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Australia’s Yolngu People: Celebrating 40,000 Years

The Yolngu are caught up in a daily struggle to protect their culture. Each year they host a gathering of clans from across northeast Arnhem land to share their knowledge and celebrate their survival.

Keeping culture alive: Ceremony is performed every afternoon during the Garma Festival.

The annual Garma Festival is one of Australia’s most significant Indigenous celebrations, attracting around twenty clan groups from across Arnhem land and the Northern Territory.

The festival takes place at Gulkula, a site which overlooks the Gulf of Carpentaria, and which has profound meaning for the Yolngu people, its traditional owners. They believe that it was here that their ancestor Ganbulabula first created the Yidaki, or didgeridoo.

The road in to the site of the Garma Festival through the stringy bark forests of north-east Arnhem Land. Photo, Peter Eve.

Northeast Arnhem land is regarded as a heartland of Aboriginal culture and land rights. Its culture is one of the oldest on earth, stretching back 40,000 years. The Garma Festival, now in its fourth year, aims to give both whites and Indigenous people an opportunity to share in this ancient culture and knowledge about the land.

...Where traditional meets modern

Europeans first established a permanent presence in Arnhem Land in about 1935. The area’s since become a popular destination for tourists as well as commercial fishers who do a roaring trade in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Mining companies like Rio Tinto are also established here, drawn by the region’s wealth of natural resources.

One of northeast Arnhem land’s most respected figures, Mandawuy Yunupingu, is the lead singer of the band Yothu Yindi, whose song about Aboriginal land rights ‘Treaty’ was an international hit. He says the value of his people’s environmental knowledge is finally being recognized.

Yothu Yindi´s Mandawuy Yunupingu performing at the final night concert of the 2002 Garma Festival. Photo, Peter Eve.

"This is where traditional meets modern," Mandawuy told DW Radio’s Fiona Carruthers. "I think Garma has helped people to grasp Yolngu people’s way of understanding the environment and the way they can contribute to the wider society."

"The land is our culture"

Since the 1960s, the Yolgnu people have been outspoken in the Aboriginal land rights debate. In their struggle to own and maintain the land, Yolngu place great importance not only on upholding traditional ways of hunting and gathering, but also on preserving their link to the land through stories, painting, music and dance.

Screenprint by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu "Miyapunu ga Dhambilngu ga Wayin" (Bird, frog, blue-tongue lizard and turtle: the different animals you see during hunting in the fresh or salt-water areas)

Bhanduck Marihka esablished a land care centre in the area several years ago. She now works with members of the local community, teaching them to catalogue and cultivate endangered native seeds and plants.

Many of the plants have medicinal properties, like the ‘rotten cheese fruit’, which is good for coughs and flu. Marihka says there are plans to build a healing centre at the site, which would use native plants and combine naturopathic medicine with Aboriginal health practices.

Confronting the challenge of survival

Yolngu culture has survived more intact than many other Aboriginal communities that have lost their connection to land through historical dispossession. But Yolngu people face their own battles with white society.

The theme of this year’s Garma festival is environmental sustainability. For the past few years, the Worldwide Fund for Nature has been working with Northern Territory Indigenous groups to limit the damage done by massive commercial fishing nets.

The nets are used in the region by white Australian and Indonesian fishing trawlers. Often the size of houses, they trap more than their set quota of fish. The nets also present eyesores when they wash up on pristine beaches.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the head of the Northern Land Council and brother of Mandawuy, says he intends to establish a new management system in Arnhem land to stop wasteful commercial fishing practices. "I’ve flown over in a helicopter and seen fish floating around everywhere," he says. "Hundreds of meters of fishing nets, all trapped. And it’s not only fish. There are crocodiles, turtles, large sharks."

Young and proud dancers. Photo, Peter Eve.

The Garma Festival will continue to help promote respect for Yolngu knowledge of fishing and landcare practices. But Galarrwuy Yunupingu says ensuring that fish and turtle stocks have a chance to replenish is now in the hands of the Northern Territory government.

"It's a process of protection that they have to consider," he says. "If there's no interest from the government and authorities, then we're fighting a losing battle."

Fiona Carruthers, DW Radio

Photos by Peter Eve. Screenprint by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, (yirrkala-arts@octa4.net.au).

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