Recognising Indigenous service personnel

10 March 2014

A group of researchers from the Australian National University are about to start compiling the nation’s first comprehensive record of Indigenous service in the defence forces, in a move they say will help reconciliation.

The Serving Our Country: a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia project will involve two years of community consultations followed by another two years of compiling the records of Indigenous servicemen and women, nurses, ancillary staff and peacekeepers from the Boer War through to 2000.

Researchers say it’s about addressing past silences and, in turn, enriching Australia’s war history.

“It’s a chance for Indigenous Australians to have their stories showcased as a story of pride and achievement,” says Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at ANU, Professor Mick Dodson.

The project also has the potential to transform national ideas around service, citizenship and patriotism including the creation of a more inclusive ANZAC narrative.

“The research is likely to profoundly change the way we understand Australian history and identity,” Professor Dodson says.

He says the forthcoming Centenary of Gallipoli is an ideal time to begin the project to recognize the service of Indigenous Australians.

It is estimated about 1,000 Aboriginal men landed at Gallipoli, but that number could rise as researchers uncover untold stories from communities.

“For first Australians, their exclusion from histories of serving their country compounds their historical experiences of colonialism and its ongoing impacts,” Professor Dodson says.

“By making our research as inclusive as possible with communities, we’ll be highlighting their positive achievements and great sacrifices in the nation’s cause.”

The project will use a range of research methods, including interviews and examining records.

Archival and database research through the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans Affairs will also take place for World War One and wars where there are few living veterans.

“It’s important that Indigenous people feel empowered and have some ownership over this project, so we’ll also hold workshops with them about the information we intend to collect and how we’ll be doing that,” Professor Dodson says.

Serving Our Country includes funding from the Australian Research Council of around $1.2 million, $760,000 from the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs, and $60,000 from the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives.

In 2011, a DVA-funded ANU-led pilot project laid the groundwork for further research. Since then, the researchers have been inundated by expressions of interest from Indigenous service personnel.

In 2014 and 2015 the research team will conduct nation-wide community consultations to speak with Indigenous service personnel.

The first consultation will begin on 10 March in Newcastle.