How I learned through listening to Indigenous voices at Garma

Posted on July 11th, by Tom in Blog, Communications. Comments Off

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited by NITV to attend the Yothu Yindi Foundation’s Garma Festival in North East Arnhem Land. The festival, which celebrates Indigenous culture and encourages two-way learning, gave me an opportunity to spend a week listening to the issues facing Indigenous consumers and reveling in the rich diversity of Australia’s Indigenous cultures. Here are five things I learned from this amazing experience:

1. The most powerful people aren’t always the ones in suits

Although we heard from both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader at Garma one of the most powerful and poignant speeches was made by 19 year old Michael Yunupingu. Wearing a blue sports singlet, the grandson of legendary Aboriginal leader and land rights advocate Galarrwuy Yunupingu, spoke powerfully about the challenges his family faced in accessing a private rental in Adelaide. His story of being rejected more than 20 times when trying to access housing in a major Australian city resonated with me. It also put a face to the all too real issues of discrimination we detailed in our recent report into Australia’s rental market. When you have a powerful message, a person in a blue singlet can be far more persuasive than someone in a blue suit.

2. Evocative artworks don’t need a grand museum to create meaning 

I have spent countless hours traversing the meticulously manicured rooms of grand art galleries in Europe and the United States hoping to be inspired. Yet, no artworks have moved me more profoundly than those I saw sitting in the powdery red dirt at night.

After listening to ceremony in the night, the art sprang to life under lights and formed a natural gallery hanging among the trees in North East Arnhem Land. The moment the works were revealed, the artists’ connection to country couldn’t have been more vivid. The experience highlighted the threat Indigenous artists face from fraudulent works misappropriating their ancient totems and flooding the international market.


3. Yothu Yindi is much more than an 80s band

I grow up in the 1980s and for me, Yothu Yindi was a successful Indigenous band. But I learned at Garma that in Yolngu language Yothu Yindi actually means balance (Yothu + Yindi = child + mother = balance). It’s also the name of the Foundation established in 1990 for Yolngu and other Indigenous Australians. The Foundation works towards providing Indigenous Australians with the same level of wellbeing and life opportunities enjoyed by non-Indigenous Australians. Ensuring this work progresses is a lot about listening and seeking to understand the complex nature of the issues faced by Indigenous communities. In particular, I discovered the importance of learning more about Indigenous languages and the kinship system. The photo below was taken after a ceremony. The distinctive red ochre used in the ceremony very much reflects the vast red land around us. You can read more about Indigenous body painting and its meaning here.

On country

4. Great performers don’t need to stand on a stage

Every morning at Garma I woke to the sounds of Indigenous performers, some dancing to traditional music, others singing songs that would have been at home on Triple J. But, for me, the most powerful performances were on the red dirt. As the performers’ feet kicked the fine red dust into the air to the sound of the yidaki and clapping sticks, the passion of the performer for their culture and country couldn’t have been more pronounced.


5. Never be afraid to partner to solve complex problems

I have been working to develop a partnership with NITV over the past 12 months to help fight for fair, just and safe markets for Indigenous consumers. Since its formation in 2007, NITV has grown to become the voice for Indigenous Australians across both traditional and social media. As part of the partnership, NITV invited me to Garma so I could learn more about the issues facing Indigenous consumers. After a week camping on the red dirt of North East Arnhem Land and listening to many of the community leaders, it seems clear we have a significant task ahead to build positive change for Indigenous consumers.

But, NITV was the perfect partner to work with. Watching their team of media professionals deliver daily live broadcasts from a remote location was truly amazing. They also have a strong connection to community and country, as well as an intimate knowledge of the issues facing Indigenous consumers. Realistically, it is only through forming this partnership with NITV and taking time to understand the complexity of the problems we are trying to address that we’ll succeed.


Critically, in addition to the five things above, I have learned that listening is equally as powerful as talking and a vital element in any successful communications strategy.

*I’d like to thank NITV for sharing their knowledge and giving me the opportunity to listen to so many Indigenous voices at Garma.

*I am the managing director of Bell George Communications.

*If you’d like to support the work of NITV, please like them on Facebook, check out their website and share this post with your network.

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How I learned through listening to Indigenous voices at Garma

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited by NITV to attend the Yothu Yindi Foundation’s Garma Festival in North East Arnhem Land. The festival, which...