Had you asked Micheal Naawi five years ago what he would be doing for work these days, he might have laughed as hard as the audiences he once entertained as a stand-up comedian.
Having first plied a trade in education, then the construction industry before a brave but brief stint on stage, Micheal made a remarkable transition to a career in defence.
As an Indigenous Liaison Officer, he is now part of the Royal Australian Air Force’s efforts to strengthen understanding and career pathways with First Nations communities.
"The aim of my role is to be the air force's representative within the community and a community representative within defence."
It’s a role that suits the father of two. Originally from the Torres Strait, he has lived in Melbourne and country Victoria for most of his life.
He now works closely with original owners in the local area of Bunurong - an area that takes in a swathe of traditional lands across south-east Victoria from the Werribee River in the north-west, down to Wilson's Promontory in the south east.
“Luckily for us a lot of our work is community engagement, so the idea is less time in the office and more time out with mob,” Mr Naawi says.
“Recruitment is part of it - opening up the pathways and showing people that a career in defence is more than just what you see on TV. But it’s also just having good relationships with traditional owners and custodians and the local mob - it can lead to some pretty interesting conversations.”
He said NASA’s relationship with First Nations people in Arnhem Land and the subsequent establishment of a rocket launchpad is an example of the capacity for the ADF to strengthen ties with and contribute to communities.
The space station, which launched last year, is expected to employ local Indigenous people for years to come.
He said it was an interesting time to be in the job during what is a cultural shift in attempts to improve relationships and outcomes for First Nations people.
"The army has had a good relationship with communities in northern Australia for a while and, as a whole, the ADF is moving ahead in leaps and bounds."
Indigenous Australians have a rich history of serving in the Australian Defence Force dating back to the Boer War.
Despite facing discrimination and prejudice, First Nations soldiers have continued to serve their country with distinction, including in both World Wars, the Korean War, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The legacy of Indigenous soldiers in the ADF includes their bravery and sacrifice, as well as their determination to overcome barriers and be recognised for their contributions.
Micheal said indigenous members of the ADF have also helped break down the stereotypes and prejudices that exist in the broader community and within the military.
“I think we are starting to see that a bit more,” he said. “It starts with education and ensuring a clear understanding of that legacy and the messages within it. If you look at the history and how much has changed there are really positive signs that we are moving in the right direction.
"There was a time when it wasn’t a great experience for indigenous people coming through the ADF system, but thanks to them, we have an opportunity to be part of that driving change. It’s about looking at what has been left behind, picking it up and making it better for the next people who are coming through. It’s important to recognise that the journey hasn’t always been great. But it’s getting a whole lot better."
He said the broader narrative around the rights of First Nations people, particularly the opportunity to enshrine an indigenous voice to federal parliament via a referendum later this year, was a sign the Australians now had a better understanding of what’s important.
“We are moving in the right direction. A successful referendum would be the perfect step forward as long as it’s done correctly. What that looks like, making sure the right people are consulted with and a true voice for indigenous people - that will be the challenge.”
In the meantime, Micheal looks forward to what lies ahead in his role and the opportunities a career in the air force presents.
His goal is to become a pilot. “I am looking at taking every opportunity to explore that avenue,” he said.
“But stepping out into an even wider defence role and then bringing back that knowledge into the indigenous affairs space is something I’d love to do to ensure we can continue to keep opening doors for young indigenous people.”