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Garma and the future

Words by Danika Davis
Location: Yolŋu Country, Northern Territory
Published 17 Oct 2022
After four days of sharing knowledge, time and culture at Garma Festival, the team reflects on what it taught them – for the future and for Country.

Garma awakens as first light shines on the escarpment of Gulkula in north-east Arnhem Land where Yolngu people have held ceremony since the beginning of time. Each year in August for four days people from all walks will add to the buzzing bees flitting amongst the Grey Stringybarks’ (Eucalyptus tetradonta) purple gumflowers.

Gumatj men perform bunggul (traditional dance). Photo Leicolhn McKellar for the Yothu Yindi Foundation>

Yolngu people welcome more than 2,500 guests to share their vibrant miny’tji (art), storytelling, manikay (song) and bunggul (dance). People from around Australia and overseas gather on sacred Country to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and each other. 

First steps together

Eager attendees have arrived after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, ready to learn and celebrate the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and ways to keep them, and Country, strong.

The Bush Heritage team is amongst them, including Chontarle Belottie (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Manager, WA), Vikki Parsley (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Manager, NSW) and Bruce Hammond (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Manager, SA).

They join Stephina Salee, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait woman with a connection to Gumatj clan, and the NT Aboriginal Cultural Coordinator for Bush Heritage, at her home. When Steph reflects on the importance of Garma and its 2022 theme, she explains:

“My grandfather - my Mari’mu - that was his vision for Yolngu people, to bring everyone on the journey of the Yolngu way of doing and being and understanding how we as Yolngu people live.”

“Just as much as we have to take knowledge from non-Indigenous people, there has to be acceptance and recognition of the knowledge that we hold as Indigenous people across Australia. When I think about Bush Heritage, my grandfather’s message rings true. It’s about all of us walking together and looking toward the future in conservation.” 

Gulkula is a significant Yolngu ceremonial site. Photo Teagan Glenane for the Yothu Yindi Foundation.

Listening and learning

Being invited onto Country alongside other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples provided a meaningful opportunity to share successes, challenges and learn from local knowledge.

“As guests on this Country, we were celebrating, but also listening to the conversations had across Australia,” says Chontarle. “We learned what the different needs and aspirations are of different Aboriginal peoples and representative corporations; the support they need, but also what they’re doing and the success they’re having.”

“It made me reflect on some of the work I’d previously done, some opportunities in the future and how best to achieve genuine shared outcomes. It’s a life-changing event,” adds Bruce.

“Conservation is a very fluid space, and the opportunities are there for people to put change on the radar and get better outcomes. One real lesson is to listen, and really try to understand what works on the ground – not bring preconceived agendas to problems. For me, strong partnerships on the ground are ultimately, going to be the sustainable way forward.”

Cultural resilience is key

This was the first year Bush Heritage attended Garma. The team experienced culturally immersive exchanges including; ceremony, inspiring performances, dancing, forward-thinking speeches, conversations and forums. They came away uplifted by the festival community and its messages, ready to continue learning from one another, and by doing so, move forward together.

“One of the biggest messages for me is the cultural resilience of our communities,” says Vikki. “We’ve got big changes going on politically, on a national scale, and the cultural resilience of our communities is so important.”

A future that values generational knowledge

For the Bush Heritage team, looking forward means harnessing connections, broadly and locally, to achieve common conservation goals. That includes prioritising traditional knowledge systems.

“We’ve been doing it for more than 60,000 years,” says Stephina. “My university is the land and sea. I have my own anthropologists, scientists and ecologists, and my grandparents were the best philosophers – but you won’t find it in a book anywhere.”

Leanne Liddle (former board member for Bush Heritage), Bruce Hammond, Chontarle Belottie and Vikki Parsley experience Garma. Photo Bruce Hammond.

“We didn’t have pens and paper back 60,000 years ago, or the opportunity to write it down and put it in a library. Continuing to build cultural capability and recognition will offer more positive learning opportunities for the future.”

Relationships were formed across the four days with people who have all types of expertise in environmental management and conservation. Chontarle is already looking forward to next year.

“We were here to test the ground and see what the experience is, and how that relates across the Aboriginal partnership space we work in,” she says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to bring our partners with us and for our partners to share the work they’re doing in their respective regions.”

Bush Heritage learnt many lessons for a positive future from Garma. It was a nourishing knowledge-sharing experience – one that will help the organisation on its journey working with, and being led by, its Aboriginal partners to care for Country.

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