Carry the Flag: How One Man Gave Torres Strait Islanders an Identity

June 16, 2017

by Mitch Ziems

 

In 1992, a competition was held to design a flag to represent the people of the Torres Strait Islands.

Most Torres Strait Islanders presumed the competition was targeted at children, and so didn’t give it any thought. Not Bernard Namok though. He’d seen how friends and family strived to make the Australian government recognise the Islander community, who were treated as little more than a labour source, ineligible for social security, and whose cries for basic amenities like electricity and telecommunications were ignored. Here was a chance to play his part.

As Bakoi Namok, Namok’s wife, explains “Both men (Namok and her father, political figure Ettie Pao) believed there was no point fighting for a better lot for their people until they had a flag, which would give Torres Strait Islanders a shared identity”.

Namok won the competition, and that year the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) declared the flag should be given equal prominence to the Australian Aboriginal flag.

The Federal Government of Australia would follow suit in 1995, but by then Namok had died at age 31, leaving behind a young family.

Carry the Flag follows Namok’s son, Bernard Namok Jr. aka Bala B, as he reflects on his father’s legacy as part of the 25th anniversary of the flag’s creation.

In 30 minutes, Namok Jr. and director Danielle MacLean tell a touching and powerful story about the flag’s importance as part of a Torres Strait Islander’s identity.

“It’s hard living on the mainland,” Namok Jr. reveals as he opens the film. “You leave your family, you leave your culture, and you leave your lifestyle back on the island.”

The flag serves to symbolise a Torres Strait Islander’s connection to their home; a flag that many Australians still don’t recognise. Namok Jr. says that the flag has been stolen three times from a Victorian council, because the thieves mistook it for an Arabic flag.

Carry the Flag doesn’t focus extensively on these hardships. Instead, it seeks to explore Namok’s story as an icon, to an extent, but mostly as a father, husband, brother, and son.

It’s full of heart, as well as laughs. Tales of how Namok was granted permission to marry his wife on the condition he play on his father-in-law’s football club, or how he spent the flag competition’s $200 prize on nappies for his youngest child ground the reputation of a man who made such an invaluable difference to his people.

Carry the Flag is an important documentary for all Australians, many of whom don’t understand what sets them apart from mainland Indigenous Australians, or don’t even recognise that they are Australian in the first place.

Carry the Flag is available for free on SBS On Demand.
Watch it here.

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