The energy of Garma – a time to enjoy, engage and immerse

A personal perspective by Kathryn Dunn


The Brochure on the Yothu Yindi Foundation website says that Garma is ‘Australia’s leading Indigenous event’. 

And so began my journey into better understanding an important issue in our county – the need to close the gap for Indigenous Australians and to afford them the constitutional recognition they deserve. 

These issues matter and, in my comfortable life and secure employment in Canberra, I had failed to engage in the debate and show my support for Indigenous Australians.

My time at Garma (meaning ‘gathering place’) over the period 1-4 Aug 2014 with the Yolgnu peoples, the who-is-who of Indigenous affairs in this country (from artists, to academics, to politicians), and others with a social justice conscience, enlightened me.

By participating in a range of cultural activities, discussion forums, and fireside (Gurtha) yarns, I have been inspired to share my experiences and views about land rights, welfare issues, and the ‘Recognise’ Campaign.

We camped out under the stars, learnt some of the songlines, a few words of the local language (Yolgnu Matha), the meaning behind their artwork, and some of the dances (Bungul) and ceremonies of the local clans. Best of all was that we were not observers, but participants. The ‘energy of Garma’ surprised me.

Garma is an annual initiative of the Yothu Yindi Foundation and is hosted by the Yolngu clans of North East Arnhem Land, on their land about 40 minutes by 4WD from Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory.

There were over 1500 participants at Garma 2014 and I was privileged to be part of the group from Reconciliation Australia. This meant that I was able to spend time with local women Elders and my sisters (Yapa) to experience traditional ceremonies such as ‘Waking Up Country’ and ‘Crying for Country’, to observe a ‘Women’s Healing’ session, and to attend a discussion on the Kinship (Gurrutu) system: the local society/clan structure.

These unique activities provided me with an insight into the lives of a culture connected to their land and one that is rich in history.

The 2014 Festival was even more remarkable because of a number of special events: the opening of the new Knowledge Centre, the release of the Forrest Report ‘Creating Parity’, the ABC’s live filming of the Q&A program, and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke as the dinner speaker.

While this may sound a little too ‘educational’ for some folk, there were so many activities for families and children to enjoy too. From spear making, bark painting, and didgeridoo (Yidaki) playing, to basket weaving, creative writing, and jewellery making, boys and girls were kept busy and enthralled for ages. For the ‘scientists’ there were astronomy and bushwalking tours and the activities continued into the night with fireside poetry recitals, live musical performances, and films. T

here is something magical about outdoor cinema viewing on a warm night and I am sure the rest of Australia and the world will soon hear more of a young Arnhem Land band called ‘East Journey’.

The local community embraced the influx of ‘white people’ (Napaki) as they held an open day at the Yirrkala School and the Mulkala Art Centre. We were fortunate to learn about the issues that really matter to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from their perspective.

For me personally, I gained a strong sense of the social justice issues and I overwhelmingly support the need for Indigenous Australians to have the same opportunities in life and level of health, education, and wellbeing as non- Indigenous Australians.

This is the message that I now share with others, when reflecting on my time at Garma.

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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