Truth telling at Garma

Each year, the ancient sound of the Yidaki, or didjeridoo, signals the start of Garma. It is a call to all people to come together to share knowledge and culture; to learn and to listen.

“You will hear us singing tonight and we will be singing to our ancestors, who are your ancestors too,” Djawa Yunupingu, a senior Gumatj leader and deputy chair of the Yothu Yindi Foundation told the rapt audience as he welcomed us to the sacred ceremonial grounds of the Yolgnu people.

“We will be singing to remind them that we are here, maintaining our connection to them, for their appreciation. And we do this not just for us, but for all of us.”

Djawa’s extraordinary words of inclusion strike at the heart of reconciliation. Each of us lives on a continent with an extraordinary 60,000 years of culture. No other place on the planet has such a long human history. This is our history and our culture.

Sixty thousand years of wisdom is hard to fathom, but as author Richard Flanagan told us, this civilisation was already 50,000 years old “when the first corals began to form of what we now know as the Great Barrier Reef”.

“We stand as the inheritors of a people whose languages, cultures and Dreamings are founded in that experience of deep time unknown to humanity anywhere else in the world.”

Garma is Australia’s Indigenous equivalent of the World Economic Forum. Hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, Garma brings together 2,500 political and business leaders to tackle Indigenous disadvantage while also celebrating and strengthening the Yolgnu people and their culture. This year, I joined a delegation of people from Australia’s property industry, business community and academia.

Garma puts everyone on a level playing field. Each of us treads on the same red soil, sleeps under the same sky and eats by the same fire. It is an extraordinary equaliser, and like nothing I’ve experienced elsewhere in my business life.

While we are at Garma, we are on Yolgnu land. We listen to Yolgnu music, follow Yolgnu laws and learn Yolgnu customs. It is a reverse of what we expect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our cities.

Truth telling – or Yuwalk Lakamara in the Yolgnu language – was at the heart of this year’s festival.

Truth telling is sometimes hard to hear – whether that’s acknowledging the failure of successive ‘close the gap’ policies or whether it is mapping the massacres that occurred around our nation.

We can’t hide from Australia’s history. The prosperity and opportunity we enjoy today came at a terrible price to many First Australians. It is only by telling the truth that we can heal, as a nation, and move forward.

Non-Indigenous people have enjoyed a stolen sovereignty, Djawa said.

“Truth is that we are not united in this country – we are not comfortable – and we remain uncertain and troubled by this truth.” We live side by side, but as “two people, two laws, one country”.

The truth is, we can reimagine ourselves as a nation. A First Nations voice, enshrined in the constitution, will help this ancient sovereignty to “shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood,” as the Uluru statement argues.

As dawn broke on Garma’s final day, I joined two dozen other women – captains of industry, members of mining boards and aviation executives – in a circle around a campfire. Djapirri Mununggirritj, a Yolgnu elder, board director of Reconciliation Australia and political trailblazer, asked us to reflect on what we’d learnt.

‘Lifechanging’ was a word used over and over to describe the lessons learnt at Garma. Of the Yolgnu’s respect for land and every living thing on it. Of their deep and enduring connection with country. And of our own need to listen to the land and the people who have been its custodians for sixty millennia.

As each of us left behind the red soil and startling blue sky of Arnhem land, we flew back to our homes and our workplaces. We will present to our boards, chat with colleagues, engage at events, write articles and speak to the media. And we will tell other Australians that reconciliation is not just for First Australians. It is for all Australians.

For the property industry, reconciliation is absolutely central to our core business. Each one of our projects – whether a bespoke building or a massive master-planned community – rests on Indigenous land.

Property companies can take many practical steps towards reconciliation: RAPs, education and skills training, graduate programs, and harnessing the power of procurement for example. But every new project should start with a meeting with local land owners. This can be as informal as “having a cup of tea”, Lendlease’s Executive Lead on Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation, Cath Brokenborough suggests.

We have been given a gift. The world’s oldest living culture surrounds us. Our opportunity – as an industry and as individuals – is to celebrate that culture, and for our work to respect and reflect the land on which it rests.