15 August 2022

Jane French, Executive Director, Children, Youth and Families shares her experience attending the Garma Festival in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Scott Ferguson, NT Director, Disability and Mental Health, Jane French, Executive Director, Children, Youth and Family and Rob Russell, Director, National Reconciliation.

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Garma Festival in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The festival was held at a sacred location of the Yolgnu people, an eight-hour drive East from Darwin and in sight of the beautiful waters of the Gove Peninsula. 

In this glorious outback environment, we enjoyed the full camping experience and were treated all day and night to a range of cultural activities and experiences, as well as deep and at times, intense speeches from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and politicians. 

Hearing our Prime Minister commit to implement ALL of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and announce a way forward to establish a referendum on an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament was so powerful. 

It really felt like we were witnessing history being made. 

The Uluru Statement from the Heart essentially asks for three things: An Aboriginal and Torres Islander Voice to Parliament, a Treaty, and a commitment to Truth-telling in our country about past practices that have made life so hard for many of our First Nations People. Life Without Barriers will be proudly supporting all three of these reconciliation pillars. 

The Yolgnu people learn through observation and listening, and I tried hard to practice that while I was at Garma. So, instead of asking a thousand questions, I watched and observed. It was beautiful to witness the Yolgnu children playing freely in the red dirt, to observe the toddlers imitate their fathers in ceremonial dance, and to hear children, families, and groups speak their cultural language and demonstrate their connection to Country through ritual. 

On my first night back in Darwin, I spent hours down the ‘google rabbit hole’ trying to learn more about the Yolgnu people and East Arnhem Land. In my search, I came across an article quoting Mark Guyula, an Aboriginal NT Politician representing Nhulunbuy Yingiya. In this 2017 article, he was commenting on the fact that nine children had recently been removed from their Yolgnu families and placed into Government foster care in Darwin. 

Through the journalist, he spoke directly to these children, sending them a powerful message.

I want to say to you that you are loved. You are not orphans. There is no such thing as ‘orphan’ in Yolgnu society. There is always another kin that can care for you. Your people, your nation, are fighting for you now. We did not want you to go. We want you back. Never believe you can’t come back. 

This. This hit me profoundly. And it is what will drive me to work hard to deliver on Life Without Barrier’s commitment to return Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to their communities over the coming decade. 

The Yolgnu experience and this message to their children pierced my heart.

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