‘Calling our Spirits Home’: Indigenous Cultural Festivals and the Making of a Good Life

Lisa Slater


In a discussion about the problems affecting young people of Cape York, a local community health worker told me: ‘their spirits have wandered too far. We need to call them back to them’.  In the last five years mainstream notions of wellbeing have changed dramatically, but still there is little room for spirits and ancestors. It is now considered that the critical goods of health and wellbeing are leading a life with purpose, having quality connections with others, possessing self-regard and experiencing feelings of efficacy and control. For decades now Australia has demonstrated difficulty, if not failure, to construct appropriate responses to entrenched social problems within Indigenous communities. In this article I examine two Cape York festivals aimed at improving the wellbeing of Indigenous youth – Croc Fest and Laura Dance Festival. The former is driven by government agendas of enhancing education and health outcomes for Indigenous youth, while the latter’s purpose is to maintain and develop strong culture for the Cape and surrounding communities and respect the country’s spirits and ancestors.

Why do mainstream and Indigenous responses to social problems continue to diverge so greatly, and what does each achieve and have to offer the other? In examining these festivals what can be seen is mainstream Australia’s failure to understand culture as a material expression of a vital life force, thus integral to wellbeing. I argue that a fundamental failure in mainstream responses to the ‘crisis’ in Indigenous Australia is to enable a life force derived from another sovereignty. In examining these festivals, mainstream and Indigenous, the disjuncture becomes clear. I propose that it is not only Indigenous youth whose spirits have wandered too far from them, but secular, neo-liberal Australia is lost in a world void of spirits, the ephemeral, and the power of country, forsaken for progress, individuality and the drive for statistical equality. How can we call our spirits home whilst respecting different sovereignties? What might Indigenous cultural festivals have to teach us about the making of a ‘good life’?


Indigenous culture; dance festivals; Cape York

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/csr.v16i1.1457