Past and present members of the Australian Defence Force came together at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) on 9 July to honour Indigenous personnel who have served and fought in 'Defence of Country' - the theme for this year’s NAIDOC celebrations.
As part of NAIDOC Week, the ceremony at the AWM was attended by Vice Chief of Defence Force, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, representing the Chief of Defence Force and Secretary, and VIPs from both Defence and the Indigenous community.
The ceremony, although held in bitterly cold weather, was well attended and supported by the Gondwana National Indigenous Children’s Choir, Australia’s Federation Guard and more than 150 people.
Indigenous Affairs Adviser Chief Petty Officer Ray Rosendale was a guest speaker at the event and said the Australian armed services which, in 1976 became the Australian Defence Force, was one of the few places where equality of wages and even advancement to leadership positions could be achieved by indigenous personnel.
“The people I am referring to were exceptional individuals as were those that they served with,” he said.
“They were men and women who looked past race and saw the person, the comrade in arms and importantly, to those of us in service, that special individual that will stand with you in the face of adversity.”
Chief Petty Officer Rosendale said the Australian Defence Force had taken great steps forward.
“Its members should celebrate and acknowledge they are part of an organisation where an Aboriginal sailor from Far North Queensland can be appointed as an advisor to the Chief of Navy,” he said.
“Where a Wiradjuri woman from NSW can be promoted to Group Captain and lead a ground breaking unit in the Air Force, or a soldier from the Torres Strait can be our senior Indigenous recruiter, one who is respected and trusted by our most senior leaders.”
Vice Admiral Griggs also spoke of advances in Indigenous service and the acknowledgement and inclusion of Indigenous personnel particularly in Navy.
“When I reflect on the last century, I don’t think we should shy away from our history, as difficult as that may be a times, but on the other hand we should not be shy in talking about the very real advances that have been made across Defence as we seek a culture that includes and not a culture that excludes,” he said.
“Today there’s active Indigenous participation in the ADF from submarines to special forces.
“We know it’s not always been that way. There’s evidence of Indigenous service in past colonial navies and militias, but the numbers were every small.”
Vice Admiral Griggs paid particular homage to one Indigenous Australian that he named the Indigenous performance group after, King Bungaree.
“Amongst other achievements he was the first Australian to circumnavigate this continent when he accompanied Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator.
“He was an explorer, he was an adviser, he was an interpreter and he was a diplomat who was invaluable to Flinders and his important exploration of the continent.
“He’s not well known and I think the maritime aspects of his story are well worth bringing to public attention.
“His connection with today’s Navy and hence the Australian Defence Force is quite strong, he died at Garden Island in Sydney in 1830.”
The Vice Chief said one of his proudest moments as Chief of Navy was seeing the Bungaree dance troupe perform at his handover ceremony the previous week.
“I was immensely proud of this milestone because for me it was the culmination of a long journey.
“We had reached a point where our sailors were proud to see the contribution of Indigenous sailors recognised, proud to see what their culture brings to Navy and that it is recognised and integrated into even our most formal of ceremonies.
“Equally important and I think in the context of this week, more important, we have Indigenous members of the Navy who are proud that the organisation gets it and encourages the fusion and expression of both their naval and their Indigenous heritage.”
Vice Admiral Griggs told the attendees early in World War One Australians of non-European descent were barred from joining Australia’s military forces and it wasn’t until 1917 that those restrictions were lifted.
“It’s important to remember that despite those restrictions, many indigenous Australians volunteered to serve in the Australian Imperial Force,” he said.
“In all, 1000 served in the AIF during that war, many thousands in World War Two and more in Korea, Vietnam and beyond.
“I’m honestly proud to be part of an ADF and broader Defence team that reflects so positively from the contributions that indigenous Australians have made, and continue to make, to our security.”
NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In a moving gesture, Director of the AWM Dr Brendan Nelson was presented with an Aboriginal and a Torres Strait Islander flag that were raised for the first time on Defence operations at Camp Baird, United Arab Emirates, during NAIDOC Week in 2013.
Imagery is available on the Australian Defence Image Library at http://images.defence.gov.au/S20142021.