What is the Garma Festival and why is it significant?

In 2023, the Garma Festival will take place against the backdrop of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum. It will be the first since the passing of Yolngu Elder Yunupingu.

Garma Festival Brings Leaders Together To Celebrate Indigenous Culture

The annual Garma festival is held at Gulkula, a significant ceremonial site for the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land. Source: Getty / Tamati Smith

Preparations are underway for Australia’s largest Indigenous gathering, the 23rd annual Garma Festival, which is taking place from Friday.

Around 2,600 people are expected to come together on Gumatj Country in the Northern Territory’s North East Arnhem Land for the four-day event.

This year, Garma takes place against the backdrop of the upcoming Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum.



It will also mourn and honour the legacy of Yolngu Elder and leader of the Gumatj clan, Yunupingu, 

who passed away earlier this year



What is the Garma Festival?

The Garma Festival is a celebration of Yolngu culture and ceremony, referring to the Aboriginal people of the north-east region of Arnhem Land, which is generally known as Yolngu. They belong to a number of clans. Yolngu people have lived in the region for at least 60,000 years.

Garma is a Yolngu Matha term, which means “two-way learning process”.

This year’s theme is djambatj, which to Yolngu people means a “vision of perfection”, according to Djawa Yunupingu, brother of the late Yunupingu and chairman of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which organises the festival.

“In the Yolngu mind, djambatj is this vision of perfection; where we get things right,” he writes in program material.

“A perfect moment in time where the balance of our world is in order.”

Garma Festival Brings Leaders Together To Celebrate Indigenous Culture

The Garma festival is a celebration of Yolngu culture aimed at sharing culture and knowledge which also brings politicians and Indigenous leaders together to discuss issues facing Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Source: Getty / Tamati Smith

For Denise Bowden, chief executive of the foundation, djambatj sees “each of us working together to achieve a common goal”.

The Garma Festival brings together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, non-Indigenous Australians and international visitors. It provides a platform for discussion and debate of issues affecting Indigenous Australians, such as health, education and economic development, while also celebrating visual art, dance, music and storytelling.

This year, much of the discussion will centre on the Voice, and is likely to include major displays of support.


Anthony Albanese makes surprise revelation over Voice referendum date

Where is the Garma Festival held?

The festival takes place at the Gulkula site, which is about 30 kilometres from the town of Nhulunbuy in North East Arnhem Land.

It’s a significant place of ceremony for the Gumatj clan, and a meeting place for the five regional clans in Arnhem Land: the Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Galpu and Wangurri.

Yolngu history describes how people have danced at the ceremonial grounds ‘from the beginning’.

Gulkula is situated in a stringybark forest atop an escarpment that overlooks the Gulf of Carpentaria.

In the mid-1960s, some of the forest was bulldozed and burned to make way for a station tracking the path of rockets launched from Woomera in South Australia. The Yolngu owners had no Native Title rights under Australian law at the time and were not consulted.

Garma returns after two-year COVID break 

28 Jul 2022, 7:46 pm

Garma returns after two-year COVID break

What is significant about Garma this year?

The festival was set up by the late brothers Yunupingu and Dr M Yunupingu, the frontman of Northern Territory rock band Yothu Yindi.

Back in 1999, the brothers led a small gathering to bring together Yolngu people to discuss issues like self-determination, wellbeing and health.

It continues to be hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which represents the five clans of Arnhem Land.

Yunupingu passed away in April after a long battle with illness.

The revered Yolngu Elder dedicated his life to the land rights movement and improving the lives of his people.

His legacy will be remembered at this year’s Garma.

Two men walk together.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with Yothu Yindi board member Djawa Yunupingu during the Garma Festival in 2022. Source: AAP / Aaron Bunch

“My brother embodied our Garma theme,” Djawa Yunupingu said.

“In his dealings and in his thinking, he sought the moment of excellence that is djambatj; he lived it and he pursued it until his final day.

“When a true leader speaks, they speak with purpose, as my brother always did.”

He said that this year, while grieving the loss of his brother, “we are more determined than ever to stay true to his vision of Garma as a place where Australia comes together, and where we forge pathways to the future”.

“We are more determined than ever to find unity in our nation; to see the people of this ancient land live side by side, and walk side by side under the southern stars”.

Referencing the Voice referendum, he acknowledged the “many challenges” ahead.

“This is on all our minds,” he said.

“Every one of us will have the opportunity to make our mark when we vote. Together we will change the nation. One way or the other, the nation will change.

“It is a moment in time that offers the promise of a new world.”

Anthony Albanese speaks into a microphone wearing an akubra hat

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking during the 2022 Garma Festival. Source: AAP / Aaron Bunch

Who will attend the Garma Festival?

Every year, the festival draws crowds – from politicians and academics to businesspeople, education and health advocates and foreign delegates.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will attend, and deliver an address on Saturday.

On Wednesday,

 he extended an invite to Opposition leader Peter Dutton to attend,

 urging him to spend “less time on his dirt unit and more time in the red dirt of the Top End”.

Dutton, who opposes the Voice, has visited the NT multiple times this year but will not be present at Garma.

Speaking to 2GB radio on Thursday, he said that, while Garma was “a celebration and a good thing”, it would be “largely occupied by the CEOs, chief executives and others from publicly listed companies” who have been funding the Yes campaign.

“I’m not going up there to pretend that I’m somebody that I’m not. I’m a genuine person … I’ve looked at this meticulously. I’m not supporting the Voice, and I advocate strongly for Australians to vote No, because it’s not in our country’s best interest.”

Will the date for the Voice referendum be revealed?

Albanese used last year’s Garma event 

to unveil his proposed Voice referendum question


However, he has insisted he won’t reveal the date Australians will head to the polls this time around.

Speaking to Sky News in July, he all but ruled out revealing the date at Garma while reiterating that Australians will head to the polls “between October and December”.

“It doesn’t need to be that very long campaign. And once the date’s announced, then it will be the campaign on in earnest,” Albanese said.

“And I don’t think that Australians appreciate very long campaigns. That’s been the case in the past. So I don’t envisage at this time announcing the date at Garma.”

At that time, Albanese said this year’s festival would include an “element of sadness”, given Yunupingu’s passing.

With additional reporting by NITV’s Rachael Knowles.

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