Fresh recognition for champion of Torres Strait heritage

Published:12 December 2018

Decades of effort preserving Torres Strait heritage has been recognised through the conferral of an Honorary Doctor of History award.

Vanessa Seekee OAM accepted the honorary award during CQUniversity Brisbane’s afternoon graduation ceremony at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre on Friday 14 December.

CQUni Chancellor John Abbott said Ms Seekee was a distinguished Alumna of CQUniversity who, over the past 20 years, had been instrumental in preserving sites of historic interest and significance for all Australians.

“Vanessa began her academic career with the completion of a Bachelor of Teaching before setting out to teach primary students at Sacred Heart School on Thursday Island. She later relocated to Horn Island where she married her husband, Liberty Seekee,” the Chancellor said.

“With grandparents who served in World War II, Vanessa always had an interest in the era, and was eager to share knowledge about the war relics left behind.

“In 1995, the Seekee family built the Torres Strait Heritage Museum and Art Gallery which Vanessa has curated since 1997. The museum, which is located on Horn Island, is home to over 400 exhibits including artwork, artefacts and the significant World War II history of the area.  The Museum and ‘In Their Steps’ WW2 tour of Horn Island are the core experiences of Torres Strait Heritage, run by Vanessa and Liberty.

“Torres Strait Heritage has won multiple awards over the last decade and has been a regular finalist and winner of awards in Tour and Transport, Indigenous Tourism, and Culture and Heritage in the Tourism Awards for Queensland and Tropical North Queensland. The Museum has since been inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Tropical North Queensland Tourism Awards, and featured as Lonely Planet’s Top Pick for the Torres Strait.

“Despite not being recognised by the Commonwealth census at the time, 880 Torres Strait Islanders volunteered for service in World War II as the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.

“In 2001, Vanessa played an important role in the lobby that persuaded the Commonwealth to award the 1939-1945 Star Medal to Torres Strait veterans after 60 years in recognition of their participation in World War II, which also enabled them to access veteran’s medical benefits. She is currently still campaigning for the veterans to receive full service pensions.

“In the following years, Vanessa completed a Master’s degree from CQUniversity with her thesis ‘Horn Island and the 1939-1945 Star Medal’ which has since been added to the recommended reading list of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Vanessa also co-authored ‘Discover Thursday and Horn Islands’, with heritage specialist and archaeologist Gordon Grimwade.

“In 2005, Vanessa was the recipient of The Order of Australia Medal for services to World War II veterans of the Torres Strait. Soon after, Vanessa and Liberty were awarded the Queensland Premier’s Reconciliation Award (2008) and Vanessa was a finalist for the Queenslander of the Year Award (2009).

“In 2011, Vanessa and Liberty established the World War II Torres Strait Conservation Project which will see World War II sites in the area sensitively conserved for future generations to enjoy and learn from. The year 2014 saw the completion of the first site at the 34th Australian Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery, King Point, Horn Island. In 2017, work began on the next stage at the Slit trench system.  In 2018, Vanessa was Secretary of the committee that received the NAIDOC award for Event of the Year for the 75th Anniversary of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.”

Mr Abbott said that CQUniversity was proud to acknowledge Ms Seekee’s dedication and success advocating for World War II veterans, and her services preserving the heritage of the Torres Strait.