Courtney Burns, a 25-year-old Gunaikurnai woman from South Gippsland, Victoria, on Gunaikurnai Country, has been recognized as the Youth of the Year at the 2023 National NAIDOC Week Awards. With a passion for ocean Country health, Courtney is currently pursuing marine science at James Cook University (JCU) and assisting in its shark research lab. Her career focus revolves around exploring the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and elasmobranchs, which includes sharks and rays.

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have coexisted with sharks and rays for thousands of years, there is no scientific documentation of the human impact, whether positive or negative, on these animals. Courtney aims to change this by incorporating First Nations culture and history into scientific literature. Her ultimate goal is to shift the global perception of sharks and promote their conservation.

As a JCU student ambassador, Courtney also works to inspire other young First Nations individuals to pursue higher education and has co-created a support community for Indigenous students. In her acceptance speech, she expressed her gratitude and acknowledged the importance of Elders in her journey.

The NAIDOC Week is an annual celebration of First Nations culture, history, and achievements. The theme for 2023, “For Our Elders,” encourages reflection on the wisdom and guidance provided by Elders in communities. The National NAIDOC Week Awards recognize Indigenous excellence and honor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who make remarkable contributions to their communities and beyond.

The awards ceremony took place on July 1st on Meanjin Country at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. Other award recipients included Aunty Dr Naomi Mayers OAM for the National NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award, Professor Kelvin Kong as the National NAIDOC Person of the Year, Aunty Dr Matilda House-Williams as the National NAIDOC Female Elder, William Tilmouth as the National NAIDOC Male Elder, Donnell Wallam as the National NAIDOC Sportsperson, Rachel Perkins as the National NAIDOC Creative Talent, Lala Gutchen for the National NAIDOC Caring for Country and Culture, Bubup Wilam Aboriginal Child and Family Centre for the National NAIDOC Education, and Daniel Motlop for the National NAIDOC Innovation Award.