WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following may contain images of deceased persons.
Image sourced from Koori Kicks Art
Yesterday, the 11th of November was Remembrance day, and while it is not a national holiday, it is a day of recognition where we all come together in a moment of silence to remember those who have fallen in war.
Every year it is said “We will remember them” however, upon returning home from service our First Nations men who took up arms to fight were often forgotten. While the nation celebrated the end of war, the freedom that Black Diggers fought for, was in turn not granted to them. First Nations men returned home to be subjugated by a system of oppression and the policies and beliefs of “White Australia.”
Australian Aboriginal Peoples served in the Boer Wars, World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and other military advancements all before being classed as Australian Citizens in 1967. The rules of the time indicated that you could not enlist unless you were of “substantially European origin or descent”. For many, this meant hiding behind the guise of being another nationality such as Moari, Indian and Portuguese. As it became increasingly difficult to recruit a sufficient number of men, recruitment officers also became more lenient in their interpretations of the restriction. Due to high losses in the early stages of the Second World War, this requirement was then overturned. The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have records of cultural backgrounds as it was not a requirement at the time. However, it is estimated that 1000 Aboriginal Diggers served in World War I and 5000 Aboriginal Diggers served in World War II
Image sourced from Australian War Memorial
For Australian Aboriginal people, the war provided an opportunity to escape the poor working conditions, racial prejudice and control, it was also a sense of adventure and enacted on the warrior spirit of protecting their lands, Australia in which they have inhabited for thousands of years. All those enlisted regardless of colour and background served under the same conditions. It didn't matter what colour you were when you were on the same side, fighting the same war. The army was an environment where there was almost no racism. There was unity, equality, honour, recognition, brotherhood and a sense of freedom. However, this taste of change was stark in comparison to the treatment of Australian Aboriginal war veterans on their return.
Indigenous peoples served in a war for a country that denied them fundamental human rights and civil liberties. On return from the war Aboriginal veterans were not acknowledged for their efforts in the war or afforded the same privileges as their European brothers in arms. They were denied their military pensions and other veteran benefits like the military land scheme which also saw Aboriginal land given to soldiers. Indigenous veterans were unable to join their comrades in marches and events, and denied access to the RSL. Instead on return Aboriginal veterans were forced to return to the missions, to their old jobs and positions in the same rags they left behind. Many found that while they were away their children had also been taken. They were all but forgotten.
Image sourced from 'Black Diggers'
The play 'Black Diggers' written by Tom Wright and originally directed by Wesley Enoch is a moving portrayal of these forgotten experiences, based on real lives and events. The play tells the story of these men, one of honour and sacrifice. It depicts the comradeship and power of human relationship. Alongside the harrowing experiences of war and the freedom found by fighting for country, the play highlights a disconnect between the two worlds, with a system of oppression and institutionalised racism upon their return home .
At the Black Diggers Post Evening Show Discussion for Arts Centre Melbourne , Richard Franklin, a Gunditjmara man, spoke on the use of art to create change. The weapon for freedom is no longer a gun. Art is the gun changing attitudes. Art gives a voice, a voice gives freedom and freedom gives responsibility. We have freedom because of Black Diggers. However, our greatest tool is not just our service men but the artists, who contribute just as much to the identity of this nation.
For more information on the Black Diggers play click here.
The stories of this nation and our people, the fight for change and for freedom can be expressed and remembered through the use of art and fashion. Let us remember those who fought in war, overseas and on our shores. Remembrance day does not need to be just one day but can be everyday.
We at Yarn, acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land and sea. We pay our respect to all Elders, past, present and emerging.