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This week Surf Life Saving NSW is celebrating NAIDOC Week 2020. NAIDOC events are held around the country each year to build awareness of the history, culture and achievements of our First Nations People, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The week is not just for our Indigenous communities, there is increasingly a growing number of government agencies, community organisations, local councils, workplaces, schools and sporting groups who join in.

To celebrate NAIDOC Week 2020, Surf Life Saving NSW spoke with some Aboriginal leaders within Surf Life Saving.

Susan Moylan Coombs - Woolwonga and Gurindji Woman on Gai-mariagal Country

How did you become involved in Surf Life Saving?

I grew up in Harbord and went to Harbord Primary School and Manly Girls High.

One of my friend’s fathers was the president of South Curl Curl SLSC and she was always down at the surf club and I used to go down swimming at the beach and loved being in the salt water and she said do you want to become a member of the surf club. And so I did!

I have an affinity with the ocean and I was a still water swimmer, so I used to do club events at Freshwater. And I thought, OK, I can just transition into doing competition with the surf club because they had Sunday events and so we used to join in with that.

Then the idea to train in a squad to become the first female lifesavers in the country was proposed to a number of females that were part of the club.

And I remember thinking, okay, yeah, great cool! I love swimming in the ocean and we were learning different skills with the men that were surf lifesavers who started training us. And I thought I'd love to be a part of that!

After my sisters and I were able to swim a mile, we were allowed to go down to the beach by ourselves and then I became part of the surf club. But it was Kevin Moffat that really pushed at the local and state level for females to be able to gain their Bronze Medallions and become surf lifesavers.

You were one of the first woman to get their Bronze Medallions in 1980. Looking back, did you realise you were a trailblazer?

It's funny because now, and at different points over the last 40 years, people have said “Oh wow, you were one of the first female lifesavers”. And yes, I was and we were. We knew that we were doing something new and pushing those boundaries. 

Speaking for myself, I was a bit blasé. It's like, well, yeah, of course we can do it. I loved being in the water. I was a strong swimmer, so that notion of just learning how to do the run, swim, run and the board, your resuscitation and all of those skills - they were just technical stuff that we had to learn. I'd never thought that we were, as females, incapable of doing it so it was a bit like, well, what's the fuss!

The men in the club were incredibly supportive and I don't have any memories of anybody, young or old, saying it's ridiculous that females be allowed to do this. There was only support for us looking back on it.

It made a lot of press. A lot of people were interested to see how the female squad was going to go and I seem to remember, and I don't know who it was down on the South Coast, but there was a group of women that you know, pipped us at the post!

This week is NAIDOC Week where we celebrate the achievements of First Australians. What does NAIDOC Week mean to you and how will you be celebrating?

I think the theme this year “Always Was - Always Will Be” is a very significant theme given where we are in Australia's history and just everybody being able to understand that notion of yes, it's country, yes we might call it Australia, but for us as First Nations people, there are many different nations that we walk on and traverse and cross boundaries. And they might not be seen because there are roads and buildings built on top of these Nations but it always was and always will be First Nations’ Countries and homeland.

So, I really love that we can share that. That belief and that sense of place with everybody. So, there is a greater awareness of who we are and where we are. We all live and work on country and people walk on it, not knowing. And if we can really start to educate and share about what country people are being born onto, that sharing of significance of place, it is really important.

When it comes to reconciliation, how might the Surf Life Saving movement take a leadership approach to increasing links with Indigenous people at a community and club level?

Reconciliation for me is always a weird one because as First Nations people, what do we have to reconcile with? And I know that it was a huge movement for 10 years and it has continued on, but 30 years down the track, yes we've seen some things that have shifted us as a nation, but if that process was a good process, why haven't things been turned around - so we don't have major organisations, with reconciliation action plans, still blowing up sacred sites.

People are still dying. There is still an Intervention in the Northern Territory. All of these things that control our lives and subjugate us as races of people, the original people of this land, is not okay. If reconciliation was such a great process, why haven't we reconciled yet?

So, there are opportunities for an organisation such as Surf Life Saving NSW, with all of those buildings up and down the coast, and all of those beaches and all of these amazing people who are volunteer surf lifesavers, rescuing people who get into trouble, to do something different and create better more cohesive activities that embrace all communities - to unite us.

How can we engage in a way that shares the knowledge about the sacredness of country and sacredness of water? Our human relationships with land and water and then human- to-human - to create a change in a movement that will partner and complement what reconciliation is.

We need to do more than just Reconciliation Action Plans because if a mining company can blow up a sacred site, what does that say about that process? And what does it say about people in a process, either doing it for all the right reasons, or just the ability to say, oh, we've done something and tick the box.

So, when there are people who are there to preserve and save human life, how can we capture that spirit and how do we use that notion to create the change and bridge that gap between First Nations people and those that came after?

So, we are first in time. We are the oldest living culture on the planet. There are those that came after and that disruption to our way of life has never been healed. How can we engage with Surf Life Saving - those clubs, those people - to heal those relationships?

And there's a whole lot of stuff that we could do that starts to build on the relationship, because if you don't have a relationship, doing a Reconciliation Action Plan is meaningless, it's words on a piece of paper until you get the human-to-human aspect and deep understanding of country and the sacredness of water.

We are the victims of history and people are living on the benefits of that. And there is an innocence in that because you don’t know what you don’t know. But you can’t keep behaving in that way if your eyes have been opened to something.  When you know, it is then you need to do something different.

So, first we have to open people's eyes because many people’s eyes are still shut. Mentally, spiritually, even just to have the relationships with us.

What are the practical steps the Surf Life Saving clubs can take as part of the reconciliation process?

So, each surf club is sitting on a Nation. How do you create those community partnerships between First Nations people and the surf Club?

So, you could create a whole program that provides a framework. If people are nervous and they don't have the confidence in reaching out to First Nations community, then we need to hold their hand to do that. But just building that relationship first and then working out what could happen next, that needs to starts at the local level.

I'll share what we did last year, which would work very well at surf clubs. January 26 is Australia Day – or Survival Day as we call it - and we decided to do something healing, something completely different.

When the boats came in in 1788 and there was not a proper Welcome to Country in the traditional sense, there was a disruption and destruction of our way of life. People weren't welcomed properly into country, because whenever you come onto someone else’s country you got welcomed in.

What used to happen was if you came across someone else's country, you waited, you might light a fire and the people from that country would come and they would ask, “What is your business here?”, “What do you want?” And you would have been welcomed in through ceremony together. And then your physical and spiritual journey through their country safe. You were protected as you traversed their lands.

So, because Europeans weren't welcomed properly in 1788, we had this idea, what if non-Indigenous people, who want to go through ceremony, went into the water and floated, so they’re off country, and then came back onto the beach, where there is a smoking ceremony and they're welcomed onto country by an Elder? So, in that way, you are welcomed into country ‘proper way’. Then participants could get a Welcome to Country certificate.

We did it at Collins Beach in Manly, Gai-mariagal Country, last year. We were smoked by an Elder, Professor Dennis Foley, who was all painted up. There was a small group of us, about 30 people, but as soon as we went into the water and started it, everyone on the entire beach joined us and wanted to join in! It was healing. I didn't expect that!

National Parks allowed the ceremony and smoking as it was a cultural practise.  National parks staff came down because they were so excited by it. And then they all went through and literally everybody on the beach joined in. The beach was packed and everyone came over and said, oh, can we do this too? And we said yes, of course you can!

There was this beautiful energy on the beach. Young boys aged 12 and 13 coming up us saying “good on ya mate - that was great” to Dennis was a joy to observe. And they understood the significance of it and they got to participate in it.

And it went off! And we immediately realised that this could be run through Surf Life Saving. Because you could do something in the morning early, before the beach gets really, insanely busy on January 26. You could do a dawn healing ceremony.

So, people could come to the beach from their community. You would have local Elders there. And it’s about bridging that gap and creating those relationships through ceremony. And allowing Elders to lead that and whoever wants to participate in it, comes and joins in on the day.

It's about the Elders be honoured and then welcoming you into country the “proper” way. You go off the land and then you come back onto the land and the Elders are smoking you back onto the land from the water. You're doing ceremony and you could get given a certificate – something symbolic. Like the citizenship ceremony certificates that are given out on Australia Day.

I think that's something that surf clubs and club members would understand, because there is a strong sense of community there. That's what surf clubs are about - and the affinity with water, that so many people have and understand.  Saltwater is healing.

I’d like to talk to all the presidents of the clubs and start to share this concept. Start to put some frameworks around it and ask well, ‘what do you think of this idea?’ ‘How do you think we might be able to execute it?’

What strategies could we put in place to amplify diversity within our membership base and promote a greater understanding of Indigenous cultures on a state level?

I think we could all work together on the January 26th initiative. At a state-level we speak to the CEO, talk to the board and work on creating a package that goes out to clubs. Then, at a local level, we start doing Zoom calls with the presidents of all the clubs and connect with the local communities.

But there will be other people in the clubs that will be interested in this. We can start small and build participation in activities each year.

In Reconciliation Week and around Sorry Day there is great opportunities as well. There are all those dates in calendar that you could align and make relevant to Surf Life Saving as well. So, make it meaningful and not just a ‘tick a box’ thing. You have to make it relevant to people across all age groups.

The theme of NAIDOC Week this year is “Always Was, Always Will Be”, what does that theme mean to you? And how can Surf Life Saving work with Indigenous people to achieve a broader appreciation and understanding of traditional homelands?

Because I think that the more the everyday Australian, or surf lifesaver, understands that statement “Always was, always will be”, the better.

We're connected to this place spiritually and culturally, these are the lands of our ancestors and we are still here. So, we will always be custodians of these land, because we're connected to it.

Then it's also about allowing people to understand that they belong here too. The lore of this land is if you're born of this land, you belong to this land.

Because of the 1788 disruption, for us, down the track there is still the healing that has to happen in people. We can't continue down the path of separatism and this desire that it's ours and only ours - as Indigenous people. It's ours - and everyone has a right to be here.

But there needs to be the respect of our ancestry and our shared history. There needs to be an understanding of how we heal that past. To be able to allow us and our kids to move forward in a different way.  As adults we need to heal to enable our children to inherit a better way of being.

The thing is that wherever you were born on this continent, that's your spiritual entry point to the planet, so you should have had your birthing ceremony. You should know your totem. You should know the storylines and songlines that you were born into. But because the way successive governments have indoctrinated you all to a different way of thinking, you don't know these things.

You were a founding member of PTSD Australia New Zealand now known as Fearless Outreach. How did you become involved in that organisation and how important is it for surf lifesavers, who are often first responders in emergencies, get support after confronting incidents?

Yes, I was one of the founding members of the board of PTSD Australia New Zealand lead by Admiral Chris Barrie former Chief of the Defence Force and was invited after meeting the Admiral at an Australian Leadership event where he was speaking.  Whilst the focus was on defence men and women, I was keen to see the scope widened to other first responders, police, fire-fighters, ambulance officers and also advocated for First Nations people to be included as we have been subjected to repeated traumas and we are going undiagnosed and sadly misdiagnosed.

I’m also a facilitator of Aboriginal Mental Health First Aid, and there is a mainstream Mental Health First Aid course as well.  I think clubs and members having sound knowledge and good mental health literacy is important.

Given the incidents that surf lifesavers, as first responders get called to, there is a very real need for strong member welfare in Surf Life Saving and recognition of the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) if left unchecked.

Surf lifesavers are on the frontline and do witness some very challenging and confronting situations which is why immediate, post incident support is really crucial. I can’t stress this enough if we are to care about people’s wellbeing and avoid the repercussions and the potential of long-lasting impact of post-traumatic stress.

More information about Susan Moylan Coombs and the Gaimaragal Group.


How did you become involved in Surf Life Saving?

Where I live is a small community, a small suburb called Stockton, which is just on the northern side of Newcastle. And being such a small community on a peninsula, and a beachside suburb, it was pretty much inevitable that I got wound up and involved on the beach.

And most kids in Stockton, in one way or another, find themselves involved with the club through their lifetime, through Nippers or as they get older. Because the beach is on a peninsula, surrounded by water, it's important that we need some level of education and awareness about the surf and the beach environment. That was one key factor.

The other thing is that my dad had a long involvement with the club before I did. He went through Nippers and into cadets and was part of the club for a while so that’s what sparked my interest.

What roles do you have within the Stockton Surf Life Saving Club?

I'm the President of the Club and that’s a role I’ve had for about nine years. But I’ve had breaks during that time and had other roles - essentially in Surf Sports and surf boat rowing.

What do you enjoy most about Surf Life Saving?

I enjoy the sense of giving back that I get from knowing that I’m giving back to the community. That’s what probably I get most from my involvement.

What do you do when you're not at your surf club or on patrol?

Professionally, I work for Indigenous Affairs within the Federal Government.

I’m an Engagement Officer and I work with Indigenous Communities administering government funding to improve the livelihood and outcomes for Indigenous people in the area.

You have Aboriginal heritage on your Mother’s side of your family. Can you tell us about her cultural background?

I was born and raised here where we are now in Stockton. And my Grandfather was born on the Clarence River around Yamba and Maclean. He was actually born on an island called Ugundahi Island and grew up around that area and then was taken from his parents, as part of the  Stolen Generation, to Cherbourg Mission in Queensland and then came back down to Newcastle when he was 18.

He came to Stockton, and like so many men of his generation, he was part of the Aboriginal Boxing Tent that toured Australia, to make a living. And through his travels with the Boxing Tent he landed in Stockton where he met my Grandmother who is a non-Aboriginal woman. And then they got married and had four kids - the youngest of which was my mum.

My Grandfather was a Yaegl man. Yaegl is a small Nation inside the Bundjalung Nation. You can find it on the Australian Indigenous Nations map. The Yaegl Nation is a bit like the ACT – being a small territory inside NSW.

What does your Aboriginality mean to you?

Well, it means a great deal.

It is something obviously that I carry with me all the time and I'm very, you know, I'm very aware of it and it really defines me as a human.

I've told people before, there are a couple of things that define me as a human; that's my identity and my family background - and my connection to my family and the place where I live. And they're obviously the things that I couldn’t do without.

I’m a proud Aboriginal man and I’m proud to live on Aboriginal lands that belong to the Worimi people. But my family ancestry, my blood connection, is from further up the north coast in the lands of the Yaegl people.

I was born and raised here in Newcastle but like so many Aboriginal families, we experienced the wrath of many different, early government policies that moved us around.

My family has such a strong connection to the ocean, hence my involvement with Surf Life Saving. And our growing up around here, that had to be the case one way or another.

My Aboriginality is something that defines me I would say.

NAIDOC Week is a week where Australians celebrate the achievements of First Australians. Can you tell us how you will be celebrating?

I think NAIDOC Week for me is a chance to celebrate all the strong and positive things that are happening around the country and in our communities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people - but it’s also a chance to reflect on that relationship.

It’s also a chance to reflect on where that relationship is now and where it has been in the past. And where it needs to be in the future.

Those are probably the three key things, the three elements for me for NAIDOC Week.

When it comes to reconciliation, how might the Surf Life Saving movement take a leadership approach to increasing links with local Indigenous people at a state and community/club level?

I think that especially on a local level, if we take that local context first, I think that we can figure out what can be applied at a higher level from that point.

And for me, from a local level, I think there are 129 Surf Life Saving Clubs in New South Wales that sit on a beach that was at some point an important part, most likely for a particular Aboriginal community, an important part of the way they lived. And they were custodians of that beach.

And the very deliberate connection between Aboriginal communities, traditional Aboriginal communities from just a few hundred years ago, or dating back to thousands of years ago, as custodians of that beach and that surf environment - and now here we are as surf lifesavers now.

There’s a very strong connection there in my view. That the 129 surf clubs across New South Wales are very much the custodians of that space on that beach.

You know Aboriginal communities and people relied on that beach and the beach environment for a whole range of things - for somewhere to live, as a source of food and that sort of thing. And you know, we do the same now. We rely on our beaches and our oceans as a place to live and a place to relax and to connect to. So, there's a very close connection there.

I think keeping that in mind, it lays a strong foundation at a local level to reconcile their purpose with local Aboriginal communities, to work together and build a relationship. I think that can be easily driven from a level above, from Surf Life Saving NSW.

Do you have any ideas or recommendations for how people at a club level, who might want to start that process and dialogue, might approach it?

I think the very first step is to understand the past and the historical context. The very first step from there is to acknowledge that past – publicly.

And clubs throughout the season, all the time, have season openings and season launches and presentations like Close of the Season, different traditions throughout the year. Those are fantastic opportunities to pass that information on to members in the community and draw that connection and make it public and whether it’s an Acknowledgement of Country or an opportunity to have Elders, or local Aboriginal people from Aboriginal communities, to come in to maintain that connection. Those are a couple of practical suggestions.

Do you think it would be beneficial for Surf Life Saving organisations in Australia to have reconciliation action plans?

Yes, absolutely. I think it's definitely appropriate. As I mentioned before, I think there's plenty of work to be done in that space.

And reconciliation action plans are great first steps in setting out some of the ways in which that work can be done.

And it shows again a commitment for what is one of the biggest volunteer movements in the Southern Hemisphere. You know we're not just a small organisation, we are a big movement with plenty of sway and influence and a reputation in the community. We can clearly show that and uphold our reputation by furthering, or developing, relationship with local communities. I think it can only be a good thing for everyone.

What strategies could we put in place to amplify diversity within our membership base and promote a greater understanding of Indigenous cultures on a state level?

I think diversity in leadership is important in large organisations. Like so many large organisations, there are things like our board positions, where that obviously has a strong flow-on effect.

People who hold senior positions within organisations, such as Board or Senior Management, who are Indigenous, those people can then give an indigenous perspective to the operations of the organisation.

And of course, that would improve the prospects of reconciling or building stronger connections between Surf Life Saving and Aboriginal communities.

That is just one suggestion. But I did wonder when I heard that the SLSNSW Constitution was being changed to allow the election of non-members to the Board, whether those positions should be earmarked for people from Indigenous or other diverse backgrounds.

The theme of NAIDOC Week this year is “Always Was, Always Will Be”, what does that theme mean to you? And how can Surf Life Saving work with Indigenous people to achieve a broader appreciation and understanding of traditional custodianship?

Of course, that theme is clear reference that the land that we live, breathe and work on always was and always will be, Aboriginal land.

That, I think, is a very first step, a very first step, that Surf Life Saving could help facilitate at local clubs and state places to acknowledge traditional Indigenous ownership. To acknowledge the connection that local Indigenous communities have had, and continue to have, with the local beaches and surf environment. As surf lifesavers we’re very much the custodians of that connection now. I suppose it’s just about recognising that.

Recognising that that's the case, like I said, NAIDOC Week is very much an opportunity for reflection, for everyone to reflect on the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities and, in our case, the NAIDOC Week theme this year is very pertinent to the things I've mentioned today.

Do you have any other thoughts on what steps Surf Life Saving could make to facilitate stronger relationships with Indigenous people?

My strong view is that there is significant opportunity for the Surf Life Saving Movement to increase connections with Aboriginal people and their cultures.

I think establishing advisory groups or independent board positions, earmarked for diversity, would be excellent.

I'd be very interested in working on any sort of group or party or task force or whatever that might be - for Reconciliation Week or for putting together a Reconciliation Action Plan.

More information about NAIDOC Week is available on the NAIDOC Week website.


Monday 9 November 2020