• These members of the 51st Battalion, Royal Queensland Regiment, are fromYarrabah Mission, near Cairns. (National Archives of Australia)Source: National Archives of Australia
Indigenous Australians have served the nation in all major conflicts since before Federation, for many this was the first time they experienced equality. But back on home soil they faced enduring discrimination, now two exhibitions hope to shine a light on their experience.
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Source:
The Point
24 Apr 2017 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 24 Apr 2017 - 4:31 PM

Ngarrindjeri elder Uncle Moogy Sumner from South Australia remembers his great Uncle Ted who enlisted to serve in World War I in 1916. 

"Uncle Ted, he got permission to go and join the army, and do the training and then travel to a different part of the world to fight for this country," he said. 

"If you wanted to go into the town you had to deny your Aboriginality."

But he says his Uncle Ted faced a battle even before he went overseas.  

"Getting permission to go across the other side of the world, that was a big move," he said. 

"They weren't allowed to go into the towns. If you wanted to go into the town you had to deny your Aboriginality."

Then upon returning home, Moogy says his Uncle Ted faced an even tougher battle. 

"There was no recognition by the RSL, they were banned from going to the RSL. They wasn't involved in all the marches around the country," he says. 

The social impact of military service on Indigenous servicemen and women, and those left behind, is the central theme of Facing Two Fronts: The Fight For Respect, a digital representation of Indigenous soldiers and their fight for justice as told by their family members.

"I was so proud when I saw it, my Dad's name. They could've put just his last name, but they put the full name... here Dad this is for you."

Rosie Ware tells the story of her father, Elia. He served in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion during the Second World War. 

Rosie says her dad fought for many injustices, including the right to equal pay. 

"He fought, and a lot of the other uncles enlisted too, they really fought hard for getting equal pay which they felt without them they thought Japan would have invaded Australia. The Australian Army really relied on the men here so they really felt that needed to have equal pay," she said.

Years down the track, Elia was recognised for being a freedom fighter. 

"But it didn't change anything for him. He was still chucked back on the mission, he was still looked down on. A lot of them said, over there they were treated as men, equal to other men."  

"He's got a street now in Canberra in the suburb of Bonner, our late Senator Bonner suburb, on the outskirts of Canberra, and they're all freedom fighters, all them names. I absolutely admire them, I was so proud when I saw it, my Dad's name. They could've put just his last name, but they put the full name... here Dad this is for you," she said. 

Moogy Sumner says his Uncle Ted was lucky to come back home, "But it didn't change anything for him".

"He was still chucked back on the mission, he was still looked down on. A lot of them said, over there they were treated as men, equal to other men," he said. 

Some men may not have made it back at all, with some historians speculating the White Australia policy might have seen up to 50 Indigenous soldiers barred from returning home to Australia after the Boer War ended.

"In a way its an exhibition that makes us feel disappointed and angry that fellow Australians have had to go through a series of discriminations that most of us don't know anything about or forgotten about."

National Archives Curator Amy Lay says many of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers who did return did not have access to benefits, recognition or other rights afforded to European-Australians. 

"For a lot of complex reasons, many did not receive soldier-settlement blocks or may have had their pensions and gratuities held in trust. With an increased awareness of the extent of discrimination of Indigenous soldiers, they had a platform upon which to advocate for civil rights," she said. 

ANU Professor Mick Dodson, who spoke at the exhibition's launch, says they fought for more than just their country. 

"They weren't just fighting for the country. They were also fighting for their own land, and for their pay, and for service, and for their citizenship, and for recognition and we owe a lot of what we have today to these men and women and their sacrifice," he said. 

National Archives Curator Anne-Marie Conde says the exhibition brings up mixed emotions. 

"In a way its an exhibition that makes us feel disappointed and angry that fellow Australians have had to go through a series of discriminations that most of us don't know anything about or forgotten about. So some of the content is a bit hard but what I hope people notice is the sense of pride and dignity in which these stories are told by the people themselves affected or their families and how strongly those stories survive in cultures today," she told NITV. 

Indigenous Australians at war: from the Boer War to the present is another exhibition hoping to shed light on the experience of Indigenous Australians at war. 

Shrine of Remembrance curator Jean McAuslan says the willingness of Indigenous Australians to enlist is all the more remarkable when viewed against their lack of citizenship and defence policies that discouraged their enrolment. 

"I think they enlisted to defend their country. I think they enlisted because their friends did, to have adventure... but overwhelmingly to escape the constraints of mission life and the state Aborignal protectorants who could control their income. So by going into the defence forces they got away from all of that, so some of the reasons they enlisted was the same as anyone else did and others were very specifically to escape constraints," she told NITV. 

Despite the many injustices faced by Indigenous Australians serving in the frontline, successive generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders enlisted to serve in wars from World War I to the Vietnam War and through to the present day. 

The exhibition also reveals that Indigenous Australians even served in the first Boer War during the turn of the twentieth century, a time before Australia even became a nation. 

 

Jean McAuslan says their resilience and bravery needs to be acknowledged. 

"They'd been warriors. They'd performed roles that they were very willing to perform for their country and when they came back pretty much to same invisibility that they'd experienced before the wars," she said.  

"It's a story worth telling but its also highlighted for me how little we know and have known about Indigenous history and this is just one of many stories I think all Australians need to come to know."

Both exhibitions are currently on display at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.