Canberra 2017. Three special exhibitions tell the stories and report the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australians serving in the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
For Country, For Nation, the current special exhibition of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) (20 September 2016 – 20 September 2017), gathers 60 works by 32 artists, six of which commissioned for the occasion. It presents a combination of paintings, installations, photos, and personal belongings of Indigenous ex and current servicemen and servicewomen. Space in For Country, For Nation is not organised following a timeline, but around broadly conceived themes and personal stories. This stands out compared to the chronological order that dominates the other galleries of the AWM. The benefit of abandoning the timeline is freedom to wonder around as one pleases, as Emily Gallagher points out in her review of the exhibition. The most obvious drawback, however, is that it is difficult to make sense of the temporality of the events, including the widespread discrimination that First Nation soldiers, veterans, and their families have experienced and the chronology of the development of civil rights movements.
Indigenous Australians at War from the Boer War to the Present is a special exhibition at the National Archives of Australia (NAA), on show between the 24th of March and the 16th of July. It is curated by the Shrine of Remembrance (Melbourne) and is touring Australia funded by the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs. It offers 75 photos accompanied by short texts that tell personal and familial stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people who served in the ADF, and more general historical contexts. The photos are arranged in chronological order from the Boer War, passing through the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Peacekeeping missions, and ending with some remarks about current commemorations to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island servicemen and servicewomen.
Facing Two Fronts: The Fight for Respect comprises archival material curated by the NAA in the form of exhibition, available to the public from 24th March 2017 to 31st December 2017. It includes personal and official documents about the military service of some Indigenous and Torres Strait Island people, as well as oral stories recounted by family members. The material is available on six digital screens in the corridor of the NAA, and will be digitally available after the exhibition closes to the public. Material is arranged thematically, rather than chronologically. Among the three exhibitions, this is the most confronting, because, as it can be gauged from the title, it does not shy away from documenting and reporting discrimination as it happened.
In April 2017 I went to Canberra for fieldwork research on ANZAC Day and the AWM, and inevitably, I ended up visiting the three exhibitions. It is important to note that the history of Indigenous people in the Australian military was not the main purpose of my visit to Canberra; however, it is an extremely fascinating and compelling history that certainly grabs the attention of a non-Australian person interested in race relations.
First, I went to see For Country, For Nation. It was a very instructive visit, where I learnt mostly personal stories, from that of Captain Reginald Walter Saunders, the first Aboriginal man to have graduated as Lieutenant, to that of Marjorie Anne Tripp, believed to be the first Aboriginal woman to have enlisted in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service.
The gallery seems to convey the message that, regardless of race, in war “We Are All Heroes”, as the painting by Tony Albert states. But, are we, really?
At the march, I had another important encounter. I met a group of people who were unofficially representing the memory of the so-called Frontier Wars, the wars fought between Indigenous Australians and British settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The recognition of the Frontier Wars is a major bone of contention in the remembrance of war in the Australian context, and has ramifications beyond memory, extending into the reconciliation of the two nations in the aftermath of colonisation. In the words of a woman marching in memory of the Frontier Wars, “there cannot be healing and reconciliation in this Country if history is not recounted correctly and we recognise the past.”
The overall experience of the three exhibitions and of ANZAC Day was as enriching as it was puzzling. The three exhibitions reported history mostly through first-hand experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people who served in the ADF. From the personal stories reported, two narratives emerged clearly. First, Indigenous people served in the Australian Defence Force even when they were not considered human beings and citizens. Second, finally now Australia recognises the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
However, there are two more narratives that the exhibitions tell stealthily and which deserve a louder voice. One is the story about the reasons why Indigenous people served in the ADF, and the second is the still unacknowledged history of the so-called Frontier Wars, the battles that First Australians fought against colonial Britain.
Colonial relations permeate Australia’s past and present. The British invasion of Australia, the arrival of unknown people and diseases, the battles and resistance against colonisation, and the massacre of Indigenous people are well documented. However, they are still too often dismissed as stories of the past and downplayed as no longer relevant. Australia seems to be willing to finally recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the defence of the country. However, it remains reluctant to face its colonial past epitomised by the Frontier Wars, the colonial legacy exemplified by racism faced by Indigenous veterans coming back to civilian life, and the colonial and assimilationist policies that, among other things, pushed Indigenous people to seek employment in the military.
Whether the Frontier Wars should be represented at the AWM, whose mission is to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war, is a matter of heated debate ongoing since the 1980s. The AWM has clear indications of what military service can be included in the Memorial under the Australian War Memorial Act 1980, Sect 3. This excludes the Frontier Wars, because they were not fought by members of the Defence Force. Operating a “best we forget” approach, Dr Nelson, current director of the AWM, said that the AWM is not the best place to remember the Frontier Wars, and devolved the task to the Australian National Museum.
The AWM has no gallery dedicated to the Frontier Wars, and they receive no mention in For Country, For Nation, if not for the painting that hangs on the right-hand ride before entering the special exhibition. This is the painting by Rover Thomas entitled Ruby Plains Massacre 1, which has recently been acquired by the AWM. While it is not clear if the painting will stay after the end of the special exhibition on Indigenous service, Dr Nelson said that it was positioned there for people to question why some Indigenous people decided to serve for the country which massacred and dispossessed them.
From the curatorial design of the exhibition, the answer to this question is that Indigenous people have historically been a nation of warriors who fight for the love and devotion to their Country. This is further suggested by the title of the exhibition. The first panel on the left of the entrance of For Country, For Nation speaks about the 2000 generations old Indigenous tradition of the ‘warrior’s strength and the diplomat’s patience’, suggesting that this has been adapted to modern times. This is followed by a panel on the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, a special unit made of Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory formed during WWII to patrol the north of Australia susceptible to Japanese attacks. The text says that these men were chosen because of their knowledge of the country, and they were encouraged to use their own weapons, which they mastered with great skills. The message of this panel is that Indigenous people have a deep connection with Country, and therefore are well positioned like no others to defend and protect it.
The next panel displays the traditional weapons of Indigenous people: spears, shields, and boomerangs.
The display of these weapons can also be understood as a very undertone acknowledgement of the Frontier Wars, given that these same weapons were used by Indigenous people to defend their country against the British colonial invasion.
Next to them, there is a quote by Reginald Walter Saunders, first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned officer, which reads,
I never fought for anything but Australia. I always was loyal to my Country. I fought for the Queen of Australia – or the King of Australia – I didn’t want the King or the Queen of England because I’d have been just as happy fighting against them, Australia is my country. I don’t owe any allegiance or loyalty to the Queen of England; they tried to bloody destroy me, and my family, my tribe, my people. I love my country very much and I like the people in Australia, so my loyalty was purely Australian […] We were the first defenders of Australia – the English never ever defended Australia at all; we did and we suffered very badly for that – decimated to hell.
Loving Country, knowing Country, defending Country, in the context of For Country, For Nation, and of Indigenous service in the ADF, does not mean the colonial nation state, but the land that has been indigenous hundreds of years before the establishment of the colonial state. Indigenous people had a duty towards their land, not towards the colonial state settled on their land.
This is a certainly important to acknowledge, especially in the context of institutional narratives such as those presented by the AWM and NAA. However, it is only the surface of a more pernicious story. Fighting for Country, certainly means defending the land. But it also means fighting for the rights that should be associated with inhabiting the land. Joining the military was not done solely to protect the land that was denied to Indigenous people. For some, joining the military was a struggle and a deliberate strategy for recognition (Riseman, 2016; Riseman & Trembath, 2016). Joining the military as an Indigenous person at a time when Indigenous people had no citizenship rights and were not considered human beings, was a quest for recognition as humans and as citizens. In fact, in the military Indigenous people were treated as equals, had a salary, and could receive an education. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that Indigenous people were treated as equals because they hid their identity. The other is that the military promotes a sense of mateship that goes beyond race, because people must rely on each other for their life. Either way, the military was a safe space for Indigenous people compared to the racism and discriminatory civilian society. And having experienced this, many Indigenous veterans got involved in social justice movements upon their return from war (Riseman & Trembath, 2016: 89).
It is important to recognise that behind each woman and man who joins the military there is a personal story; however, the socio-political environment needs to be taken into consideration when considering why Indigenous people joined the ADF. A closer look at the archival material and the exhibition Facing Two Fronts proved useful in this respect.
Facing Two Fronts collects archival material, documents, photographs, and first-hand accounts of service people and their families to recounts a history of contradiction: that of men and women who joined the military to escape a society and culture permeated by and organised upon structural injustice and oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In the exhibition, I learnt about Sue Gordon, now a retired lawyer, who joined the military at the age of 16 to escape from Sister Kate’s, the orphanage in which she had been living ever since she was removed from her family. Sue Gordon is one of the many children of the so-called ‘stolen generation,’ a system of child removal erected upon racism; like many others, she reports that she experienced little racism while in the military. I also learnt the story of Kath Walker, who joined the military because it was her only way to learn skills valued in a white society and receive an education. Upon her return from the war she faced racial discrimination and became an activist for Aboriginal rights and a famous poet. She also adopted an Indigenous name, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, to break apart with the system of colonisation. I learnt of Charles Mene, who stressed that the reason why he joined the military was to provide a bastion for Indigenous rights and equality. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people managed to join the military because they hid their identity, or when the regulation about ‘substantial European origin or descendant’ was relaxed amid war. However, they were denied to march with the other white service people upon their return home, were denied access to public places like pubs, could not join RSLs. Most importantly, they could not vote, and were denied rights to the land that were given to people who served in the military under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. Because in the military they were treated better than in civilian society, some people like Thomas ‘Massa’ Clarke enlisted more than once.
In the military, Indigenous people were recognised as humans and as citizens, and therefore the military has been used by some to claim civil rights. However, the line between recognition and assimilation is fine. In 1949, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who served in the military were granted the right to vote. Noah Risemand and Richard Trembath (2016: 13) suggest that this is because those Indigenous people who served were recognised as ready to be assimilated, as they demonstrated to have abandoned their primitivity by fighting for the Australian colonial state.
The story of Captain Reginal Saunders was reported in magazines as a prototype of Aboriginal success, and model for other Aboriginal people. The discrimination he faced when he was back in civilian society was, however, omitted (Risemand and Trembath, 2016: 29). Citizenship status was granted to all Indigenous people only following the referendum in 1967. In the 1960s, the military was promoted as a catalyst for success for Indigenous people, according to the narrative that those who joined the military were more likely to fare better in society and could prove to be performing their citizenship duties, which were to be officially recognised with citizenship rights (Riseman & Trembath, 2016: 30).
While joining the military was and is a strategy that some have used to avoid discrimination and fight for the rights of Indigenous people, racial discrimination in the Australia society has not been completely overcome. Negative attitudes towards Indigenous people are still present, with important consequences for the well-being of those subjected to discrimination and racism. It is important to ask what kind of society pushes its people to join the military to be treated fairly.
It is not surprising that the military has been a bastion for Indigenous Australians to pursue recognition. After all, the military as an opportunistic institution of recognition of discriminated people is nothing new. A similar famous instance is that of many western militaries finally allowing women and homosexuals in their ranks after a long history of discrimination and violence against them. While it is important to celebrate equal opportunities regardless of gender, sexuality, and race, it is vital to question under what condition recognition happens, and what the implication of militarising recognition might be. The recognition of women and LGBT+ people in western militaries is a step forward to achieving equal opportunities, but it has failed to challenge patriarchy and heteronormativity that underpin the military and fuel war. It has resulted in the militarisation of female and non-normative sexual identities, but not in the end of discrimination towards women and LGBT+ people in society. As militarised identities, femininity and non-normative sexualities are now well imbricated in the means of global violence, but remain undervalued in society compared to masculinity.
Thus, it is important to ask the question of whether recognition of Indigenous people in the ADF and Australian military history is promoting decoloniality of social relations and institutions, or if it is hiding a system of neo-colonialism and militarised nationalism. Is the military service of Indigenous people fostering reconciliation? Or is it implementing assimilation and further marginalisation of those Indigenous people who do not assimilate?
Riseman, N. (2016). In Defence of Country: Life Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Servicemen and Women. Canberra: ANU Press.
Riseman, N., & Trembath, R. (2016). Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service Since 1945. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.