• Sharen A'Hang features in the documentary Lest We Forget Aboriginal Women (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Three Aboriginal women who served in South Australia's army reserves tell stories of discipline, resilience and determination in a compelling documentary short.
Karen Wyld

23 Apr 2019 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2019 - 4:31 PM

On ANZAC Day, we collectively remember Australians and allies who participated in or had their lives disrupted by wars and conflicts.

We reverently express Lest We Forget sentiments for the countless people who fought for theirs and others’ rights, from the Frontier Wars to the battles on foreign soils.

This includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, whose contributions to defence are a lesser-known part of Australian military and conflict history. 

Despite not being counted as citizens until after the 1967 Referendum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been involved in almost every off-shore conflict since the Boer War. Recently, a sculpture that honours Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for their military services was unveiled at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Each year, ANZAC commemorations around Australia are becoming more inclusive for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who wish to honour their relatives who served in the forces.

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been honoured for their military service at this year's Indigenous Anzac service in Canberra.

However, others are still resistant. In some states, annual protests and marches have become a part of ANZAC Day, as Indigenous people lobby for their ancestors to be rightfully honoured. This includes proper acknowledgement of First Peoples heroic deeds and tragic losses during the Frontier Wars which is yet to be achieved.

Both men and women resisted British invasion and colonisation during the Frontier Wars. There are many accounts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s active participation in the Frontier Wars, such as Tarenorerer and Trugernanner in Tasmania.

Indigenous women first served in Australian armed forces in World War II, as nurses or in support roles in Australian-based outposts.  The first Aboriginal woman to serve overseas was Marion Leane Smith. Marion enlisted in Canada and served in England during World War I, as an army nurse in a British Unit.

Before WWII, Australian women were generally restricted to nursing roles in the services, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were not even permitted to enlist. This changed in WWII, when at least nine known Indigenous women served in the Australian army, air force and navy.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (then known as Kathleen Walker) enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1942. Oodgeroo (Dec. 1993) was a signaller in Brisbane. During this time, nearly 80,000 American troops were stationed in Brisbane at the peak of the war, including African American soldiers. Communicating with African Americans about human rights may have influenced Oodgeroo's Aboriginal rights advocacy after she’d left the armed forces.

Indigenous people have not only served during wars, but have contributed to peace-keeping and numerous duties undertaken by the Australian defence services. Since WWII, there has been a gradual increased presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the armed services.

Marjorie Tripp AO (Dec. 2016) was a member of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service. Known by many as Marj, later in life she was Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Memorial Committee, and was a driving force behind the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial in Adelaide.

In 2015, Aboriginal writer and filmmaker Edoardo Crismani documented Marj’s story in a documentary that was screened as part of SBS’s Our Footprint series. After the Navy, Marj worked as an Aboriginal aged-care and health worker, and is remembered by many as a determined advocate.

Last year, Edoardo put together a short-documentary, Lest We Forget Aboriginal Women. Featuring firsthand experiences from three women who served in the Army Reserves in South Australia during the 1970s and 1980s.

Lois Agius, Rosemary Wanganeen and Sharen A'hang talk of the structure and discipline that the armed forces provided, which they believe helped them build transferable capabilities such as resilience and determination post-service.

For Lois, Rosemary and Sharen, the armed services became a safe haven from the racism and inequity they’d experienced throughout childhood. Their experience in the South Australian Reserves was a welcoming one, where they believed that everyone was treated the same.

Rosemary Wanganeen talks of how she entered the Reserves with unaddressed trauma from everyday racism, and how her time in the services helped her to recognise and address intergenerational trauma. Rosemary talks of how she learnt to let go of trauma and switch on trust. Realising the support around her, she quickly climbed through the ranks.

Rosemary is now a respected Aboriginal Griefologist (a specialist in bereavement) in South Australia and has assisted countless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through the grief and loss process with her Seven Phases model.

The full extent of the successes and experiences of Indigenous women who have served in the Australian armed services is still emerging. However, these women are no longer invisible and their contributions are finally being honoured.


Karen Wyld is a freelance writer, author and consultant living in SA. Her grandmother’s Country (Martu) is in WA.

Lest We Forget Aboriginal Women is available on SBS On Demand as a part of NITV's ANZAC Week.