Chief of Army address at the Ramindjeri Kangaroo Skin Presentation
Ngun:yarra Karno Walker for your very warm welcome.
I would like to begin by respectfully saying:
Yandi:or Korn, yandi:or mim
Yande:or korn and mim
I acknowledge the Traditional Land Owners and the Custodians of this Land where we gather today – the Ramindjeri People; and I honour and pay my sincere respect to their Elders, Past and Present.
I especially honour all those from our Indigenous Communities who have served this country as members of the Australian Defence Force, our yo:yangi korn [warriors]. I also acknowledge the presence today of family members representing yo:yangi korn mendin korn of the Sumner, Gollan, Wilson, Cameron and Muckray Families;
I am humbled that you consider me worthy of this gift today. It is a privilege to stand before you to receive it and to have the opportunity to recognise Indigenous service to Australia.
In World War One alone, over 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders fought for Australia. They rode in the light horse, they climbed the slopes of Gallipoli, they fought and died in the trenches of the Western front. But their first battle was fought well before they left the shores of Australia. Their first battle was simply to get a chance to serve their country.
I acknowledge the oppressive conditions that Aboriginal people faced during the war periods, as well as the racial obstacles and barriers encountered during enlistment. However, the boldness and skill of the indigenous light horsemen who managed to thwart the recruiters was immediately remarked upon.
Those lean hard men grew up in the bush. Their tenacity and professional prowess made them welcome additions in the ranks. Fears of disharmony between indigenous and non-indigenous personnel proved to be unfounded; an easy camaraderie and even close bonds of brotherhood were formed. Indigenous Australians showed time and time again that the ‘ANZAC legend’ – one of the most profound and positive of Australia’s self images – encompassed indigenous Australians as well.
This legend includes your Ramindjeri ancestor, Private Arthur Walker, who served his nation with honour at Gallipoli, in Egypt and who was eventually killed in action during the battle of Mouquet Farm, near Pozieres on 16 August 1916. His courage was demonstrated well before he even left the shores of Australia when he volunteered to leave the security of ruwi; his land, country and birth-place, to soldier in places beyond the imaginings of his forebears. His motivation to serve his nation came from a love of country, a love for his people and a willingness to bear terrible suffering to protect what he loved. He overcome the severe hardships experienced by so many of his fellow yo:yangi korn mendin korn but his spirit as a proud Ramindjeri Tribal Man surely would of been Du:watyin Pulgi; one longing for home.
Following the example set by soldiers such as Private Walker, indigenous Australians continued to enlist in the Army during World War Two. Arthur Walker’s son, Mervyn Sumner, Garney Wilson, George Godfrey, Tim Hughes, Oodjeroo and her cousin Winnie Iselin all served with distinction. It is humbling to know that during World War Two, almost every able bodied islander in the Torres Straight enlisted to fight - their intimate knowledge of the waters and their great skill as seamen were highly prized.
After World War Two, indigenous Australians kept on volunteering to serve. People such as Godwin Wilson, Horace and John Cullen in Korea; Graham Taylor and Phil Prosser in Malaya; Frank Clarke, Les Kropinyeri, Gil Green and Ian Gordon Muckray in Vietnam; Jason Garlett in East Timor and the list goes on. I respect the service, both past and present, of Indigenous people to the Australian Army.
Respect is an Army value that I have added very recently. I added it because I felt that occasionally Army’s goals were invoked to degrade minorities in our ranks and that fundamentally undermines rather then enhances our capability. Diversity is crucial to ensuring Army remains a robust and relevant employer into the future. I want to leave a cultural legacy in Army that ensures that the skills and talents of minority groups are recognised and respected at all times.
And so, in contrast to our history, the Army now actively seeks to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation rates. It seeks to contribute meaningfully to the development of Indigenous communities through the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program. The Army plays a very significant role in preparing young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women for life in the service. After all, employing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers, in an environment that makes the most effective use of their unique and special skills, just makes good sense.
This is why you will find that, from Karratha to Kabul, more than 700 indigenous Australians serve in the Army today. As I speak they serve in Afghanistan. The stories of Indigenous service to our great country are the Army’s stories as well and together we must remember them. Just as we will remember the story of Private Arthur Walker - and the stories of so many other wirritjin yo:yangi korn mendin korn: who so selflessly served, are still proudly serving today; and will serve in the future - to preserve our freedom, protect our ruwi and continue to respect our peggera:lin, dreaming.