Never has a welcome to country felt more genuine and less necessary than at the official opening of Australia’s largest remote community festival: the Northern Territory’s Barunga Festival, an hour south of Katherine. By sunset on Saturday, when elder Suzina McDonald formally welcomed the thousands who’d come to camp in her quiet community of just 350, most visitors had already experienced the meaning of her words.
We’d emerged early that day from campsites among the paperbarks and Pandanus trees of Barunga’s bushland backyards. Some joined a Kriole language class by the river (‘light Kriole’ is primary among the seven first tongues spoken here) or watched a barefoot basketball game between teams from places like Papunya, near Alice Springs, or Kununurra in Western Australia.
Kids spent the day in a fury of fun on a water slide and a climbing wall, while white women with a local woman, Diane, weaving baskets from Pandanus fronds and marvelling at how long it took. Nearby, white men endeavoured eagerly in the sun, stripping and sanding termite-hollowed logs into didgeridoos under the laconic yet watchful eye of Barunga local Jamie Ahfat.
Thus, that evening, when federal minister for indigenous health Warren Snowdon joined Suzina and other notables on stage and said the festival was “an important iconic event on the cultural calendar”, most nodded in agreement.
I’m among many white Australian first-timers at this 28 year-old indigenous festival. In 1988, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke was presented here with the Barunga Statement, written on bark. Many of its requests didn’t transpire but it did inspire Yothu Yindi’s 1991 song, Treaty, a fact noted by Chief Minister Adam Giles in his address.
My experience as a white guest at Barunga is just a slice of the picture because around 75% of attendees are indigenous, a ratio organisers want to preserve in both numbers and spirit. Last year’s festival was retrieved from collapse by Darwin record label Skinnyfish Music which has committed to five years of management. Co-owned by Gurrumul’s bass player and friend, Michael Hohnen, Skinnyfish added Gurrumul to this year’s bill as well as a second big name, John Butler, to bring Barunga back with a bang.
The big names may draw weekend crowds but it’s not what defines the festival. Barunga’s most cherished audience is its own community, their extended families, and other indigenous Australians. At its heart is not John Butler, Emma Louise or even Gurrumul or rising indigenous singer Thelma Plum. It’s sport – AFL, basketball and softball – local bands like B2M (‘Bathurst to Melville’) and Tjupi Band, art stalls, traditional dance and song.
“If this turned into a festival where everything was geared to please whitefellas, the aboriginal people would just walk away,” says Skinnyfish co-owner Mark Grose “Barunga is about black and white saying ‘let’s get together, have fun, watch some footy, buy some art.’ Whitefellas come to experience community life and for us it’s about saying ‘We’re not going to change that to suit you.’”
Scratch the surface, and the reasons for a festival like Barunga keep spilling forth. Community leader Anita Painter, who has seen numbers peak at up to six thousand in the 1990s, then decline in recent years, is happy the festival is in bloom again. “It’s about sharing knowledge, culture, language and heritage but especially about family get-togethers. Long lost families who haven’t seen each other in months, or years, they rock up, you know? My mother had a long lost brother from Groote Eylandt and she eventually met him here at the festival a few years ago.”
Also the coach of the girls’ basketball team, Barunga Thunder, Anita is gone to see a game before I can ask if her Uncle was a member of the stolen generation, the effects of which are still deeply felt in communities such as Barunga. The NT Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation reconnects separated families and tell me they’ve been “flat out” all weekend. Their stall is on the heavily-trafficked outskirts of football field, part of a dense pocket of health-related stalls. Another raison d’être of Barunga Festival is to give other organisations the chance to communicate healthy lifestyle messages in an open, celebratory setting.
Crowds swelled near the main stage on Sunday evening to see trophies presented to sports teams and the grand-finale musical acts. Indigenous and non-indigenous sat side-by-side though a clap-o-meter could have discerned a crowd divided, at times, by taste. Where John Butler’s set saw white visitors dance up a dust storm, the aboriginal response was almost comically flat.
It was just one of many moments where the lines between indigenous and non-indigenous people here were obvious but not stark, gentle not grievous; lines that at this friendly, trusting and dare I say important festival, were so easy to step back over.
SMH version here