“My father from the sunrise but my mother a saltwater woman.”
On paper, the words emit a kind of epic poetry that’s quite the opposite of how they’re said, muttered even, by a Dalabon clan elder called Queenie. She’s sitting amid a sea of upturned white faces, mine included, eager to learn some of her language.
I’m one of a few hundred ‘whitefellas’ outnumbered by ‘blackfellas’ at an indigenous festival four hours south of Darwin. Barunga is Australia’s oldest and largest remote community festival, back from the brink of collapse last year and re-invigorated by new management – Darwin record label Skinnyfish Music. Skinnyfish manages Australia’s most popular indigenous musician in decades, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu from Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhemland. Blind since birth, Gurrumul sings in his first language, Yolngu, yet he’s played for the Queen and Barack Obama. He’s headlining here tomorrow night and the buzz of it is tangible.
It’s mid-morning on day one and indigenous families cluster in the shade watching Australian Rules Football (AFL) or a furiously competitive basketball match, played barefoot. Most white visitors, meanwhile, head to a riverside tent, fringed by paper barks and pandanus trees, for a ‘kriol’ lesson.
A young linguist wearing North Face sits by me. “What other American gets to do this?” he enthuses. “Come to a remote aboriginal community and see it authentically?” I ask why he’s alone. “Most Americans go to Europe to see the cool historical buildings. They don’t see the history here. They see it as a new country.”
Barunga ladies Anita and Queenie arrive late, harried, with three skinny-shinned, bright-faced boys in tow. They apologise and explain the festival also serves as a family reunion. In short – they’ve been busy with more important matters. The tent murmurs its forgiveness.
The lesson unravels into a Q&A covering a sprawl of issues. One woman confesses, with a note of anguish, “I don’t know how to approach Aboriginal people” while a German traveller with a notepad gets things back on track, pressing for more details on kriol, a language that’s spoken widely in the Northern Territory (NT) as a common denominator across the many tongues that exist, or existed.
A swell of curiosity draws Queenie and Anita into discussing aspects of kinship structure that would baffle a seasoned anthropologist. Poison cousins are “the most difficult relationship” in Aboriginal culture says Anita. “We can’t face [our poisoned cousin] or look them in eye. A wife can’t look at father-in-law, ever, or even be in the same room.” Quizzical looks circulate. “Why?” a girl hazards. “It’s part of our culture. Poison cousin is still very strong.”
There’s a pause into which the sound of the river flows, then a gust of wind that makes leaves shimmer and spin. Laughing, one of the young boys catches at some butcher’s paper as it flies up. I’d spent time in this open-sided tent last night with the paper bark’s ragged trunks pressing in. In the evenings, here, there’s a fire-pit, acoustic music and fairy lights that mirror a blanket of stars that bear down on you barely past dusk.
Land, animals and ceremonies are part of kinship structures too, Queenie says, and ‘skin names’ dictate marriage. “My father from the sunrise but my mother a saltwater woman.” Wearily she gestures north and east and says little more. Anita defers to Queenie, her elder and once her schoolteacher. Elders are crucial in aboriginal communities and their loss can be devastating. “Thing go wrong when you throw away your teachers and stick them in another house,” an indigenous singer Tom E Lewis had told us last night.
On the dusty path up from the river are two Mimi (spirit) installations, diaphanous in the sun. June is winter elsewhere in Australia but in the tropical ‘top end’, it’s dry season to white Australians and, to the local Jawoyn people, poised between the seasons of Banggarrang and Malapbarr. All of which translates to weather that’s supernaturally gorgeous.
The top end refers to the NT’s northernmost part– around 400,000 square kilometers enclosing attractions like Kakadu and Katherine Gorge. The ‘top end’ is a name that, to me, shrugs off but doesn’t entirely suppress a suspicion of the unchartered that Australians have inherited from our first settlers. Before settlers arrived, this area was intersected by tribal nations and anchored by sacred sites. Now its name sounds like a hand waving over a map. The top end. All that up there.
In Barunga’s central park a local lady is weaving baskets from pandanus leaves. She wears the baggy T-shirt and long skirt favoured by indigenous women here and she demonstrates, rather than dictates, to chatty white women. Nearby, white men labour over didgeridoos, stripping and sanding termite-hollowed logs for a $50 fee. And why not? Tickets are just $30, camping is free, and drinking water flows fresh from taps. It seems almost incumbent on those with plumper wallets to contribute a little more.
Slide guitar virtuoso John Butler is headlining alongside Gurrumul tomorrow. His name has attracted many white visitors, mostly from Darwin, something that’s left festival coordinator Michelle Wild a little fretful. “We need to be careful Barunga’s not a victim of its own success”. Skinnyfish managing director, Mark Grose is more direct. ”If this turned into a festival where everything was geared to please whitefellas, the Aboriginal people would just walk away.”
Suddenly, my reporter’s hat feels like it’s on at a silly angle. I’d planned to stress the festival’s importance on the cultural calendar for any Australian or visiting tourist – but would I be doing it a disservice if I urged more to come? Grose, fortunately, sets me straight.
“It’s not numbers as much as the influence they exert on us to change it. Previous coordinators tried to make this something more sophisticated than it should be but the community gets lost in that. All of the activities here are things remote communities love. We’re not going to change that.”
Near the football field is a dense pocket of stalls. From a distance, they’re merry with colour, activity, and workers in matching tees. Closer in, they’re colourful in the same way flowers brighten a hospital ward. There’s the Department of Health (Alcohol and other Drugs), Jobfind, a mobile dialysis bus and the Family Violence Legal Service. Here, the word ‘festival’ seems to be a misnomer bordering on a cruel joke. There’s stalls on quitting petrol sniffing next to stalls on eating better; chemists giving advice on meds and the NT Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation which says it’s “flat out”. It’s a long, bleak distance from the vice-peddling escapism of the festivals I usually attend.
The stalls, of course, are a microcosm of the issues facing communities across a vast region where the tyranny of distance is a big part of the problem. It’s sobering, to say the least, and, even back at my tent for a nap, my unease is heightened by bats that never seem inclined to peacefully roost. Instead, they screech from the treetops like injured piglets, day and night, in a state of perennial vexation.
“Skinnyfish is not just a record label,” Grose explains as an ex-AFL star wanders by in a T-shirt saying ‘Get Active, Eat Good Tucker, Live Longer’. “With all of our artists, somebody’s sick, somebody’s on medication, everyone smokes. We can’t just ignore the context. In terms of public awareness, [mainstream society] was at a place with smoking, for example, where they’re at now. Music’s a vehicle for change and [Skinnyfish has] this incredible thing that engages remote community people. This sounds a bit silly but we’ve got to use it for good.”
As the sun sets that evening, traditional dance (bungul), didgeridoos and clapsticks launch the festivities. Dancers from Beswick – a community nearby – ask everyone to dance with them and many of the same keen whitefellas I saw weaving and didge-making join in. Laughter fills the park through a haze of dust.
On my way to bed, I pass the squat, bunker-like houses of Barunga residents, where extended family members move in and out of doors that never seem to close. A happy hullaballoo continues joined in the early hours by the lowing of buffalos – a pest right across the top end. Curiously, though, I sleep soundly, possibly knowing that because Barunga is a dry (alcohol-free) community, there’s scant risk events will turn ugly.
The next morning, I run the gauntlet of what seems like thousands of kids throwing, kicking and bouncing footballs, and attend a church service, where Anita –who is seemingly everywhere – is delivering a mix between sermon, info session and choir practice in kriole and English. The church smells of mosquito repellent and the fans spin slowly as Anita tells the congregation: “God is using kriole and indigenous people to do his work. He gives us strength, especially us ladies.”
The day is filled by a spear-throwing competition, damper-making and the easy fun of watching nimble kids on the climbing wall. There’s comedy in the small moments, like a excitement-filled AFL grand final, young aboriginal men leaping and twirling like ballerinas, yet with no scoreboard, the white spectators on blankets are left to watch for spectacle alone. There’s moments of self-reflection too, like when I realise I’m asking other white visitors for information, rather than an indigenous festival-goer who might know more.
I leave early the next day, passing several buffalo on road back out to the highway. Accustomed to vast distances, NT drivers drive notoriously fast but I’m spooked by kangaroo tails, stiff with rigor mortis, poking out from the grass by the road.
I stop in at art gallery, Top Didj, and meet Manuel, a gentle Dalabon man who I’d seen selling art at Barunga. We sit under a tree, drinking tea, and he tells me his story. “I was born bush and my parents they knew whitefella but didn’t want us to be taken away. Otherwise we might go to mission or to school somewhere down south. They were really scared, my parents, frightened, all the time, living in the bush, long way from Barunga.
“When I was about seven me and my friends went swimming in the waterhole and saw a whitefella coming down, and it was the first time we’d seen white people. We was really scared, we run bush, the colour, white, you know? We thought he was a ghost or a mimi spirit, the same colour like you, white.”
Manuel does cultural experiences at Top Didj now, the best part of which is when he tell this story. His story for tourists, stops, though, at a certain point, as though he inuits they’re interstred in traditional life more so than the difficult modern-day complications he daces. Privately, he tells me about the change he’s seen, from hunting for food, to earning money to buy it; from being an alcoholic, to being told one more beer would kill him and, ultimately, the peace he’s found now, working at Top Didj, and sharing his culture.
It’s been four long hot days since I showered so I take the 20-minute detour to Nitmiluk, a magnificent national park of deep sandstone-carved gorges and waterfalls.
Five English tourists sit on the swimming ramp, enjoying the afternoon. One sees my armband. “You went to Barunga?” I blurt briefly, passionately, about why they should go too, next year, then dive into the gorge.
When I emerge, I hear the girl say: “Have you heard of Burning Man? It’s a festival in the desert, in America. They set up a whole city and they burn it after.”
Driving out of Nitmiluk, back on to Darwin, past ancient termite mounds standing sentinel by the road, and kites keening and swooping above, I think of Barunga and of Burning Man. They burn it after. Barunga, really, for whitefellas like me could be seen as a festival of social realism. I hope that what was built there this weekend, however intangible, will never be burnt down.