“Aboriginal people have been mariners for thousands of years using the stars for navigation,” says Cate Long, marketing manager of Tribal Warrior Aboriginal Corporation, a non-profit community organisation based in Redfern. “They know the waters really well.”
Tribal Warrior is revitalising that historic maritime tradition. Led by CEO Shane Phillips and local Aboriginal Elders, the cultural organisation runs maritime training and harbour cruises in Sydney to create employment opportunities for underprivileged Aboriginal youth.
The training and cruises take place aboard two vessels: Tribal Warrior, a 120-year-old gaff-rigged ketch that leads the Harbour of Light parade on New Year’s Eve, and the Mari Nawi, a name that translates as “big canoe”.
Tribal Warrior’s Aboriginal Cultural Cruise leaves from Circular Quay and sails to Be-lang-le-wool, also known as Clark Island National Park. On the way, a Tribal Warrior crew member points out Aboriginal place names and tells the stories of landmarks significant to the Cadigal, Guringai, Wangal, Gammeraigal and Wallumedegal people who lived on the water. “Peoples’ eyes are really opened to a different way of looking at Sydney Harbour,” says Long.
The cruise includes a tour of Be-lang-le-wool, a popular meeting place for local Aboriginal people before colonisation. “Out of all the islands on the harbour, it’s the most pristine,” she says. The guide paints a picture of what daily life would have looked like for families who called the harbour home. “They talk about women fishing from canoes, boys’ initiation, the use of plants and how the fish trap on the island works,” says Long.
Since Tribal Warrior was established in 1998, more than 2000 people have received maritime training. The organisation also runs mentoring programs in the community. Run in conjunction with Redfern police, Never Going Back prepares prisoners for release from jail, while Clean Slate Without Prejudice provides support for local youth. Mentors take kids on language and culture days with Aboriginal Elders and to boxing three mornings a week at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) on George Street in Redfern. “It gets the kids up in the morning and doing something active and ready for the day,” says Long. “The mentors are there to support them through every aspect of their life.”
The Tribal Warrior organisation has a close relationship with the Redfern community, in many cases offering practical assistance to families in need. “Lots of the mentors have coffee at Harry’s cafe at Redfern oval,” says Long. Locals also “charter the boats for their own events – birthday parties or weddings,” and high profile guests have included the likes of Amnesty International, Destination NSW, state and federal government departments, as well as rock band Midnight Oil, who launched their recent world tour from aboard Mari Nawi.