Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures

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The Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures (Garma) is Australia’s largest Indigenous cultural gathering, taking place over four days each August in northeast Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, Garma is a celebration of the cultural traditions of the Yolngu people, and a major community gathering for the clans and families of the Arnhem Land region. The event showcases traditional miny'tji (art), ancient story-telling, manikay (song), and bunggul (dance). In recent years, Garma has also become an important fixture on the political calendar, attracting business, political, academic, and philanthropic leaders to help shape Indigenous affairs policy through the Key Forum conference. Garma, which is held at Gulkula, a significant Gumatj ceremonial site about 40km from the township of Nhulunbuy, attracts more than 2500 guests each year and is often sold out months in advance.

Indigenous Australians are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, descended from groups that existed in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation. The time of arrival of the first Indigenous peoples on the continent and nearby islands is a matter of debate among researchers. The earliest conclusively human remains found in Australia are those of Mungo Man LM3 and Mungo Lady, which have been dated to around 50,000 years BP. Recent archaeological evidence from the analysis of charcoal and artefacts revealing human use suggests a date as early as 65,000 BP. Luminescence dating has suggested habitation in Arnhem Land as far back as 60,000 years BP. Genetic research has inferred a date of habitation as early as 80,000 years BP. Other estimates have ranged up to 100,000 years and 125,000 years BP.

Arnhem Land Region in the Northern Territory, Australia

Arnhem Land is one of the five regions of the Northern Territory of Australia. It is located in the north-eastern corner of the territory and is around 500 km (310 mi) from the territory capital, Darwin. The region has an area of 97,000 km2 (37,000 sq mi), which borders Kakadu National Park, and has a population of 16,230. In 1623, Dutch East India Company captain William van Colster sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape Arnhem is named after his ship, the Arnhem, which itself was named after the city of Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Northern Territory federal territory of Australia

The Northern Territory is an Australian territory in the central and central northern regions of Australia. It shares borders with Western Australia to the west, South Australia to the south, and Queensland to the east. To the north, the territory looks out to the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria, including Western New Guinea and other Indonesian islands. The NT covers 1,349,129 square kilometres (520,902 sq mi), making it the third-largest Australian federal division, and the 11th-largest country subdivision in the world. It is sparsely populated, with a population of only 245,800, fewer than half as many people as Tasmania.



The first Garma was held in 1999 and was little more than a backyard barbecue. Dhapanbal Yunupingu, the daughter of Dr M Yunupingu, said the first event was a small-scale affair. “I remember when Galarrwuy and dad brought us here, and they were standing on the Bunggul ground, and they said: ‘This is the Garma site, this is where the festival is going to be.’ We were only little. Dad picked his camp. My uncles picked their camp. There were five white fellas who came. There were no tents, two cars, and a BBQ. Our chef slept next to the back of the ute in a swag.” [1]

Garma has three main aims:

The Gulkula Site

Garma is held at Gulkula, a significant Gumatj ceremonial site in northeast Arnhem Land, in a stringy-bark forest atop an escarpment overlooking the Gulf of Carpentaria. The trees on the escarpment at Gulkula are mainly of one species of Stringybark known as Eucalyptus tetradonta. In Yolngu culture the grey stringy-barks have many names, and one Dhuwa moiety name is ‘Gadayka’.

Gulf of Carpentaria A large, shallow sea enclosed on three sides by northern Australia and bounded on the north by the Arafura Sea

The Gulf of Carpentaria is a large, shallow sea enclosed on three sides by northern Australia and bounded on the north by the Arafura Sea. The northern boundary is generally defined as a line from Slade Point, Queensland in the northeast, to Cape Arnhem, Northern Territory in the west.

Stringybark Wikimedia disambiguation page

A stringybark can be any of the many Eucalyptus species which have thick, fibrous bark. Like all eucalypts, stringybarks belong to the family Myrtaceae. In exceptionally fertile locations some stringybark species (in particular messmate stringybark can be very large, reaching over 80 metres in height. More typically, stringybarks are medium-sized trees in the 10 to 40 metre range.

In the anthropological study of kinship, a moiety is a descent group that coexists with only one other descent group within a society. In such cases, the community usually has unilineal descent, either patri- or matrilineal, so that any individual belongs to one of the two moiety groups by birth, and all marriages take place between members of opposite moieties. It is an exogamous clan system with only two clans.

In August, Gadayka is in flower and small native bees turn nectar into honey. Gulkula is connected with the actions of a Yolngu ancestor, Ganbulapula. In his search for honey, Ganbulapula used his walking stick to hit the trees and so disturb the bees. With his hand shielding his eyes from the sun as he looked up, Ganbulapula could see the tiny black bees hovering around their hive in the hollow of a tree; he looked upwards to trace the flight of bees. A link is established through honey and the actions of both the Yirritja and Dhuwa moiety ancestors, with people and land and sea-country across northeast Arnhem Land. The significance of bees and honey is manifested in sacred designs that identify the body of cultural knowledge associated with honey.

In 1964, many of the trees on the escarpment at Gulkula were bulldozed and then burnt by the Department of Works so the Gove Down Range Guidance and Telemetry Station could be built. The purpose of the station was to track the path of rockets launched from Woomera in South Australia. At the time, the Yolngu owners had no rights in Australian law, and they were powerless to prevent the European Launcher Development Organisation from installing a rocket tracking station on the ceremonial site.

RAAF Woomera Range Complex Australian military and civil aerospace facility

The RAAF Woomera Range Complex (WRC) is a major Australian military and civil aerospace facility and operation located in South Australia, approximately 450 kilometres (280 mi) north-west of Adelaide. The WRC is operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), a division of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The complex includes both the land area of 122,188 square kilometres (47,177 sq mi) and the airspace that is restricted and controlled by the RAAF for safety and security. The WRC is a highly specialised ADF test and evaluation capability operated by the RAAF for the purposes of testing defence materiel.

South Australia State of Australia

South Australia is a state in the southern central part of Australia. It covers some of the most arid parts of the country. With a total land area of 983,482 square kilometres (379,725 sq mi), it is the fourth-largest of Australia's states and territories by area, and fifth largest by population. It has a total of 1.7 million people, and its population is the second most highly centralised in Australia, after Western Australia, with more than 77 percent of South Australians living in the capital, Adelaide, or its environs. Other population centres in the state are relatively small; Mount Gambier, the second largest centre, has a population of 28,684.

Today, history has repeated, although this time, thanks to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976, the Yolngu landowners are front and centre in a new space race. In 2017, the Gumatj clan, through the Northern Land Council, approved a lease to the Gumatj Corporation for the purposes of operating a sub-orbital rocket launch facility, a first not just for Yolngu but for Australia. [3]

Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 Act of the Parliament of Australia, currently registered as C2016C00111

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act provides the basis upon which Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory can claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. The Act was strongly based on the recommendations of Justice Woodward, who chaired the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission. The Whitlam government first introduced a Bill to Parliament; however, this lapsed upon the dismissal of the government in 1975. The conservative government, led by Malcolm Fraser, reintroduced a Bill, though not of the same content, and this was signed by the Governor-General of Australia on 16 December 1976.

The Northern Land Council (NLC) is in the Top End of the Northern Territory of Australia. It has its origins in the struggle of Australian Aboriginal people for rights to fair wages and land. This included the strike and walk off by the Gurindji people at Wave Hill, cattle station in 1966. The head office is located in Darwin. It was established in 1973.



One of Garma’s main highlights is the nightly bunggul - traditional ceremonial dances performed each day from 4:00pm until sunset. In these highly significant ceremonies, men, women and children from the 13 Yolngu clan groups perform a dance unique to northeast Arnhem Land. During these performances, the senior holders of the Yolngu song-lines share with guests their stories of manikay (song), accompanied by the call of the yidaki (didgeridoo) and the rhythm of the bilma (clapsticks). In 2014, The Monthly’s ‘Best of Australian Arts’ edition described the bunggul as ‘an exhilarating performance’ and ‘an example of one of the world’s oldest musical traditions. We must do everything to recognise its enormous value to our lives as Australians.’ [4]

Key Forum

Held over 3 days, the Garma Key Forum has become the premier platform for the discussion and debate of Indigenous issues and policy, attracting political, business, academic, and philanthropic leaders from Australia and overseas. Although the conference agenda changes from year to year to reflect the Garma theme, topics such as land rights, health, education, economic development and Government funding and finance are regularly part of the program.

Set in a grove of stringy-bark tress adjacent to the bunggul grounds, the open-air Gapan Gallery features limited edition artworks from a range of local and regional arts centres. Arts centres featured at recent Garma events include Buku Larrnggay, Bula’bula Arts, Elcho Island Arts and Ngukkur Arts Centre.

Cultural Workshops

Senior Yolngu men and women provide a series of cultural workshops which provide guests with an immersive experience in an authentic bush setting. Workshops include instruction in the local Yolngu Matha language, kinship lessons, ‘Learning on Country’ walks, spear-making, and basket-weaving.  

Youth Forum

The Garma Youth Forum runs a 4-day program for children and youth aged 8-18, including an Education Fair on the first day of the event. Schools from across Australia join with students from local and regional schools for a range of activities and workshops aimed at building cross-cultural bonds and sharing knowledge. There’s also a strong emphasis on developing leadership skills for the next generation, and in recent years, participants from the Youth Forum have led the closing Key Forum session, sharing the lessons they have learned over the course of the 4 days and their hopes and dreams for the future.


Music has always been a major feature of the Garma program, showcasing the distinctive Arnhem Land sound and providing a platform for new and emerging regional acts as well as more established Top End bands and singers. Crowd favourites such as Barra Westwind, Sunrize Band (Maningrida), Eylandt Band (Groote Eylandt), Mambali Band (Numbulwar), Garrangali Band (Baniyala), Wirrinyga Band (Milingimbi) and Wildwater (Maningrida), all regularly feature on the bill.

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  1. "Garma 2018 Report".
  2. "Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures". Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  3. "Garma Program Booklet 2018" (PDF).
  4. (1 October 2014). "The best of Australian arts 2014". The Monthly. Retrieved 1 May 2019.