North-East Arnhem Land Cultural Immersion Trip

By: Chris Tejcek – Indigenous Liaison Coordinator and Secondary Teacher

Connecting to Culture, Community, and Country can arguably happen anywhere around the world and in so many magnificent places throughout this Country. So why North-East Arnhem Land? Why Yolŋu Country? And why with Culture College?

As I sit here looking at my screen, the cursor line flashing on and off, waiting somewhat impatiently for me to write the answers to these questions, I find myself stuck…almost paralysed by the impossibility of the task at hand. How can I use a series of words on a page to sum up one of the most profound and life-affirming experiences of my life? Experiences that spoke to my innermost self. The ‘me’ that I find when I look beyond ego, the ‘me’ that is present when no one else is around and the ‘me’ that I discovered when holding each of my children for the very first time. I’m struggling because I’m trying to describe the indescribable and find a way to measure something with no scale. The AIS Culture College North-East Arnhem Land cultural immersion trip was to me a gift that I will be unwrapping for the rest of my life.

Arriving at Nhulunbuy Airport, as a diverse group of educators from both SA and NSW, we’re warmly greeted by Culture College staff and by the hot and humid air that told us all that we’re now on Yolŋu Country. For the next seven days, we would take our hearts and souls on a listening and learning journey that would give each of us a glimpse into the life and culture of the Yolŋu People. With the care and openness of the Yolŋu people and the guidance of Culture College staff, we were given the time to learn the language, understand traditional connections to Country and listen to Traditional Owners and knowledge keepers share their unique understandings of the land, waterways and sky.

Our trip was beautifully bookended by staying on Gumatj Country at the ‘Gulkula site’, the home of ‘the Garma Festival’. It is a place of great ceremony, and you can feel it. It’s powerful there, and the energy grounded and calmed me almost instantly. My heart sang, “I’m home!” Country will talk to you that way if you know how to listen. Gulkula says, “slow down, breath, be still”. I described it to one of my friends as similar to the feeling of laying on the warm pool tiles after swimming in water that’s a bit cold. You get out buzzing with energy, a little out of breath and then in an instant, your body calms, relaxes, and breaths…that’s ‘Gulkula’ for me. The warmth and calm that grounds and centres you from the wintery and busy world from which we all came. 

Four hours of travelling through the bumpy Central Arnhem Highway in our “Troopy Bush Taxis” (meters off) saw us arrive in Nyinyikay Homeland. Welcomed to Country in the most special way, each of us knew that what we were about to learn was going to be special. Our three-night stay in Nyinyikay was every bit of that and more. Each of us was blessed with a learning experience that started when our eyes and ears awoke in the morning and continued throughout the day and into the night and, for some of us, even into our dreams. This was learning by listening, learning by watching, learning with your heart, as well as learning with your mind. Each day we took our place as students with our teacher, Yolŋu Traditional Owner and Knowledge Keeper Marcus ‘Mungul’ Lacey. Marcus showed each and every one of us love, generosity and patience as he shared his people’s ‘Garma’ (Public Knowledge) and imparted in each and every one of us a knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Yolŋu culture that we will never forget.

After three and half days of connecting to culture, community and Country, we said goodbye to our Nyinyikay friends and family. Our hearts and minds overflowed with knowledge, love and gratitude for everything we had learnt, experienced and shared. The arrival back at Gulkula was just what we needed to bring us back down to earth. Like in the beginning, Gulkula was there to ground us, to welcome us home and give us time to take in all of what we had just experienced. Departing Arnhem Land was not going to be easy, but I think we all knew that a part of us would never leave. Arnhem Land had spoken to us all, Yolŋu gave us the tools and language to understand Country, and I think we were listening.

Many people may ask you why you want or think you need to go to Arnhem Land to have an Indigenous Cultural Immersion experience. And the answer is, “You don’t.” Culture is everywhere in Australia, Country is everywhere, Community is everywhere. But unfortunately, for so many heartbreaking and trauma-filled reasons, many of the wonderful things we experienced on Yolŋu Country have been damaged or broken. Many places are in various stages of revival or are still sleeping, waiting to be woken again. Arnhem Land is one of the few places we have left (and yes, there are others) that has a connection to culture, community and Country that has been flowing in an almost unaltered state for over 60,000 years. It is the 4K high-definition television signal to the slightly crackly static-filled signal many of us have experienced in our lives in the cities and towns throughout the South-East quadrant of our Nation.

Awaken you. Awaken your spirit, and to quote Yothu Yindi, “Listen to your Tribal Voice”. Chances are, if you are reading this, you already want to go, so contact Culture College and make that dream your reality. No part of you will regret it. I am and will be forever grateful to my school, Culture College and most importantly, the Yolŋu people of North-East Arnhem Land for everything that I have learnt, experienced and brought back to my family, school and community from having gone on the trip.

This article was written by Chris Tejcek; BA SC Protected Area Management UQ, Grad Dip Teaching and Learning USQ. Chris is K-12 Indigenous Liaison Coordinator and Secondary Geography, Sustainability and Marine Studies Teacher at St Columba Anglican School Port Macquarie. Chris lives with his wife (Penny) and three young children (Jarrah, Archie and Daisy) on a small regenerative farm on Birpai Country in Beechwood, NSW.

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