Performing Cultural Survival and Community Transformation

YouTube sensation The Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island in Arnhem Land perform at the Dreaming Festival, 2008. Photo: Peter Phipps.

Indigenous festivals are booming. There are well over 100 Indigenous festivals in Australia annually — from small, one-day events with a focus on sport, music, culture, history or a mix of these, to a smaller number of large, complex tourism-arts events such as Garma or The Dreaming. The vast majority of Indigenous festivals are small, locally oriented events held primarily for their local Indigenous communities without dedicated festival administration or support, but pulled together by local communities and organisations often on short timeframes.

While being framed very differently by the destructive experiences of colonialism and cultural repression, many of the features of the Indigenous festival scene are similar to those of the mainstream non-Indigenous community. The broad range of demonstrated community benefits generated through festivals range from the most intangible aspects of identity and wellbeing, through to a significant local economic impact (estimated in Victoria, NSW and Tasmania alone to be nearly $10 billion annually). While economic and social impacts vary, these positive outcomes are particularly important for generating hope in disadvantaged Indigenous communities.

Corroborees to Festivals

Celebrations and rituals are a key dimension of human cultures. Indigenous peoples have been conducting ceremonies and rituals on this country for an extremely long time. Among the functions of Aboriginal ceremonial life is to bring together different clan groups to perform and renew the law at significant times and places in the presence of related peoples. It is common for people entering one another’s country to engage in ritual and ceremonial exchanges, frequently exchanging songs, dances and stories with people from far away. In the early and later colonial periods non-Indigenous settlers were drawn in to witness these performative exchanges between Aboriginal people, which came to be widely known and popularised as the ‘corroboree’.

In the early colonial period corroborees were a highly regarded hybrid entertainment performed widely in south-eastern Australia to large, enthusiastic audiences in the first part of the nineteenth century, and then spreading from South Australia into what is now the Northern Territory. Regular entertainments in Melbourne and Adelaide from the 1830s to 1840s were large, lucrative entrepreneurial events run by Aboriginal people, and later in partnership with non-Indigenous promoters and sporting clubs as pioneers of modern ‘leisure culture’. It was only the intervention of colonial governments banning these events, and policies driving Aboriginal people out of the cities (and labour markets) and into controlled reserves and missions that dampened this thriving market.

Mission and government authorities tried to regulate Indigenous performance on their own terms: for important visitors to reserves, or in cities and towns on significant national occasions such as settlement centenaries, royal jubilees, coronation celebrations and so on. Despite this control, Aboriginal people kept running their own corroborees on the fringes of rural fairs and sporting events, some exclusively as traditional ceremonial business, others as public events drawing in a broad audience, and sometimes a complex combination of these.

The cultural assertiveness of Aboriginal communities following the 1967 referendum has found many outlets in sports, the visual and performing arts, popular music, film and festivals. Festivals are just one of these expressive spaces, but one with the broadest range of purposes, forms of participation and opportunities. This period in which many of the controls were being lifted on Aboriginal people’s lives coincided with significant social transformations in the Australian mainstream. This period has seen the strengthening of movements for human rights and specifically Indigenous rights as part of that struggle, and a media and migration-driven cultural transformation involving greater openness to cultural diversity at home and abroad.

Throughout the leisure societies of the world, ‘festivals’ have become ubiquitous spaces: the extension of music festivals, cultural festivals, sport and lifestyle festivals as an established, substantial industry and part of the cultural landscape. This ‘training’ has produced a very large market of experienced festival-goers familiar with the rituals of tickets and passes, tent cities, portable toilets and food stalls. As with the earlier corroborees, Indigenous festivals are a potent site for cross-cultural negotiations of meaning and spaces where Indigenous people can actively represent themselves and their culture in a positive light, as well as providing opportunities for economic participation on Indigenous terms.

Indigenous Festivals Now

The Indigenous visual arts story is now legendary: a relatively marginal art practice largely situated as ‘tourist crafts’ boomed over a thirty year period to the point where it became a major cultural industry and an international art phenomenon with multiple benefits to Indigenous communities.

Along with the visual arts, cultural festivals are one of the few consistently positive spaces for Indigenous communities to show their kids, and the world, a more positive view of their culture. Indigenous cultural festivals involve intercultural negotiation and learning on Indigenous terms, and actually do provide the multiple benefits of employment, economic development and cultural renewal that governments say they want.

Indigenous communities maintain some of the oldest and most vulnerable precious cultural assets of humanity. They have a well-spring of ‘story’ — cultural creativity — the world is eager to see, hear and experience. Despite this richness Aboriginal people are represented as always failing in key mainstream indicators: not healthy, educated, employed, etcetera. Festivals are a space that pushes this discussion beyond the ‘deficit model’ in Indigenous affairs to recognise the enormous wealth of cultural creativity and individual talent that resides in Indigenous Australia.

Two of the most prominent of these festivals are Garma, held annually on Yolngu land in Arnhem land, and the Dreaming Festival, on Jinibara land at Woodford in Queensland.1 Garma is a gathering of national political, cultural and academic significance, and yet remains a very local gathering of Yolngu clans on Yolngu land for Yolngu purposes. Garma is also a national academic and policy forum on Indigenous issues, a local employment initiative, a youth music development and industry training opportunity for young people from Indigenous communities across the Top End, a local youth forum, and most importantly a celebration of Yolngu song, dance traditions in daily bunggul performances, among many other things. Running since 1999, Garma has accumulated a remarkable array of community development initiatives that run outside of the festival timeframe, including a women’s healing initiative, a men’s alcohol diversionary program and a cultural services business providing cultural inductions to new Rio Tinto mine employees.

The Dreaming Festival is very different again, having more of a national and international Indigenous arts showcase emphasis, the impact of which is much more broadly dispersed amongst participating artists (both professional and community-based) and audiences (Indigenous and non-Indigenous). By promoting the best of local and international Indigenous performance, the Dreaming Festival promotes Indigenous creativity, identity and wellbeing.

Policy Context

There are obvious, pressing social and demographic reasons to support, engage and deploy any and all areas of Indigenous social and economic strength in the broader project of Indigenous community development. In the knowledge and service-oriented economy of contemporary Australia (not to mention the mining boom on Aboriginal lands) there has never been a firmer economic foundation from which to support and cultivate this talent. Yet remarkably, policy and programs in this area are severely neglected in terms of attention and funding. While Commonwealth Indigenous policy and programs remain adrift, and in some instances (such as housing or health outcomes in the NT ‘Intervention’) notoriously ineffective, this is one area where some coordination and even a modest doubling of existing funding could make a huge difference to communities.

There is clear evidence throughout my 2010 report on Indigenous Festivals that Indigenous festivals in Australia are already contributing significantly to Indigenous community wellbeing from the less tangible areas of cultural maintenance to direct economic benefits. It is clear that with more systematic policy and program support this contribution could be much greater still. Understood as an industry sector, Indigenous festivals are both extremely dynamic, with enormous development potential, and at the same time they are very vulnerable in a number of ways. The key strength in the sector is the cultural expression that has been long-repressed, and the talented and creative individuals and communities who want to share that culture both among themselves, and with others.

The key risk factor for individual festivals, and reflected in the sector generally, are the vulnerable, limited and inconsistent resource bases they draw on for their success: human resources, organisational infrastructure and funding. The first and most crucial of these is the human and cultural resources in Indigenous communities which are too often in crisis; dealing with the loss of key organisers and knowledge holders to premature death, disability or other pressing responsibilities; ‘too much sorry business’ as is often reported by Indigenous people and borne out in much-quoted mortality figures. In relation to some of these festivals there is an immediate employment and training opportunity for Indigenous cultural specialists and others, ‘at home’ in their own communities or region. As just one example, the Garma festival in Arnhem Land employs 130 Yolngu during the festival in roles ranging from cultural tourism services, to the women’s healing program, to festival site security. In the case of regional festivals this transforms some of the limitations of remote and rural locality into an advantage, and presents positive models and networks for Indigenous people to further develop their entrepreneurship and work skills in the cultural, tourism and other service sectors.

The cultivation of local Indigenous community management has tended to borrow talent from other organisations out of necessity, rather than the festival sector building its own capacity. Training and mentorship in organising a festival and other events requires, firstly, having long-term organisational capacity which most festivals cannot afford. Secondly it requires sustained, long-term partnerships with government agencies, funders and education providers to support the training process, fund traineeships and then ensure that there are real jobs to move into from those training positions. Up to this point there is little evidence of government or other agencies providing this kind of long-term support.

Governments look for a simple, short-term ‘fix’ in ‘Indigenous affairs’ leading to inconsistent policy made on the run (like the NT intervention) in defiance of the evidence. In the 1990s ‘Indigenous affairs’ became a destructively politicised object in a broader ideological contestation going on in Australian politics, to the detriment of Indigenous Australians and the policies and programs that frame their opportunities. But by listening carefully to Indigenous communities and properly resourcing sustained programs and genuine, respectful partnerships, incremental, long-term benefits can happen.

Festivals are organised by a wide variety of institutions with varied capacities. Of the festivals we studied they are variously run by an Indigenous cultural foundation (Garma), a non-Indigenous company (CrocFest), a local government (Yalukit Willam Ngargee) and a folk music festival foundation (The Dreaming Festival). Added to this are education providers, sports clubs, individual philanthropists, health centres, media organisations and others. Some of these organisations are able to absorb much of the organisational costs of festivals into their general operating expenses, while others rely heavily on volunteer labour, external funding and gate revenues to make them viable.


Festival managers repeat a dilemma common to other small arts and cultural organisations: their organisations are structured for cultural purposes but in order to produce cultural events they have to mobilise themselves for rounds of competitive funding applications with long lead times, uncertain outcomes and demanding reporting requirements. The three main programs that support Indigenous festivals are: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council (ATSIAB) Celebrations program; Festivals Australia (one-off grants of less than $10,000); and the Indigenous Culture Support (ICS) program which supports the maintenance and continued development of Indigenous culture at the community level.

There is no coordination of these sources of Commonwealth funding or other levels of government. The Federal department responsible for Indigenous affairs (FaHCSIA) does not have identifiable programs supporting Indigenous community festivals. Government priorities for festivals can be summed up by then Education Minister Gillard in 2008,

The festivals will promote contemporary and traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, with activities including access to role models, and workshops focusing on literacy, numeracy, confidence building, teamwork, sustainability and tolerance. There will also be information and advice on health and well being, careers and educational opportunities.

The philanthropic sector varies widely in its interests and approach, from a close partnership model with a particular community or organisation to a more generic funding model focussed on the arts or Indigenous community development. Corporate sponsorship can range from small to medium-scale local businesses supplying goods or services for free or at cost or making donations, to very large national or multinational corporations contributing to communities in their region of operations, with an interest in being identified with iconic events. Most of these events also depend on large numbers of volunteers drawn from the local community and sometimes elsewhere providing a lot of the logistical services from parking to toilet cleaning required to keep an event running.


Indigenous people around the world face daily struggles for survival: in disputes about land-use; resource allocation; language; religious and cultural freedoms and education; health; employment and livelihoods. They are up against multinational mining companies, loggers, ranchers, assimilationist, corrupt or indifferent governments, armies and militias, the pressures of demography and poverty, everyday racism and exclusion, all of which conspire against the sustainability of Indigenous cultures and their communities. Through all these circumstances it is remarkable that many communities continue to offer up rich treasuries of cultural wealth as a gift to share with anyone willing to learn.

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, Indigenous peoples in Australia and across the Asia-Pacific are loudly asserting that they and their distinctive cultures are very much alive. Despite the pressures on them, these communities are using cultural festivals as a space to celebrate, renew and reinvent their cultural traditions.


Peter Phipps. Originally published as part of the special festivals review in Music Forum, April 2012, Vol. 18.3, 34-36. Entered on knowledge base 12 May 2013.


  1. Woodford has temporarily suspended work on The Dreaming as it lacks adequate government funding and sponsorship for the event. It hopes to return the festival as a stand-alone event after 2013.↩︎

Dr Peter Phipps is Director of International Studies at RMIT University. He has published on Indigenous festivals, tourism and the politics of cultural globalization and has consulted to a number of organizations and government bodies in Australia, the Pacific and Europe.

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *