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Indigenous Cultural Festivals: Evaluating Impact on Community Health and Wellbeing

Key Message

Whatever scale they operate at, festivals support communities in their efforts to maintain and renew themselves through the celebration of culture. Indigenous festivals are a leading space of innovation in creating a sustainable, secure and mature national culture for all Australians based on cross-cultural recognition, respect, exchange and creativity.


Phipps, Peter, Slater, Lisa. (2010) Indigenous Cultural Festivals Evaluating Impact on Community Health and Wellbeing. Melbourne, Australia: Globalism Research Centre, RMIT University.


RMIT researchers investigated the role and significance of Indigenous cultural festivals in wellbeing outcomes for Indigenous communities and their young people.

Researchers conducted over one hundred structured and informal interviews, made observations and analysis through more than twenty extended festival and field site visits from urban to remote locations, analysed relevant public statements, policy documents, reports and media representations, and extensively reviewed relevant Australian and international literature.

The methodology used for this study draws upon the methodology developed for earlier research conducted by the Globalism Research Centre with the support of the ARC and VicHealth on community arts and wellbeing (Mulligan et al. 2006). They looked closely at various stages of community engagement in festivals including: lengthy strategic interviews with project organisers and participants, the collection of specific stories related to the projects and activities being examined in each community, photonarrative techniques for exploring less conscious or easily articulated experiences of project participants, and existing data relevant to the study (for example, extracted census data, health data and existing case studies) and the construction of detailed profiles relating to the history and character of the communities in which the research was conducted.

They use the overall term ‘social mapping’ to describe the way in which their forms of data collection are linked with their methods of analysis. Much of this data includes a subjective dimension, and the empirical analysis of the diverse sets of data (aimed at detecting emerging patterns in and across the data) includes a consideration of both the clear, ‘objective’ outcomes apparent in the data and the subjectivities underpinning the ways in which people choose to articulate their lived experiences or tell their stories. As well as an empirical analysis of the survey data they use a ‘conjunctural’ analysis aimed at relating local experiences to broader social processes and socially prevailing modes of practice (James 2006). These different levels of analysis enable them to capture both the subtle specificities of what is happening within local communities and, at the same time, relate these findings to broader social themes, such as the changing nature of indigeneity in the globalising world.


Cultural festivals are one of the few consistently positive spaces for Indigenous communities to forge and assert a more constructive view of themselves both intergenerationally and as part of their drive for respect as distinct cultures in broader national and international communities. Cultural festivals provide a rare space for intercultural accommodations to be negotiated on Indigenous terrain, and hold great potential to strengthen community and national ‘social and economic fabric’.

As argued elsewhere (Phipps 2002) cultural production (along with land management) has been, and remains, the most promising area for growth of Indigenous engagement with
the social and economic mainstream, providing the multiple benefits of employment, economic development and cultural renewal. While earlier literature on festivals and community wellbeing was largely inconclusive, the most recent publications on the matter (Mulligan et al. 2006; Gibson and Stewart 2009) make a strong, evidence-based claim for the link. (p 15)

Festivals leverage enormous cross-sectoral value from their investments; from positive engagement with employment, education and training, enterprise development, mental and physical health, to the more intangible but crucial social practices of hope: communities recognising, cultivating and respecting their Indigenous identities present and past in re-imagining their productive futures.

Festivals are important to Indigenous communities for their contribution Indigenous community wellbeing, resilience and capacity. They increase individual and community self-esteem and cultural confidence, develop local leadership, social, cultural and economic initiatives, open creative spaces of individual and collective opportunity, and provide a focus for governments and other service providers to better engage community needs and aspirations.

The measurable, short-term and individualised benefits flowing from Indigenous festivals are significant. By way of some illustrative examples:

  • The youth multimedia program at Garma resulted in two scholarships being offered to Yolngu young people to undertake tertiary level film courses;
  •  Short-term increase in school attendance, motivation and self-esteem of students in Aurukun as a result of the Crocfest program and related multimedia training, including the creation of a permanent media record of those achievements;
  • The benefits and opportunity of the experience of cultural employment for performers at The Dreaming, and immediate exposure to an international arts market.

The less easily measured, longer-term benefits are even more significant for their role in re-framing the structures of opportunity for Indigenous people and communities, including:

  • All festivals studied intervene locally, and some nationally and internationally, in the barrage of negative reporting and representation of Indigenous people and issues with strong, positive representations and experiences;
  • Indigenous people affirming the significance, value and persistence of their distinct cultures internally across generations, and externally as part of the local, regional and national stories from which their contributions are often excluded;
  • Leveraging opportunities to be recognised, attract resources and exert influence in local, regional and national policy and related institutional development. In the case of Garma it has become a significant node in the critique, influence and development of both NT and national Indigenous policy.
  • The generation of sustainable community development and economic opportunities. For example Yolngu elders and Garma management leveraging Garma facilities and relationships to generate broader cultural tourism and services development as specific, family-owned businesses including a women’s healing centre and on-country tour operations;
  • The Dreaming has been intensifying and solidifying the development of a coordinated national Indigenous performing arts industry sponsored by agencies such as ATSIAB of the Australia Council for the Arts.
  • These events enhance reconciliation though intercultural engagement as audiences, performers, and staff. Reconciliation Australia bring corporate leaders to Garma for cultural immersion. Volunteer programs at events such as Garma and The Dreaming are practical reconciliation experiences that enhance intercultural understanding. (pp 86 - 88)

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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