Leon Ruri and Ashley Penfold are both believers in the importance of connection to culture, land and history.
The men are the founders of Haka for Life and Corroboree for Life, two like-minded Indigenous-led organisations on a shared mission to reduce suicide across Australia.
In 2018, they arranged for hundreds of men, women and children to perform a Noongar corroboree and a Māori haka as part of the Anzac Day dawn service in Perth’s King’s Park. It was an iconic moment and, perhaps, the most visible and proud display of Indigenous cultures ever seen at an Anzac Day service in Australia.
“The relationship between Australia and New Zealand is very, very unique. And it's one that I truly believe, that by expressing ourselves as Māori and Aboriginal peoples on Anzac Day, is only going to strengthen for years and years to come,” Māori man Mr Ruri says.
The 2018 Anzac Day dawn service at King's Park in Perth. Source: SBS / , Supplied: Jessica Gately
The powerful images captured a stirring moment, where the silence and solemnity of a war memorial at dawn were met with the traditional sound and movement of two Indigenous peoples from across the Tasman Sea.
Footage of the service was seen by millions around the world, but for 30-year-old Noongar man Mr Penfold, the global attention meant little compared to the appreciation of Aboriginal elders here at home, on Noongar boodja (country).
“Sitting with my elders in Perth, they were bloody proud," he says.
"They were proud to see our young people, in particular, stand up on King’s Park, share our culture and be staunch, or strong, or mooditj, we would say.”
‘Dying in silence’
Mr Ruri, 44, moved to Perth when he was 18 from Ngaruawahia in New Zealand. He founded Haka for Life in 2017 as a way of empowering men to speak about depression, anxiety and suicide. The decision followed his own psychological battles, which included a childhood impacted by abuse.
“I saw a lot of men that struggle with things that I struggled with," he says. "I just realised I had to find a way to communicate stronger and better if I was going to show up and be a great father and son in this world."
Mr Ruri will travel to Sydney this year for Anzac Day commemorations Source: SBS
“What people learn from haka is the importance of connection, not just to themselves, but to land and the spiritual realm."
“There was a saying that men are ‘dying in silence’. When a haka is performed, silence is not present at all, men are powerfully expressing themselves. So I wanted to demonstrate to men how powerful we can be when we positively show up.”
There was a saying that men are ‘dying in silence’. When a haka is performed, silence is not present at all. - Leon Ruri, Haka for Life founder
Only four weeks after starting the charity, Mr Ruri began working to bring his vision to the Anzac Day memorial at King’s Park.
“I saw an opportunity to bring them together; honouring the war and the Anzacs, but also, taking a stand for this war on suicide that's coming in, and having men express themselves powerfully.”
More than 200 men and women showed up, and Haka for Life was born.
Sharing the flame
Seeing the success that Haka for Life had in bringing people together, Mr Penfold then established the like-minded Corroboree for Life to promote mental health and wellbeing through traditional Aboriginal culture.
“I went to a funeral, it was a suicide of one of my cousins. I had a moment during the funeral when I realised that I was just sick of our community only getting together either in protest or funerals,” he says.
“So Corroboree for Life was just a platform for people to come and be amongst community … and it was an opportunity for me to get mob together in a more positive, empowering light.”
Mr Penfold says the stories of Aboriginal servicemen and women need telling. Source: SBS
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have fought for Australia in every war since federation in 1901, but many experienced racism while serving in the armed forces and further discrimination upon returning home.
Since the first Corroboree and Haka for Life on Anzac Day 2018, Mr Penfold has met many Aboriginal servicemen and women and listened to their stories.
“To hear that some of my uncles and pops had to say they weren't Aboriginal, they had to say that there were some other ethnicity to be recognised [is very upsetting],” he says.
“For me, it's unique that I can stand here in 2021 and share those experiences because they're the stories that people don't know of, the stories that should be shared.”
Haka for Life. Source: AAP
On their shared mission to promote strength and mental wellbeing in their communities, the two men have firmly planted Indigenous cultures in a place that hasn’t always been so welcoming.
Last year, the WA RSL overturned a ban on performing Welcome to Country ceremonies and flying the Aboriginal flag at services following a public backlash.
"While RSLWA is regarded as custodians of the State War Memorial in Kings Park, it is appropriate to respect and recognise the importance of acknowledgement of traditional owners as part commemorations – in particular ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day,” RSLWA said in a statement.
"As such, Acknowledgement of Country at the commencement of commemoration activities is strongly encouraged by RSLWA State Branch. The organisation will continue the practice of listening to, and liaising with, its Indigenous members, all Indigenous Veterans and the wider community of Western Australia."
A haka and corroboree was due to be performed again in Perth this weekend on Anzac Day, until they were cancelled last-minute due to the three-day COVID-19 lockdown.
For the first time though, Mr Ruri has flown to Sydney where the haka will be performed alongside the Coloured Diggers March on Anzac Day in Sydney.
But performances won’t be included in official dawn services. Across Australia, there are still restrictions on Indigenous cultural ceremonies during formal proceedings on Anzac Day.
'We just move'
The performance of both the haka and the corroboree involve movements that are choreographed and others that are felt and expressed intuitively.
“Our Noongar women always lead the dance. So they would do a blessing for us and then our men will lead in with a spirit, or a wirrin, in dance, and that's more of a cleansing,” Mr Penfold says.
“The ceremony part is very spiritual. We connect with the land, we connect with the people, the animals, the boodja and the purpose within our dance. Sometimes we just move and we just don't know how we're moving. We're just moving.”
The performers were looking forward to appearing at King's Park again. Source: SBS
Mr Ruri is looking forward to the events in Sydney.
“To have an invite from those First Nations peoples, and to be able to come and honour our ancestors, is just extraordinary and incredible on an Indigenous to Indigenous level,” he says.
"With full respect to the RSL ... there is truly an opportunity for Māori and Aboriginal to sit down with the RSLs and have conversations about the possibility of our Indigenous cultures being included in the official proceedings and ceremonies of Anzac Days to come.
"That's the dream, that one day haka and corroboree will be part of the official ceremonies on Anzac Day”.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to a RSLWA policy on cultural commemorations which has since changed.
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