The rising: Yidinji man Able Seaman Darren Davies will play didgeridoo at the Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Before the familiar strains of a bugle echo around the Australian War Memorial at Canberra's chilly dawn service, an expected 35,000 people will assemble to the sound of a pulsing didgeridoo.
The man at the end of the traditional instrument is Able Seaman Darren Davies, 32, from the Yidinji people of the rainforests around Cairns, Queensland. Among the crowd will be his sister, brother-in-law, nephews, nieces and cousins.
Part of the modern face of the military – which is still dealing with scandals stemming from pockets of sexism and racism – Able Seaman Davies says he is proud to represent both his people and his comrades in the Royal Australian Navy.
"There's definitely some nerves there – but on the day it's not the nerves, it's more the pride in coming out and being part of the Anzac tradition ... and what it means for indigenous men and women," he said. "That's important to me. And I hope it leaves a mark for future generations."
Able Seaman Davies was working as labourer and performing in local indigenous dance troupes in Cairns when he was drawn to the navy six years ago. He says he liked the qualities of pride, respect and discipline.
Since then he’s served on some of the navy’s biggest warships, the frigate HMAS Newcastle and supply ship HMAS Choules. Right now he’s working on border protection patrols out of Darwin.
The navy has about 200 sailors who identify as Aboriginal, making up 1.9 per cent of the service, according to the navy’s strategic adviser for indigenous affairs, Chief Petty Officer Ray Rosendale – whose position was created by the current Chief of Navy Ray Griggs – and who reports directly to the chief.
They plan to get that figure up to a minimum of 2.7 per cent – better reflecting the national population – within the next few years.
Chief Petty Officer Rosendale – who is indigenous – said Able Seaman Davies was a leader in a dance group that the navy assembled for the massive International Fleet Review in Sydney last year.
"He's very professional about his navy life and he's very professional about his performance," he said.
Able Seaman Davies is frank in saying he has experienced racism in the navy – just as he has experienced it everywhere in Australian life. Asked whether he ever feels he is serving a country that still doesn't give its indigenous citizens a fair go, he says he doesn't see it that way.
"Yes I've come across racism in my work – it's going to be everywhere and anywhere. But whatever things were like in the past, it's definitely a more modern defence force and a more modern country.
"I've received more support from the navy than I would have in any civilian job. What the navy is doing for a lot of indigenous people is getting them into career paths, training them, getting them qualifications."