“I tell people that the Anzac legend has a black face,” Gary Oakley says. “Once upon a time they said there weren’t any of us at Gallipoli; there were 70 odd Indigenous soldiers that served on Gallipoli.
Royal Australian Air Force Indigenous Cultural Custodian of the Gundungurra tribe, Oakley is the key consultant on a major new exhibition, Spirit of Anzac Centennary experience, which prominently features Indigenous contributions to Australia's military history.
He believes that there a multiple reasons why these stories have been hidden for so long.
“People tend to forget; we talk about soldiers in the First World War, but we tend to miss that commitment of Indigenous Australians,” he says.
“people are seeing stories of Indigenous servicemen they are quickly going ‘oh we didn’t know’.”
“We don’t really know why people served, they weren’t asked, and when they came back to Australia they went back to community. They became secret heroes, with a secret story. And because they went back to community soldiers often didn’t get to march on Anzac Day. So because you didn’t march in Anzac Day the general public didn’t see you and it skewed the public perception of our service.”
Retired Major General Brian Dawson who manages the exhibition says the other main reason why Indigenous soldiers have had their stories forgotten has been because many of them had to lie about their heritage according to he tells NITV News.
“Many of them had to lie to enlist; they weren’t classified as Australians, some had to lie many times in order to enlist, but it’s a fact that many Indigenous soldiers served, and the records and their letters home indicate that they were pretty much treated as equals in the military and that’s not surprising, they were sharing the dangers of Gallipoli and the western front.”
It’s within the exhibition that soldiers like Private Douglas Grant, Trooper Frank Fisher and Private Alf Lovett hold prominent places, guiding people to stories of Indigenous heroism and service.
Gary Oakley says that now that the exhibition has travelled “people are seeing stories of Indigenous servicemen they are quickly going ‘oh we didn’t know’.”
“This is the kind of stuff that opens the doors because people come in and go ‘oh my grandad served in the First World War’ and we go ‘we never heard of him’. So from one name it can become twenty or forty names, so it just generates itself, it just snowballs, and once you get these lists you go ‘ah ok we’ve got stories here and we can use them’, so all of a sudden the story gets bigger and that’s how it happens.”
Needless to say the exhibition so far has been a rousing success. With over 330,000 visitors from across the country, some taking as long as three hours going through the various themed zones. Many have also had the opportunity to leave messages to the fallen through the online reflection zone.
Oakley is proud of the interest generated by the exhibition.
“It’s gone to communities it would never go to and the message has gotten to people that would never ever see it and that’s the good thing, it all goes to reconciliation. You know we talk about Indigenous, non-Indigenous; we are all Indigenous; we are all from Australia, just some of us have just been here longer.”
The Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience is at the International Convention Centre, Sydney and closes on April 27th. Admission is free.