With the support of the Telstra Foundation and the Australian Research Council, RMIT researchers investigated the role and significance of Indigenous cultural festivals in wellbeing outcomes for Indigenous communities and their young people. They found that festivals really do matter to communities; from a proliferation of very small events celebrating local community life, to complex, large-scale events with a national and international profile. Whatever scale they operate at, festivals support communities in their efforts to maintain and renew themselves through the celebration of culture.
In the search for practical outcomes it can be easy for policy-makers to overlook questions of culture as a marginal concern. By contrast, for many Indigenous communities culture is at the core of community life and their aspirations for a healthy and productive future. Culture has to be the starting point in any serious efforts to address Indigenous disadvantage with Indigenous people. Increasingly, agencies with responsibilities for Indigenous health, education, employment and other wellbeing outcomes are realising that cultural festivals are a powerful space for working effectively with communities on their own terrain: opening dialogue, engaging participation and working in partnerships to both imagine better futures and deliver results in these crucial areas.
In both Indigenous and mainstream Australia festivals are thriving; proliferating all over the country as communities learn from each others’ experiences and want to share in the benefits of holding a festival locally. Festivals are an unqualified good news story in Indigenous Australia! They still hold huge untapped potential for supporting community development goals, including the massive unmet demand for international and domestic Indigenous tourism experiences. Despite this proven capacity for positive outcomes, and the latent, untapped potential of the Indigenous festivals sector, it remains vulnerable
in a host of ways, from event management capacity (sometimes depending on one key individual), to the perennial problem of inadequate and insecure funding to establish professional support organisations and related employment.
Carefully considered programmatic government support is urgently needed for Indigenous Festivals, not only because of the ways they support community cultural identity across generations, but also for their capacity to enhance the lives of marginalised or isolated peoples and communities in a whole range of areas including health, education, employment, small business, regional development, and of course cultural and arts development. This last point alone should be sufficient reason to support Indigenous festivals. Indigenous Australia is a rich, living web of the oldest continuous cultural traditions on earth. While the experiences of the last two centuries have seen this web torn and battered in places, it still persists in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. Festivals not only provide reasons and spaces to renew and regenerate these traditions, they also create spaces where these cultures can be shared appropriately with all Australians and the rest of the world.
Authors: Peter Phipps and Lisa Slater with Bo Svoronos, Danielle Wyatt, Maya Haviland and Glenn Morrow.