Unless you experience their world it doesn’t really exist’: Jack Thompson at the 2014 Garma festival. Photograph: Monica Tan
by Monica Tan
Why a festival celebrating Yolngu culture features tai chi classes with the Australian acting legend Dr Jack Thompson AM is not immediately clear.
But Thompson – also known as Gulkula by the Yunupingu family who have adopted him – displays a distinctly Yolngu characteristic as he launches into a 30-minute long explanation that is more story than answer, rich in historical detail, with references to family and philosophical musings.
He speaks in a deep, sonorous timbre that is almost musical.
The 73-year-old actor’s first exposure to Indigenous culture came about when he was just seven, and a young Arunta actor from the central desert country was invited to speak at his school in Narrabeen, New South Wales.
“He sang songs in his language and what with his spear and woomera, us as six-, seven-year-old boys were very impressed,” says Thomspon. “We went around learning how to make spears.”
The encounter proved to be the beginning of a lifelong and passionate connection with some of Australia’s first peoples.
Thompson’s father, John, then a journalist for ABC radio, started covering north-east Arnhem Land in 1949.
Young Thompson was enthralled by the 8mm film interviews with Yolngu people and his meetings with Bill Harney, at the time one of the few “balandas” (a Yolngu word for non-Indigenous person) immersed in Yolngu culture.
“I just wanted to go out there and experience it for myself,” Thompson says. “And I thought what am I doing at school? I don’t have to go to Africa or Asia or Europe. There is this extraordinary thing right there, outside my door.”
With Harney’s help, Thompson found himself at 14 working as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory, on a cattle station 250 km north-east of Alice Springs.
“I was the only white person, the rest were Indigenous people speaking their own language: Alyawarre. In working with my own people – white Australians – never was I treated so well as I was as a 15-year-old with the Alyawarre people. They treated me like a son, like they treated everyone.”