Garma 2014: reflections on culture, kinship and language

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Tamika Townsend is a Reconciliation Action Plan Officer at Reconciliation Australia.

“In the end reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people” – Nelson Mandela.

During August, this year I was fortunate enough to attend the Garma Festival, arguably the world’s leading Indigenous cultural celebration, held in the Northern Territory’s North East Arnhem land—the home of the Yolngu people.

As a proud Koori woman working at Reconciliation Australia I think it’s really important for this organisation to be visible at events like the Garma Festival. Because the event encompasses what Reconciliation Australia is all about—promoting stronger relationships, breaking down stereotypes and false perceptions—but most importantly to listen and learn from Indigenous related discussion, cultures, and lands throughout the country.

The Reconciliation Australia Garma Women’s Group was blessed to be hosted by respected Traditional Owner, Yolngu woman, Djapirri Mununggirritj. The group was a unique blend of young Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, senior corporate representatives and Reconciliation Australia Board Members. They were all from different walks of life, seeking to have their own distinct experiences, immersed in Yolngu culture. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn from inspirational Indigenous role models who have committed their lives to making change for their people and as such they are leaders in their own communities.

For me personally, being a young Koori from the South Coast of NSW, I had never crossed the seas and desert towards Australia’s top end, nor had I seen the red dust that caresses the land. In the peak of the dry season the landscape was breathtaking, the climate hot, and the ocean resided by saltwater Baru (Yolngu word for crocodile). The waters were met by the white sand, and if you look towards the sky Merung (Ngarigo word for eagle) can be seen soaring below the clouds.

It was with ease, I grasped the concept of ‘Yolngu time’ similar to how we say ‘Koori time’ and a natural instinct for me to embrace their culture and ways of living—to respect Elders who hold all wisdom and knowledge, and country which I am not from, nor accustomed to. For people from different language groups it’s like entering foreign lands, knowing nothing but the social awareness you need to have—just like when others visit my tribal homelands.

The key things I took away from this experience were learning about culture, kinship and language. My thoughts were focused on how the culture of the Yolngu was once just as strong everywhere in Australia such as moieties and class systems. It also brought up feelings of grief and loss of my own languages which are currently no longer spoken fluently, and cultures that have been somewhat tainted from European influence, and past genocide in the south east of NSW.

The entire experience could mean so many different things to different individuals. For me, it opened my mind to what reconciliation means personally. The Yolngu people hold their identity strong, welcome all Australians, teach and share their knowledge for others to open their hearts and minds. It came to me that reconciliation is kind of like a three piece mantra—peace, justice, and unity. But not unity that involves any kind of ‘assimilation’, not peace that says we move on and forget the past, not justice that is half hearted. Can Australia be mature enough to move towards this in the years ahead?

Yolngu peoples are not without their hardships but they seem to have a great autonomy, they express forgiveness, love and warmth. Despite government’s continuous neglect towards our people, they welcome them with open arms. They are becoming more and more self-sustainable and envision creating their own economic opportunities, and already are. Whilst doing this they also accept and welcome people of all colours onto their lands. This reinforced my belief that self-determination and reconciliation actually go hand-in-hand.

I believe the Yolngu people feel peace because they hold their culture and community strong, speak their traditional tongue—they are relatively untouched and free. The sense of togetherness at Garma is the perfect illusion of what true reconciliation would look like in Australia. There are many different elements involved in making this a reality and I believe they need to be themed by peace, justice and unity, that has substance. I believe this is what our peoples throughout the nation need to be at peace with ourselves and the wider Australian community. From there the relationship can flourish and we can trust again, we can start to change the deeply entrenched racism that exists, and heal the pain that is still felt by blackfellas across the nation.

Black or white, we can all learn a lot from Yolngu way of life.

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