Top End Indigenous festival shaping up to be a game changer

It is hard to get to, expensive to attend and there isn’t much in the way of meetings infrastructure, but the Garma Festival is shaping up to one of the most influential events in Australia.

Now in its 21st year, the four-day event is overseen by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, and is attracting political, business and industry leaders to Gulkula, a sacred Yolngu site in north-east Arnhem Land to address political and social issues affecting Indigenous Australians.

This year’s theme ‘Pathways To Our Future’ is especially relevant as it coincides with a push to bring constitutional reform that reflects Indigenous culture on both a state and national level.

Labor has been calling on the Federal Government to back constitutional change that includes a constitutionally-enshrined Indigenous Advisory Body.

This year is the first time Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt and his Labor counterpart Linda Burney have attended Garma in their new roles.

Speaking to The Guardian, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies CEO Craig Ritchie said he could sense the winds of change at the event.

“You can feel something at this event,” he said. “The moment now is different. We’ve got a new cohort of young Indigenous leaders spurring us on, so that gives us great cause for hope.”

Tickets costs up to $2500 for adults and $4500 for corporate groups, but sell out months in advance. That may not seem unusual for a large conference, but this one is different as it doesn’t offer any of the usual mod-cons. There is no talk of state-of-the-art facilities or an abundance of luxury accommodation nearby.

The accommodation for almost everyone is a tent, and all attendees are expected to line up for one of the almost 30,000 meals served in the outdoor kitchen, and for the shower blocks.

Denise Bowden, the chief executive of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, described it as “very much an open site”.

“People, particularly from this region, are able to come in and not feel like they’re sort of locked into four walls and intimidated,” she told The Guardian.

“People that come to Garma want to be challenged, they want to hear what’s coming out of our politicians, they want them to be accountable. So it does put a little bit of heat on people and leaves people in a bit of an insecurity zone. Which is fine, isn’t that healthy too?”