An Indigenous inspired paradigm for the War Memorial

Jun 25, 2020

The debate over the purpose of the Australian War Memorial needs to be revisited with a view to recognising the Indigenous people who mounted heroic resistance to a ruthless invader from 1788.

Note: This article mentions deceased persons.

In the late 1950s like most of my classmates, I had my first air journey. Our school organised a Canberra excursion, the central attraction of which was a visit to the Australian War Memorial. Whether the trip was subsidised or not, it had specific acculturation aims. The parents of most baby-boomers had close experience of the Pacific War and the trip fed our curiosity. I have a photograph, taken with my Box Brownie of a classmate at an outdoor exhibit, a midget submarine captured during the raid on Sydney Harbour.

I would not have understood well had there been an exhibit devoted to Indigenous people who resisted invasion a century and a half earlier. But in hindsight, it is a pity that there was no mention of the likes of Pemulwuy, Windradyne and Jandamarra.

The Pacific War involved the only other action taken in direct defence of Australia. Heroic Indigenous resistance against invaders provides a better context to appreciate such historical movements as the Vietnamese campaigns against the French and the USA. Had we acknowledged that earlier defence of Australia, we might have had a totally different understanding of how the Australian military should be employed. Always, making changes which improve our understanding of Indigenous peoples benefits all of us.

Thanks to the work of historians including Professor Henry Reynolds, few Australians now refuse to accept that ‘frontier wars’ is an appropriate way to describe the time of invasion and dispossession. There remains however, reluctance among authorities to envisage a place in the Memorial for Indigenous defenders. This is hardly surprising considering the Government’s tardiness honouring Indigenous men and women who served in the Australian military.

Black veterans have had to force their way into Anzac Day marches and they were historically excluded from RSL clubs. I know a man who was removed while his father was away at the front. Still in uniform the veteran went to the Bomaderry orphanage and asked for the return of his children. His rejection was an extraordinary act of hypocrisy, but entirely consistent with our historical refusal to interrogate our motivation when dealing with Indigenous peoples.

Currently, there are plans for an expensive expansion of the War Memorial. Unfortunately, the institution depends on sponsorship from arms manufacturers. This might explain why exhibits have become more ‘interactive’. The idea that the Memorial provides an experience of war in which visitors can choose certain outcomes is to reduce the notion of warfare to the status of a video game. This remote, lounge room approach is an unhealthy development.

The AWM has two options which might preserve its integrity. The first is to abandon plans for expansion and to reject sponsorship by arms manufacturers. Such an outcome seems unlikely while some former Ministers and MPs regard these companies as potential sources of post-politics employment.

The second option is to spend its budget on proper recognition of the heroes of the resistance in the frontier wars. There is an obvious difficulty in that the names of many Indigenous leaders have been deliberately obliterated. It is possible however, that with encouragement, Indigenous groups might recover names from their oral histories. And they might also provide names to replace those of the known murderers awaiting removal from streets, towns and rivers.

Imagine how the context of the AWM would be enhanced if visitors were greeted by an approach avenue dedicated to the defence of Australia in the frontier wars. The perspective would be richer, more holistic and so more honest. Far from adding to our guilt or shame, this new paradigm would mean that we could all hold up our heads proudly. Unafraid of the truth, we could have mature discussions about ways to provide genuine justice for all Australians.

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