Sailors from the Navy's Diversity Reference Group had the rare opportunity to be welcomed by the Yolngu clan in East Arnhem Land and reinforce a shared connection to the sea.
The group of sailors from across Australia were invited to the village of Bäniyala, in remote Northern Territory, as part of a Chief of Navy visit aimed at acknowledging historical Indigenous use and care of the sea.
They were welcomed with a traditional smoking ceremony and embraced by residents, who invited them to the school and the art studio, ate with them, and even took them fishing.
The trip was described as powerful by aircraft technician Able Seaman Brianna Briscoe, from 808 Squadron, whose own family tree includes the Anmatyerre and Warlpiri nations.
“Experiencing how the Yolngu connect with their land and culture was truly amazing; watching the discipline ceremony was so powerful and I loved learning about their connection and their stories. I feel so connected to this land.” Able Seaman Briscoe said.
“I think it’s important for Defence to establish these connections with First Nations people because we share a land and a sea with them, and they are who we are protecting and serving.”
The village of Bäniyala sits on Blue Mud Bay, the focus of a 2008 High Court decision that granted traditional owners exclusive native title rights to the intertidal zone.
The Diversity Reference Group is an advisory committee that considers issues and recommends initiatives to enhance capability in Navy. Their visit to the Northern Territory was to help understand the intersection of Indigenous and Navy’s maritime stories.
The Navy visitors were taught about the Yolngu’s song lines and how they navigated the land and sea for thousands of years, a connection to sea not lost on the visiting sailors.
Regional Indigenous Development Coordinator Petty Officer Jordon Bradshaw, who is a member of the Dunghutti and Bundjalung clans, said the First Nations people have continuously been a part of the maritime story.
“This visit by us and Chief of Navy sends a message that the Navy is committed to the engagement with Indigenous communities, broadening together and respecting each other’s cultures,” Petty Officer Bradshaw said.
Following the Bäniyala visit, the group held a solemn service at the HMAS Patricia Cam memorial on a grassy knoll overlooking the sea in the town of Yirrkala.
A rock monument commemorates the nine people who died when the minesweeper was bombed by a Japanese seaplane in January 1943 in the Wessell Islands. Five Yolngu were among the 24-man crew; three of them died.
“It’s really important to come out here to remember the history of Patricia Cam,” Petty Officer Bradshaw said.
“It’s a connection that goes back through all the native Australians. The traditional ties and the connection we’ve had together for many years hasn’t been celebrated much, so I think it’s very important for us to do that, and move our two communities together.”
Warrant Officer of the Navy Deb Butterworth said the Arnhem Land experience showed that the Royal Australian Navy is a Navy for all Australians.
“It was very important for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members to come on this visit, to understand the role they play in educating all of us in Navy about their cultures, and also for them to share with another area of country and learn about the intersection of traditions and culture.