Written by Tricia Wallace - Wingaru Butabuta Cultural Awareness Training Facilitator
In 2014 I was working for the Australian Government in an Aboriginal Liaison type position and I was also the President of my local AECG. The NAIDOC theme that year was about those who served. I received a study kit from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs that had been released for schools about Aboriginal soldiers. I didn’t know much about the history of Aboriginal People and the armed forces. It was something that I was never taught at school and something that was not talked about in my family. I wasn’t actually sure that any of my relatives had served. My curiosity peaked, I did some further research.
I found a site with some letters sent to the authorities from Aboriginal families asking for information on the death of their loved ones and if there were any “keepsakes” in the government possession that could be returned to them. The Aboriginal writers were so anxious about their requests, their writing often came off as cold and self-serving instead of driven by grief. I wondered how many of the letter writers received a response that provided some comfort and how many were dismissed, their grief not recognised by the person responsible for managing such correspondence.
Imagine my surprise to find one such letter written by my own great-grandmother about a nephew to whom she was close and had listed her as his next-of-kin. Like many Aboriginal People, I was left to stumble on my own family history because our mob had lost so much that this was often the only way to find out about those before us. Many of our people are still searching for bits of information in an attempt to find out where they fit and who their ancestors were. For many of these people we know that culture is forever lost for them. Past policies ensured that.
In my research I read about pride – the pride that people feel for their relatives that served, many making the ultimate sacrifice. Relatives of soldiers proudly presenting their loved ones’ stories and marching in honor of them. Sadly, most of these stories were about non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people who served were not treated the same as the white soldiers. Like the rest of their lives, their military service often went under appreciated. Many struggled to be enlisted at all and those that were successful returned from war to once again be treated like second class citizens, a stark contrast from the experience of their non-Aboriginal comrades.
I was horrified to discover that 50 Aboriginal black trackers, men who were unable to enlist as soldiers because they were Aboriginal yet still wanted to fight for our country, were denied re-entry into Australia under the “White Australia Policy”, so were left behind in Africa after the Boer War. They served their country alongside white Australians only to be discarded because of their Aboriginality. In cultural awareness sessions I am frequently asked ‘why weren’t we told?’ and this was one of those moments for me. Why did I not know this? Why doesn’t the world know this? But in reality I knew why – Australian history is a carefully curated story that has for too long hidden the treatment of our First Nations People.
For Aboriginal soldiers who did return to Australia, they had no choice but to resume life on missions or reserves. They were not given land grants as non-Aboriginal soldiers often were. They were not eligible to enter pubs or even the Returned and Services League Clubs and were ineligible for the Veterans’ Affairs pension. Aboriginal servicemen and women received no recognition and many returned to find children removed, and were told their pay had been withheld from their families.
For those who did not make it home, there were no plaques placed on their graves and their families were not allowed to participate in ANZAC Day marches or other events that families of non-Aboriginal soldiers got to take comfort in.
Aboriginal returned veterans held their own ANZAC service behind the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Their shrine was a few hundred metres into bushland at a private ANZAC memorial plaque for Aboriginal Diggers.
In 2017, Aboriginal Servicemen and women led the ANZAC march for the first time. I was thrilled to see one of my favourite Elders finally strutting in the lead.
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