Rewriting the Anzac myth: Recognising Indigenous soldiers on the war front

20 October 2017

By CAP student correspondent Diana Tung

Research undertaken at The Australian National University and collaborating universities has confirmed that the contributions of Indigenous peoples to Australia’s defence over the 20th century have not been adequately recognised until recently.

At the recent “Soldiers Not Citizens” public lecture, Emeritus Professor Joan Beaumont presented some of the findings and data uncovered by a team of researchers, led by Professor Mick Dodson of the National Centre for Indigenous studies, over the last four years. Their research into the military service of aboriginal Australians proved to be a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between military and aboriginal history.  

“The recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in military service has particular importance in Australian political culture partly because the narrative of war is central to our national identity,” Professor Beaumont said.  

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who were formally excluded from military service for much of the 20th century, being part of the Australian defence forces was also a way of demanding respect and recognition.

Trying to understand why these individuals chose to serve Australia was a core part of the research.

As Professor Beaumont remarked, “Why would you choose to fight for a state that was so manifestly the agent of your dispossession and discrimination?”

The “Serving our Country” project which was funded by the Australian Research Council, and Partner Institutions –– the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Department of Defence, the National Archives of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and AIATSIS –– conducted nearly 200 oral history interviews in forty locations throughout Australia. These revealed that patriotism was part of the reason for Indigenous men and women serving, but the full picture was more complex.

“Many of them wanted to exercise agency when so much of their life was controlled by the Protection Acts. They wanted to better their economic situation, to improve their political status, and to demonstrate their equality and masculinity with other Australians,” she said.   

Although Indigenous veterans mostly testified to egalitarian treatment during their time in the defence forces, the trauma of war was compounded by racial discrimination upon returning home.

“Our research exposed a deep sense of frustration among Indigenous military personnel and their families at the fact that their service had not been adequately recognised, and in particular, that their military service had not translated into changes in their political status, said Professor Beaumont.

Nowadays, elements of Indigenous culture has been better incorporated into commemorative ceremonies and monuments, but demands for the history of frontier wars to be explicitly linked to the national war narrative have grown stronger in recent years and may potentially reshape Australian commemoration.

Further information on the Serving Our Country project can be found at the website.



Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team