Celebrating culture, calling for action

Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

Equality of access and outcomes in Indigenous education was a key demand at the 2010 Garma Festival, held over August 6-10. Up to 1200 visitors from around Australia and the world joined 2-3000 Yolngu people for the famous festival in north-east Arnhem Land.

Each afternoon, clan groups from across Arnhem Land, Kunnunurra, Groote Eylandt and Central Australia performed traditional song and dance. Evenings featured Aboriginal bands from across the Top End, and films by and about Aboriginal issues. The mornings were dedicated to forums and workshops.

In his opening address, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, chair of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which organises Garma, demanded: “No more Mickey-Mouse teaching of Aboriginal people”. Yunupingu called for a unity of vision from all levels of government and society to ensure equal outcomes for Aboriginal students, including on remote communities.

Yunupingu said Australia was one of the richest countries in the world. “We need to be asking the politicians, ‘Where is the money going?’”, he said.

“They’re running around saying ‘vote for me’, but we need to ask ‘What for?’”

Janice Reid from the University of Western Sydney stressed education must have a bi-cultural focus, saying, “strong families and strong cultural identity” were vital for wellbeing.

The Northern Territory Labor government’s 2008 changes to bilingual education restricted Aboriginal language teaching to the last few hours of the school day. Anecdotes about how to get around the ban were shared by Yolngu educators.

Key to this was community control of education.

Vince Forrester, a Mutitjulu community leader and activist, travelled from Central Australia to Garma. He told Green Left Weekly: “Education is about empowerment, it’s not about assimilation.

“When the government realises that, recognises that we have our own education system, and involves us in the education of our children, we will see the results.”

Reid paid tribute to the Yolngu people for their historical role in the land rights movement. It was the Yolngu people of Yirrkala who, in 1963, sent the famous bark petition to the federal government protesting an excision of their land for the Nabalco mine.

Their petition and subsequent high court case was unsuccessful, but the pressure generated led to the Woodward commission. This in turn led to the 1976 Land Rights (NT) Act and the famous homeland movement.

During the Garma Dialogue, Yunupingu challenged conservative Indigenous figure Noel Pearson, who focused on the need for “excellence in education”.

Yunupingu said: “All this lovely future we’re talking will never be achieved until we are recognised as the sovereign owners of this country.”

He said people could talk about excellence “until the cows come home”, but constitutional recognition was needed to codify and protect real Indigenous rights.

“[Aboriginal people] are not a backdrop to this nation, a people who were ‘discovered’”, he said. “We’re front and centre, we’re what this country is all about.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda called for a bill of rights. He said laws alone were not enough, pointing out the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was suspended to introduce the NT intervention in 2007.

The federal election was identified as an immediate way people could protest against the intervention and put Aboriginal rights back on the political agenda.

Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin used Garma to launch Labor’s “closing the gap” Aboriginal policy. Her sorely inadequate election promises became clearer when the intervention was discussed on final night of the festival. Labor has committed to moving the intervention into a “stabilisation” process.

Discussion raged into the early hours of the morning about what Garma participants could do next — especially about the intervention.

Many of the audience worked in Aboriginal-related areas: in research, health, education, at community and government level. There are many inspiring small- and large-scale projects across Aboriginal communities, many of which contribute to improving people’s lives.

These should and must be funded.

But the late-night discussion, led by the Yolngu themselves, reminded us that lasting positive change for Aboriginal people will require addressing the root causes of their disadvantage.

The first step is a complete repeal of the intervention.