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). It is held at Gulkula, a significant Gumatj ceremonial site about 40 kilometres (25 mi) from the township of Nhulunbuy, attracts more than 2500 guests each year and is often sold out months in advance.

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.[1][2]


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.” [3]

Garma has three main aims:

  • To provide contemporary environments and programs for the practice, preservation, maintenance and presentation of traditional knowledge systems and cultural traditions and practices, especially bunggul (traditional dance), Manikay (song), Miny' tji (art) and ceremony.
  • To share knowledge and culture, thereby fostering greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
  • To develop economic opportunities for Yolngu through education, training, employment, enterprise and remote Indigenous community development.[4]

The Gulkula Site[edit]

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’.

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.

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.[5]



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 songlines 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".[6]

Key Forum[edit]

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.[7][8][9][10]

Gapan Gallery[edit]

Set in a grove of stringy-bark trees 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[edit]

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[edit]

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.[11]


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.

Yiḏaki Masterclass[edit]

Djalu Gurruwiwi delivered the first Yiḏaki Masterclass at the inaugural Garma Festival in 1999, and has delivered all subsequent Yiḏaki Masterclasses since.[12][13]


  1. ^ McAllister, Jai; Moran, Alexis (2 August 2019). "Why is the Garma Festival important?". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  2. ^ Davidson, Helen (5 August 2019). "'A little bit of heat': how Garma festival became the main event for Indigenous affairs". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  3. ^ "Garma 2018 Report".
  4. ^ "Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures". Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  5. ^ "Garma Program Booklet 2018" (PDF).
  6. ^ Grabowsky, Paul (1 October 2014). "The best of Australian arts 2014: Concert music". The Monthly. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  7. ^ "Garma Festival spotlights decline in NT bilingual teachers". ABC Radio. 3 August 2019. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  8. ^ Davidson, Helen (4 August 2019). "Australia to be sued over mining project's 'unmerciful' destruction of Indigenous land". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  9. ^ "Constitutional recognition dominates Garma agenda". ABC Radio. 5 August 2019. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  10. ^ Davidson, Helen (3 August 2019). "Yothu Yindi Foundation chief says Australian governments 'dining out' on Aboriginal misery". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  11. ^ "The Imagination Declaration of the Youth Forum read at Garma 2019". NITV. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  12. ^ "Djalu Gurruwiwi". iDIDJ Australia. Retrieved 20 January 2020.
  13. ^ "Everything you need to know about The Garma Festival in Arnhem Land". Australian Traveller. 19 July 2018. Retrieved 20 January 2020.

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