Bringing people together through festivals
WORDS ANNA KANTILAFTAS
This video features a range of Queensland's festivals, including: Keep the Flame of Culture Burning Festival, Cape York; Winds of Zenadth Festival, Thursday Island; Yarrabah Music & Cultural Festival, Cairns; Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Cairns; and Laura Dance Festival, Laura.
It's a balmy, blue-sky morning when the SeaLink NT ferry arrives on the shores of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island for the Tiwi Island Football Grand Final and Annual Art Sale. A flock of people depart the boat docked by the island’s shore. Just metres away, speed boats ferry local Tiwi Islanders dressed in yellow and black - the colours of away-team Imalu Tigers - across the two-kilometre stretch of Apsley Strait from neighbouring Melville Island.
It's not my first time to the islands. Two years prior, I visited on a tour that left me with a yearning to learn more about the welcoming Tiwi culture. When I meet with my cultural guide, Brian Tipungwuti, he tells me that this weekend, which celebrates art, footy and community, is the best time for visitors to get an immersive experience of Tiwi culture.
On the Tiwi Islands, traditional cultural practices remain a common part of daily life.
"The Grand Final is the only time we have people from all over Australia and the world to see football and experience Tiwi culture," he says, slightly distracted by his team, the Walama Bulldogs running out onto the field for a warm-up. "You get culture; you get language; you get art, and to see the community. You get everything when you come to the Tiwi Islands on this day."
Tiwi footballers get ready to play on Wurrumiyanga Oval.
Beyond football and art, the weekend offers an opportunity to learn about all culture.
Situated just 80km north of Darwin, the SeaLink ferry is a 2.5-hour service and offers a complete package to make the most of the day on the shores of the commonly-known 'island of smiles'. A bus transports us around Wurrumiyanga, where fascinated travellers embark and disembark at a number of sites. The walls of the Patakijiyali museum document information on Tiwi Dreamtime and spirituality, as well as history and sporting heritage, with a large portion dedicated to Australian Rules Football. The nearby Catholic Church Precinct offers a fascinating insight into the islands’ strong religious and spiritual belief systems.
Art from the Tiwi Islands is world-renowned for its distinctive features.
The art trail leads keen buyers between Tiwi art centres - Jilamara Arts, Munupi Arts, Ngaruwanajirri, and Tiwi Designs - where artists work on their intricate pieces, including traditional paintings, carvings and textile designs. I'm taken by the hand of a local woman, who sits me down beside her and begins to show me her screen printing process. Despite the language barrier, her smile is as welcoming as they come. As the siren signals the start of the game back at the oval, I realise Brian was right; festivals do give us a glimpse into the celebration of Australia's First Nations cultures.
Spearfishing with Lirrwi Tourism at Lonely Island, Bawaka Homelands in the Northern Territory.
CONNECTING TO CULTURE
There are more than 130 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander festivals throughout Australia, offering captivating experiences for travellers and local communities alike. But there's more to these festivals than just the beat of music, colourful art, and unique foods. It's about bringing people together. Garma is amongst the largest and most well-known festivals. The Yothu Yindi Foundation runs the four-day festival held annually at Gulkula, a significant Yolŋu ceremonial site near Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory’s East Arnhem Land. It celebrates culture, music, dance, storytelling, art, and ceremonial traditions of the Yolŋu people. Yolŋu man, Arian (Djambatj/Bamuŋ) Pearson, director of East Arnhem Land’s Lirrwi Tourism, says that the opportunity to share culture was inspiring during his time as a tour guide.
A young boy participates in a buŋgul.
Buŋgul is the word for traditional dance.
Garma holds a daily buŋgul at sunset.
While Lirrwi doesn't offer tours into Garma, Arian says the Aboriginal-owned organisation supports the festival in any way it can, recognising its value to the region and the bringing together of people and cultures. "I saw how important it was actually sharing the culture with non-Indigenous people. People get an understanding of culture itself, but it's also very important for the Australian non-Indigenous and Yolŋu relationships - building and creating friendships through cultural tourism and festivals," he says. "Garma is important because it's an opportunity for all the clan groups to come together, but also, people all around the country to unite together to celebrate Garma, which is about sharing and creating friendships.
Spearfishing is a traditional hunting technique still commonly used in Northeast Arnhem Land.
"It's also talking about Yolŋu issues and Aboriginal issues in the country and how we can come together to create a brighter future for Australia and Aboriginal Australia." Deep diving into the culture of the Yolŋu people will leave most visitors wanting more, and Arian says there's nothing like a fully immersive Arnhem Land experience, recommending people extend their Garma trip with a cultural tour. The Lirrwi Gululu Day Tour explores Nhulunbuy and the region's spectacular and culturally significant coastal locations, diving into culture, art, history, and fishing. Crossing Country is a 5-day tour that takes guests into a selected Yolŋu Homeland for those wanting to extend their stay. "You won't experience anything like it in the world. In Northeast Arnhem Land with the Yolŋu people, you’ll be outside of your skin, but it'll also be a magical experience you’ll get from it. Connecting with people, the landscape, the beauty, and the richness of culture."
Visitors to the Laura Quinkan Dance Festival get a truly genuine festival that focuses on traditional dance.
While festivals like Garma are all-encompassing, giving people a glimpse into various aspects of culture, others are more specific. Laura Quinkan Dance Festival in Far North Queensland's Cape York is uniquely focused on the art of dancing. Drawing dance groups from surrounding communities together in the spectacular Bora (Ceremony) Ground surrounded by some of the oldest rock art in the world, the festival is a celebration of dance, song, music and storytelling. Culture Connect Australia offers a special four-day tour that journeys from Cairns/Gimuy, through the Daintree and into Cooktown for the festival. Director of Culture Connect, Roger de Vos, says the Laura Dance Festival is unlike any other. "People don't realise the Cape York Indigenous culture is so different to the rest of Australia because of the Islander influence from the Torres Strait.
Torres Strait Islander culture and Aboriginal culture blend together in Quinkan Country.
"The festival is hosted in a massive amphitheatre, and the first thing that hits your senses is the noise - when you hear the drumbeat, you know where you are. "What also makes it different is that the festival focuses mostly on tradition. It's specifically for dancing and singing… It's like a big family festival, really. It's genuine; traditional dancing; traditional songs. It's keeping culture alive," he says. At festivals like the Laura Dance Festival, visitors are open to an in-depth learning experience with a focus and the opportunity to truly connect with the land. "The setting is special," Roger says. "You're surrounded by some of the most special rock art. You look up at these beautiful escarpments to see caves and rock art and the surroundings, which are very sacred to the local people. The bora ground has been used for thousands of years, and what makes this extra special is that it's still being used today.
The inaugural Uluru Festival is a celebration of Anangu culture.
Hundreds of festivals are scattered around Australia at various times throughout the year, while new and upcoming celebrations continue to evolve. In Central Australia, the Traditional Owners of Uluru, along with the management of Uluru's long-standing, Indigenous-owned, charitable corporation, Maruku Arts, launched the inaugural Uluru Festival, a celebration of Anangu culture.
Inma dancing in Uluru.
Born out of the wishes of many Anangu people wanting to share and celebrate their culture, the festival is set to grow in the coming years and will include traditional inma (dancing and singing), cultural workshops, local bands, market stalls, and bush foods. The launch event also featured demonstrations of Aboriginal painting, wood sculpting, and songs sung in traditional language, to show the world the continuing strength of desert culture. It's just one example of the continuing development and evolution of the celebration of First Nations cultures in Australia, each one bringing together a beautiful celebration of culture and people.
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