Born to be a leader, the heir to an ancient dynasty, this young man has a bold vision for his community and country.
On the ceremonial grounds of his ancestors, Michael Yunupingu performs an old welcoming dance to thousands of new guests.
In formation with his brothers, uncles and cousins, he moves across the red earth, chanting, contorting and stomping — this is the traditional welcome to the Garma Festival.
Michael was born into a family that have has revered in Arnhem Land for centuries, and he is the bearer who will bring the culture and customs of the Yolngu nation into the modern age.
Dancers from the Gumatj clan perform at the opening ceremony for the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land. (Tim Leslie: ABC News)
Joevhan Burarrwangam and his father share a moment during the opening ceremony of the 2019 Garma festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
But he carries another challenge: to break the cycle of poverty and powerlessness his people are experiencing, and he is not backing down.
“Let’s transform and make something powerful, so powerful we start a movement.”
These are the words he has memorised, part of a speech to the country’s Governor-General, the new Minister for Indigenous Australians, and thousands of other Australians who have travelled to his family’s country.
“I balance two different worlds that are sadly not treated the same.
“We have the opportunity to assist each other to create a better future.”
It’s a stirring message to kick off the annual Garma Festival, the event his family started two decades ago to drive conversations about the challenges facing Indigenous Australians.
A young Yolngu boy looks up at Michael Yunupingu as he speaks at the opening ceremony of the Garma Festival. (Tim Leslie: ABC News)
Michael Yunupingu addresses the crowd at the opening ceremony for the 2019 Garma Festival. (Tim Leslie: ABC News)
Michael holds a copy of the speech he delivered at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Garma Festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
The festival bears a special potency for him: they were born in the same year, and both are coming of age.
“Twenty-one is an age of significance and a symbol of adulthood,” he tells the crowd.
“Let’s make the 21st year of Garma the start of a new innovative approach … looking around here I can see something, a future, an opportunity for a brighter future.”
It seems his message has cut through. Moments after the welcoming ceremony wraps up, Minister Wyatt makes a beeline for Michael.
He grabs him, and with earnest eyes whispers something to the young man.
Days later, in a message to the press, the minister would refer to him as a “future leader,” whose “hopes, challenges and wisdom” must be listened to by the Morrison Government.
But Michael wants the ear of more than just the Government: he wants every Australian to hear his story and struggle.
‘I try to be a leader in every way possible’
The dirt road that leads to the community of Yirrkala, in the Northern Territory. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
Michael drives to the Indigenous community of Yirrkala in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. (ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)
Whenever he returns to one of the remote Top End communities he spent time in as a child, Michael is reminded of the persistent challenges his people face.
He moved to Adelaide as a teen for school and university, and has just completed a Bachelor of Sports Science.
He comes back as much as he can, but he now works full time mentoring young Aboriginal talent for the Adelaide Crows.
“You know when you see it in real life, and you live in both words, you realise a lot of the differences and a lot of problems,” he said.
“Problems in the community with alcohol, drugs, a massive thing up here is petrol sniffing — and that’s what you come home to.”
“That’s what a lot of people don’t realise, is how much of a problem it is within the community and how much it affects them and their upbringing.”
He notes that Indigenous Australians living in remote areas are likely to be sicker, poorer and die younger than anyone else in the country.
“Things like kids smoking, everyone up here smokes, everyone up here does these little things that are risk factors for diseases.”
But today he’s just excited to be back in town to play a fast and furious footy match alongside his family.
“They play the game differently up here, it’s much quicker.”
His face lights up as he sees old friends, cousins, uncles and aunts, and he quickly ties up his football boots for a warm-up drill.
Michael jokes with his teammates before the match starts in Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
In a quiet conversation on the sidelines, he checks in on a team-mate, and discusses possible work opportunities for his friend.
“I just love giving back to my family and that’s my main sort of goal, is to keep on motivating them,” he said.
“I try to be a leader in every way possible … [but] I don’t want to be this special person or be this one big leader.
“I want to create different leaders in the community and motivate people … a whole clan group of people, a whole generation of people is stronger than just one person.”
Players shake hand before kickoff at a game of football in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
The first bounce in a game of football in the Indigenous community of Yirrkala. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
Players, including Michael Yunupingu, contest the ball during a game in the NT community of Yirrkala. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
A family’s calling
At 21 years old, Michael appears wise beyond his years, something he attributes to the lessons he has learnt from his famous family.
Michael’s grandfather is one of Australia’s most respected elders, the Gumatj clan leader, Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu.
Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu addresses the crowd at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Garma festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
Michael Yunupingu listens to Gumatj elder Djawa Yunupingu speak at the 2019 Garma festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
For many Australians, Dr Yunupingu is familiar as one of the faces of the politically-charged rock band Yothu Yindi, known for their hit songs like Treaty.
But he has long been a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights, negotiating with nine Australian prime ministers.
Like Michael, the senior Yunupingu was bestowed with leadership at a young age, taking on the fight from his father Mungurrawuy.
In his early twenties he was already having conversations with then-prime minister Billy McMahon about why Yolngu people wanted land rights and a treaty.
In years to follow he would invite the newly elected Malcolm Fraser onto his country to go fishing, in a bid to convince him that mining in the region must stop.
And he was one of the elders who convinced Bob Hawke that Indigenous Australians needed a treaty, moving him to make the promise to enact one in 1988.
But Hawke lost government before he could secure a treaty, famously breaking down to Dr Yunupingu over his undelivered promise to Indigenous Australians, one that remains unfulfilled to this day.
Michael Yunupingu inherits this battle, and this year’s Garma marks his first foray into negotiating with Australia’s politicians.
The family’s power and influence as leaders in the Yolngu nation have transcended into modern Australia, transforming a family festival into an eminent political platform.
Every year, corporate leaders and politicians make a pilgrimage to Yolngu nation for Garma, which sits in an isolated enclave in the Top End, cradling the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The event is a showcase of the Yolngu dance, song and culture, but now also bears the flags of big corporate sponsors; mining companies, banks and major universities.
More than 2,500 people pay upwards of $2,000 to sleep in tents on camp beds for a few days, just to hear the voices of the Yunupingu dynasty. The crowd includes government power-brokers, academics and company executives.
Each year, Dr Yunupingu, now 71 years old, takes the opportunity to make a call to action to the Government, but this year it had a new sense of urgency.
“This time we are saying enough is enough,” he said from his wheelchair, parked directly in front of the new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, at the opening ceremony of Garma.
“There have been many times we have gone to the Government asking what they will do to help the Aboriginal people, and they have done nothing.”
This year, Dr Yunupingu made a call for the Government to “act quickly” and enact constitutional change.
He lamented that it could be the crucial thing his people need to find equity and agency in this country.
Indigenous elder Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu calls for constitutional recognition at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Garma festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
Members of the Gumatj people, including elder Djawa Yunupingu, watch as Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu addresses the Garma opening ceremony. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
Ken Wyatt has a conversation with Michael Yunupingu after the opening ceremony of the 2019 Garma festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
‘It’s up to us now’ to solve ‘unfinished business’
It wouldn’t be the first time governments have listened to the family, who have been integral in the fight for Northern Territory land rights.
The scars of this fight, years of mining, or “broken dreamings,” cut through the pristine wilderness.
For the Yolngu people, each bit of brown earth, every tree in the stringybark forests, all the grains of sand swept onto the rugged coastline, are part of their dreaming.
Their dreamtime stories work like encyclopedias, maps and calendars, teaching each generation how to live in the unforgiving environment.
It’s how they survived here for millennia, never leaving or ceding sovereignty, as mines and towns were built around them.
Yolngu people fought for ownership and royalties of their mineral-rich land, but their nation is still struggling from the dispossession, said Djawa Yunupingu.
He is the younger brother of Dr Yunupingu, another leader of the Gumatj clan, and he is fighting for his people to be heard in modern Australia.
This is the “unfinished business” that he and his-great nephew will keep working towards.
Djawa Yunupingu, an elder of the Gumatj people, addresses the 2019 Garma festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
“We want to have this voice in parliament, and we want to have our little say. Or get just a tiny bit of Indigenous Australians being inserted into that [constitution].”
“It’s up to us now. For the next generation … to find that one particular thing that will change everything, not only for us, but for all Indigenous Australians.
Michael Yunupingu is looking to the future too, and even at his young age, imagining what may lie ahead for the generation below him.
In the final moments of the festival, he walks to Bunggul grounds, the dusty dancefloor where his people tell stories with their bodies.
Dancers from the Gumatj people, including Michael Yunupingu, perform on the Bunggul grounds at the 2019 Garma festival. (ABC News: Tim Leslie)
He steps onto the red earth, painted in yellow, the colour of the Gumatj clan, while his grandfather watches from the stage.
His young cousins turn to him, to follow his lead as they tell the story of kangaroo hunting through dance. It’s one of the final expressions of Yolngu culture that many attendees will see.
“We’ve got the oldest living culture in the world and we still, our culture, is still very strong, the Yolngu culture,” he said.
“That’s what they see … but what they don’t realise is how many problems there are in everyday life in community.”
His hope is that his people will not have to fight for equity for another 21 years, that governments will listen, and all Australians will walk with them on the journey.
“I really see it as a vital time for us, for everybody to get together and actually make change and actually collaborate together and work as one.”
“Everyone is one people, we’re all humans, we’re all this and that and I think we can, it’s a really powerful time for everybody to get together and learn off each other.”