- Evolving Commemorations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service
In 1995 Australia’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs sponsored a series of commemorations dubbed Australia Remembers 1945–1995. A review indicated that over 70 percent of Australians and 90 percent of ex-service organizations and communities participated in associated events.1 Yet state reports suggested that one segment of the population did not significantly participate: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. These are Australia’s two Indigenous peoples: Aboriginal people’s traditional lands are on mainland Australia and Tasmania; while Torres Strait Islanders’ traditional lands are the islands of the Torres Strait, separating Australia from Papua New Guinea. Historian Liz Reed argues that the underparticipation of Indigenous communities during Australia Remembers underscored the different agendas of non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians. Both Prime Minister Paul Keating and Veterans’ Affairs Minister Con Sciacca emphasized narratives of racial unity during the war, reflecting the Keating government’s Reconciliation agenda. Although Indigenous Australians did want their war service recognized, they also wanted reparations for their war efforts and recognition of their ongoing marginalization within Australia.2
Flash-forward twenty years to the centenary of the First World War, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inclusion in commemorative events was quite conspicuous. Indeed, in the new millennium there has been a “boom” in commemorations of Indigenous military [End Page 80] service. To an extent this is a symptom of the global “memory boom,” but it is also a significant consequence of the Reconciliation movement and the History Wars.3 The Reconciliation movement of the 1990s sought to unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through new understandings of shared histories, including discussions about violent colonial dispossession. While many Australians embraced the Reconciliation movement, among other sectors of the population there was a backlash against supposed special treatment accorded to Indigenous Australians.4
Part of this backlash manifested as the History Wars, which coincided with the 1996–2007 government of John Howard. Conservative pundits argued that academic historians exaggerated frontier violence and child removal, painting a wholly negative, “black armband” vision of Australian history. Most academic historians and public intellectuals retorted that conservatives were whitewashing Australian history to suit nationalist agendas.5 Indigenous military service comfortably transcended the History Wars while also supporting Reconciliation by showing a history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians working together. Invoking the language of shared sacrifice and Indigenous inclusion within Australia’s Anzac mythology spoke a language palatable to conservative Australian values. Amidst this wider sociopolitical context, new Indigenous ex-service organizations emerged and received support from local, state, and federal governments for memorials, marches, and services.
The boom in Indigenous military commemorations also parallels a widespread valuing of military achievement in Australian society. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, among other historians, have criticized this “militarization of Australian history.” They argue that the valorization of military achievement in Australia is a deliberately manipulated act of conservative propaganda seeking to undermine public memory of colonization and to marginalize the place of Aboriginal victims of frontier violence in Australian history.6
Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have also demonstrated a wish to honor their servicemen and servicewomen and have been doing so since the First World War. Such practices have incorporated Indigenous traditions while concurrently asserting military service as a legitimizing claim to Australian citizenship rights. The escalation of such commemorations in recent years and its increasing recognition by non-Indigenous Australians is in keeping with the global memory boom. While it may be argued that this offers a version of Indigenous Australian history that is “safe” for conservative, nationalistic, military-focused consumption, the boom has not diverted attention from the settler violence and Indigenous resistance to colonialism, sometimes dubbed the frontier wars.7 On the contrary, it has drawn attention to that missing chapter in the national military story. This [End Page 81] article will chronologically outline the history of commemorations of Australian Indigenous military service from the early, locally organized events to the recent boom in state and national commemorations. It relies on a mixture of Indigenous and newspaper sources, and the newspaper sources are especially interesting because they reveal examples of Indigenous participation in...