it makes enemies of those who are at the forefront of not just protecting children, but ensuring that their future is indeed a sacred and noble right. It also, no matter, what is said, takes away the rights to lands that for the Yolngu people and their country men, are the essence of life. For the Yolngu the current legislation is equivalent to a form of child protection that also condones social, cultural and civil anarchy and the worst forms of murder and strife across the whole population.