For many, Palm Island is a mysterious, shadowy place; out-of-bounds for anyone who doesn’t live there; separated from the nearest mainland by more than 25km of Coral Sea; and tarnished by the little information disseminated by sensationalist media and a misunderstanding of the Island’s speckled history.
But perception is not the full reality and, as Palm Island marks 100 years since the first placement of people on the Island, the community has issued an open invitation to join in the celebration of its past, present and future. The festivities, which will include the Deadly Didge n Dance Festival this April, are part of the Island community’s continued efforts to establish itself as an Arts and Cultural Tourism destination, welcoming people to explore its rich tapestry of traditions.
Mayor of Palm Island Shire Council, Alf Lacey explained that the Didge n Dance Festival – which will include an attempt to set a new Guinness World Record for the Largest Didgeridoo Ensemble – was part of acknowledging the Island’s present community, as well as broader Australia’s shared identity.
“The Didge Fest is a part of bringing together the community and visitors to the Island,” said Cr Lacey.
“Currently the Guinness World Record [for the Largest Didgeridoo Ensemble] is in England, so it would be nice – and I think Palm is a fitting place as one of the biggest Indigenous shires in Queensland – for us to pull it off and break that record and continue to hold it and own it. As we all know as Australians, the didgeridoo is part of our neck of the woods and not England’s.”
The record attempt will require at least 239 participants to beat the current record set at Didge Fest UK in 2006.
“We’ve drawn as many didge players as we can from the Palm Island community,” Cr Lacey said. “The Committee has also invited non-Indigenous friends to be part of it, too and visitors to the Island, particularly males as according to our custom it’s only men who have the right to play [the didgeridoo].
“That’s why we’ve done a mixture of Didge and Dance … the men will play the didgeridoo and the ladies will dance.”
While the Mayor wouldn’t reveal too many details regarding the stories to be told through the song and dance, he promised it would be well-pieced together by residents who’d been entrusted with the task of coordinating the event.
“There are some residents who perform in our community for a lot of events, they’re a mixture of different families in our community who generally take the lead in a lot of traditional stuff, so we’ve given them the responsibility to pull it all together.”
The Centenary of Palm Island carries a lot of significance for the Island’s people. Also known as Bwgcolman, meaning Many tribes, one people, Palm Island is made up of more than 40 different tribal groupings who were relocated to the Island from their own lands.
“I think the important thing is that while some of the history is sad, what we need to do as a Shire and particularly as the Bwgcolman people of the Shire … is acknowledge our history, not for the bad reason, but for the building of the place and the town that it is today,” said Cr Lacey.
While ‘melting pot’ is a term that would spring to mind for many upon hearing of the convergence of 40-plus tribes, Cr Lacey prefers to think of his community another way: “I don’t treat Palm as a melting pot,” he says firmly. “Palm for me, having lived here all my life, married with children is more like a salad bowl. It has its issues, but at the same time it’s very colourful and the reason why I use that analogy is because we can’t undo the past, history is history.
“But the journey for the next hundred years: we have to ensure that the next generation has a better future than what the elders had to go through.”
For Cr Lacey this better future means tapping into the combined stories, cultures and traditions of the Bwgcolman people and sharing those unique elements with visitors to the Island.
“We need to continue to really push on economic opportunities, job opportunities, all the same things that all Australians are granted,” Cr Lacey said. “Just having the opportunities to forge ahead, own your own home, get a nice job, participate in the Queensland economy and the Australian economy. I’m a very strong believer that welfare does us nothing.
“We’re encouraging the public to come along, be a part of our Centenary Celebrations – and beyond – and just enjoy Palm and enjoy the people.
“This is our time to tell the good stories of the place and about sharing the positives, our success, our journey. Let people come, take it all in and make up their own mind and their own thoughts about Palm. It’s about giving people in the wider community a different set of glasses to look through when they look at Palm.
Palm Island will host the Deadly Didge n Dance Festival on 20 – 22 April. For details about the full program of Centenary celebrations, visit www.palmislandcentenary2018.com.au