Indigenous elder 'gobsmacked' by RSLWA decision to discourage Aboriginal flag and languages at major services

Indigenous elder Len Collard is encouraging Indigenous Australians to say the Ode of Remembrance in their language this year. Source: AAP

The WA branch of the RSL will no longer recognise the Aboriginal flag at ANZAC and Remembrance Day commemorations, while Welcome to Country, and speeches and songs delivered in Aboriginal languages will left out from services.

An Indigenous elder says he's "gobsmacked" by the West Australian branch of the RSL decision to discourage the display of Aboriginal flags and Welcome to Country ceremonies at Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services. 

RSLWA has denied reports it's "banning" the flying of the Aboriginal flag, but the policy states that on ANZAC and Remembrance days, only the Australian and New Zealand national flags, and the West Australian state flag will be recognised. 

It also says, that on these days, all content, whether read or sung, must be delivered in English, with the New Zealand national anthem the only exception. 

While no reference to Welcome to Country appears in the new policy, the RSLWA said in a statement that it's "not supportive of is the use of Welcome to Country" during the ANZAC Day dawn service, as well as the 11am service on Remembrance Day. 

During last year's Anzac Service in Fremantle, Professor Len Collard read the Ode of Remembrance in Noongar language.

"I had so many people come up and congratulate me," he said.

During last year's Anzac Service in Fremantle, Professor Len Collard read the Ode of Remembrance in Noongar language.
During last year's Anzac Service in Fremantle, Professor Len Collard read the Ode of Remembrance in Noongar language.
The University of Western Australia

"Noongar and other aboriginal languages right around the country have always been included in Anzac commemorations."

Professor Collard, from the University of Western Australia, told SBS News that people have been reaching out to him all morning to express "disappointment, shock and awe," at RSLWA's decision.  

"I think we need to realise that we live in a democracy, and people can express their opinion. The idea that somehow, anybody is going to stop anybody from freedom of speech, I think, is highly problematic." 

While the RSLWA recognises Australia as "one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world which is also reflected in its armed forces," it states that "in recent years, [there] has been a trend among sectors of the Australian community to seek to include specific cultural and ethnic elements into major commemorative events."

It states Anzac Day and Remembrance days are "a time of unity, a time when all Australians – irrespective of race, culture or religion – to come together to remember and reflect."

But Professor Collard said the policy harks back to a highly divisive era. 

"I don't know exactly what is the background to this particular issue, but I think there's people out there living in the past, and pursuing past glory, you know the White Australia policy, and other silly ideas but we're long past that." 

Indigenous Australians have been fighting wars since 1788, and have served in virtually every conflict and peace keeping mission in which Australia has participated since the start of last century.

Indigenous soilders lead the ANZAC Day March
Indigenous soilders lead an ANZAC Day March.

The RSLWA says it "recognises the generosity of spirit and patriotism of Indigenous Australians who have served Australia for the freedom of all Australians from tyranny." 

But goes onto say that "all those who have served in the ADF, and who still serve, did so under one flag – the Australian Flag."

Professor Collard said the move is contrary to what his Indigenous ancestors fought for.  

"They went and died on the frontier, they were Noongars and I'm sure they, like all other people both in New Zealand and Australia, fought for liberty and justice.

"And I would assume very central, to those men and women's contributions to the war, was freedom of speech and to have diversity of values in our society." 

He hoped the silver lining is that it will encourage all Australians to further embrace Indigenous languages. 

"The good news is it might just create another spike in language speaking across the nation, and I'm sure both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians will start to take on that cutting edge recital of the Noongar ode in my  language."

Professor Collard is calling on communities across the country, to recite the ode in their languages at this year's services.

"So if there is Torres Strait Islander folk out there, start reciting the ode in Torres Strait Islander languages across that area, for the Murris and Kooris in Queensland, go and write the ode in your language and recite it on your country, when you're in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, get the Aboriginal folks down there to write it in their languages.

"I think that right across Australia we should be able to rejoice and express the ode in the diversity of global languages."

Source SBS

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