For years now, contingents of Indigenous Australians have marched in the wake of traditional ANZAC Day parades holding banners calling for the recognition of colonial frontier wars.
The issue of recognition is evolving, says Professor Joan Beaumont, and is echoed by a broader call for recognition of Indigenous Australia’s contribution to the country’s defence forces.
“There are some people that believe the recognition that has been given to the traditional military service on the part of Aboriginal Australians is a way of diffusing the debate about whether institutions such as the War Memorial should acknowledge frontier conflict as war,” Professor Beaumont said.
“I think it’s time to acknowledge that there were these conflicts in the 19th century.”
Frontier wars are a feature, not a focus, of the Serving Our Country research project, which does seek to acknowledge the service of Indigenous Australians in the wars of the 20th century.
Funded by an ARC linkage grant, the multi-institutional project is led by Professor Mick Dodson of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies.
A new website hosting the project’s Yarn Ups – oral history recordings – will launch by the end of the year, with two books on the way as well.
Professor Beaumont, from the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, is a contributing author and one of the chief investigators.
“The story, essentially, is one of exclusion from military service,” Professor Beaumont said.
There are subtleties and complexities to that aspect, but for a long time only people of European descent were obligated to serve.
A second story the research turned up, rather surprisingly, was one of mateship.
“Once Indigenous personnel got into the defence forces they didn’t experience the kind of racism they were experiencing in Australian society more broadly,” Professor Beaumont said.
“They talk about being accepted as part of the platoon and being embraced by the mateship that is so much part of the ANZAC legend.”
The limitations of that are found in a third story, of frustration.
“Frustration in having experienced a more egalitarian environment, and then having risked their lives in military service, to come back to a society that was still deeply racist and discriminatory.”
That much of this has changed over the last 20 years should be acknowledged, Professor Beaumont said. In bringing history and memory together, her project plays some small role in that.