Skip to main content

Your free what's on guide to the NT

From Little Things, Big Things Grow

At the 1988 Barunga Festival, Prime Minister Bob Hawke was presented with a painted bark containing words in English, surrounded by art symbolic of the mobs in northern and central Australia, calling on the Australian Government to recognise the rights of Aboriginal people in this country. It was the Barunga Statement.

By Tierney Seccull

This month, 35 years since the Barunga Statement was handed over, the time to gather on Jawoyn Country for the annual Barunga Festival has come. And although the promise of a treaty made in 1988 as a result of the Barunga Statement is yet to be fulfilled, the resilience of the Jawoyn people of Barunga Community, the connection to and celebration of their culture, remains steadfast.

Offering three huge days of Indigenous music, culture and sport, Barunga Festival has grown to be one of the most anticipated cultural festivals in the country.  

Founded in 1985 by Peter Apaak Jupurrula Miller, a proud Aboriginal man who has fought for land rights and devoted much of his life to teaching, the festival was formed through his vision to create a space for all to meet.

“What I believe is special about Barunga, when you’re looking at it from a traditional cultural point of view, is that it was always regarded as the go-between community between the Top End and the desert … the trade link between tribes from up north on the coastal areas, and the desert tribes way down in and around Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, and beyond,” Apaak says.

“Back in the early eighties, I thought what a fantastic place this could be if I could found something that’s going to bring everyone together from all walks of life. That’s what I want Australia to become, where we come together and share our unique thoughts and processes about where we want to go as a country … it’s like a meeting place between all walks of life.”

For almost 40 years, the small community of Barunga – home to approximately 360 people – sees almost 4,000 festival-goers come together for the annual celebration.

Beloved Barunga offers three days of camping with AFL, Rugby Sevens and basketball, food stalls, a traditional art and craft fair, and screenings of documentaries from the region. Ticketed cultural workshops give you the chance to learn the art of weaving, didgeridoo making, damper making, and bush medicine.

This year, Numbulwar’s Red Flag Dancers return to perform at a traditional buŋgul – a special ceremony and meeting place of dance, song and ritual. And as music is integral to Barunga, bands hit the stage throughout the weekend to blast out tunes ‘til late.

For the past decade, Skinnyfish Music has presented the festival with the Bagala Traditional Owners and Barunga Festival Committee, a collaboration that has seen it blossom into the huge event it is today. 

This year, the festival is under ownership of the Bagala Aboriginal Corporation after beginning the transition to self-management from Aboriginal Investment Group support last year, something General Manager Helen Lee says is an exciting development.

“I’m excited that Bagala has ownership, and that there’s recognition of the community members for their contribution to Barunga Community itself. We all have to remember that it’s 35 years since the Barunga Statement, which is very huge and significant for the people of Barunga.”

Apaak says the festival represents so much more than a three-day event, once a year, planting seeds of change and action within the community.

“We’ve had some very important visits, like Prime Minister Bob Hawke when he came and spoke at large about the treaty process. Everything that’s going on today, like the Voice to Parliament, that’s all generated from festivals like Barunga,” he says.

“Paul Kelly, the singer from down south, he wrote a song ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’ – that really is what it’s all about.”

Senior Traditional Owner Esther Bulumbara says her people welcome the opportunity to hear about the plan for a Voice to Parliament, Treaty and truth-telling at this year’s Barunga.

“This is important information we need to know, particularly for our young people … we also invite visitors with open arms to come and stay on our Country, and enjoy and participate in First Nation People’s culture and way of life.“

If immersing yourself in Jawoyn Culture, side-by-side with the Barunga Community and the Bagala clan sounds special, that’s because it is. Apaak urges you to join them.

“Please. If you’ve got nothing to lose, but millions to gain, come there. Get into the spirit of togetherness, that’s what Australia is all about, coming together. Barunga Festival was made just for that reason.”

Barunga Festival

Thumbnail & header: Image supplied by Red Flag Dancers
Inset top: 
The Barunga Statement 1988. Natural pigments on composition board with attached printed text on paper presented by the Central Land Council and Northern Land Council in 1988. Gifts collection, Parliament House Art Collection
Inset bottom: Digital reproduction from the original 1988 Barunga Festival poster (detail), original artwork by ©Chips Mackinolty in recognition of 35 years of the Barunga Statement

More reads

Advertisement: Darwin Fringe 2024