Reflections on Garma 2013

In August I left my Canberra desk and joined a small group of women on Reconciliation Australia’s annual trip to Arnhem Land and the Yolngu people’s renowned Garma Festival.

I grew up in the bush and have visited many remote communities across Australia so the bush setting of Garma was not a new experience for me, however, the landscape, the people and the culture of Garma could not fail to leave an impression on even the most cynical visitor.

It was encouraging to hear from the many students from schools across Australia their views on reconciliation; confirming in my mind that these young Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians will play their part in leading the change that is so necessary for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to take their proper place in Australian society; including the urgent need for Constitutional recognition of the First Australians.

When this long overdue anomaly in our Constitution is fixed, we will have placed another building block in the process of reconciliation and we can genuinely say that we stand for the concept of a ‘fair go’. And internationally, we can confidently hold up our Constitution and say to the world: We have acted and have enshrined these important values in our founding document.

The Recognise campaign were ever present throughout Garma; planning, organising and doing what they do best – engaging people from all walks of life to sign up, to walk for Recognition and to fly the Recognise flag. The Recognise Walk at Garma was an important occasion – to quietly walk alongside the Yolgnu people and friends in the Garma crowd.

Garma was an opportunity to experience the Yolngu culture, and the program allowed for a small taste of the incredibly rich and complex tapestry that is Aboriginal Australia. The Reconciliation Australia contingent was doubly blessed in being able to share with Yolngu RA Board Director, Djapirri Mununggirrtj who took the group to the special places of her people away from the festival site where we were privileged to hear the rich accounts of the meaning of these places; meanings that are millennium old and continue to guide the Yolngu today.

The Garma experience provides for much contemplation. As a society we often dissect and examine the social factors impacting on young people and their families as they grapple with the challenges and complexities of the modern world.

Observing the family groups, the men, the women and their place in the community and the young men and women committed to embracing their culture, I was again reminded of the strong family bonds that exist in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. While not denying the challenges many communities face, I could only reflect how the broader community could embrace these types of family.

It was pleasing to see representation from all sides of politics attending this year’s festival. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s clear commitment to Indigenous affairs gives hope that under his watchful eye we will find the moral courage to build national unity to truly embed reconciliation and make the urgent task of overcoming Indigenous disadvantage a national priority.

Anything else would be a betrayal of the generosity of the Yolngu and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander nations of Australia.

By Joy Thomas, Director, Reconciliation Australia.

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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