NATIONAL Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week is held every year during the first week of July. This year’s celebrations focus on remembering and honouring our Aboriginal servicemen and women.
This opinion piece was first published in the 11 July 2014 print edition of the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
Although many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been strongly devoted and loyal to Australia, fighting alongside settlers in both world wars and other conflicts, our indigenous soldiers were not even considered Australian citizens until the 1960’s.
They weren’t counted in the census, they couldn’t vote and were strongly discriminated against, but when the war broke out many Aboriginal people still tried to enlist in the army. While some were rejected purely because of their race or were simply kicked out during military training in spite of what was going on, approximately 1,000 Aboriginal soldiers were enlisted and fought in World War I.
This set a precedent for World War II, in which an estimated 3,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders served for their country.
There was also the Boer War in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It remains unclear how many Aboriginal soldiers fought in that war as many were so desperate to serve for their country they did not identify when they enlisted. Who knows how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men served in the wars or how many were turned away, desperately wanting to serve for their country?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were there on the battlefield willing to sacrifice themselves for their country. The indigenous and non-indigenous soldiers fought and died alongside each other with race never causing issues on the battlefield.
However when they returned to Australia the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers still faced discrimination. Going to war still didn’t improve how they were treated in Australian society as a whole.
Government and public opinion saw legislation which ensured Aboriginal soldiers who served in the wars were not entitled to the same rights as the European soldiers and Aboriginal soldiers who went to war were not allowed to apply for the Returned Servicemen’s Settlement Scheme.
There is an Aboriginal War Memorial plaque based in Canberra. This acknowledgement was set up not by the government but by a private citizens. It is quite hard to find and is about 10 minutes’ walk from the Australian War Memorial.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have played a significant part in the military over the past century and they deserve the honour of remembrance, but they have truly been forgotten. Now the long-forgotten service of these men and women are beginning to be acknowledged and celebrated.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to serve in the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force.
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