Why not commemorate the Frontier Wars in the Australian War Memorial?

Aug 14, 2018

As an Australian schoolchild I learnt the history of England, including a long list of English Kings, but nothing at all about the Frontier Wars here in Australia or indeed the history of our Indigenous, the oldest people on the planet. 

So I learnt a great deal from reading the Griffith Review 60 (2018), ‘First Things First’.   The Griffith Review 60 consists of 33 essays written by a range of influential Australians – Indigenous leaders, Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics, leading journalists, playwrights, poets and historians.

Editors Julianne Schultz and Sandra Phillips originally named this edition ‘Renewed Promise’ but after the Uluru Statement from the Heart was dismissed by the Australian Prime Minister, the special edition was renamed ‘First Things First ‘. Following a plan endorsed by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, the Uluru Statement involved 1,200 Participants from 600,000 Indigenous people nationally. The First Nation Regional Dialogues were held at thirteen sites throughout the country.  Each dialogue took place over three days and the final meeting was held at Uluru during May 23-26, 2017.

The history of Indigenous people in Australia goes back for over 60,000 years. White immigrants have been in Australia for only 230 years.  The consequences of this European invasion have been cataclysmic for Indigenous Australians. Professor Lyndall Ryan of the University of Newcastle has produced a confronting and comprehensive map of over 250 massacres of Indigenous People during the Australian Frontier Wars. (See ‘Massacres on Australia’s colonial frontier climb to 250’ in this blog, 27/7/2018). It is estimated that by 1930, 65,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were killed in Queensland alone. The most impoverished and imprisoned in our nation are the First Peoples. To this day, Australia is the only Commonwealth country that has never signed a Treaty with its Indigenous people.

The Uluru Statement calls for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to enable the building of relationships between the First Nations and the Australian Federal and State Governments.  (See https://www.referendumcouncil.org.au/sites/default/files/2017-05/Uluru_Statement_From_The_Heart_0.PDF). Makarrrata symbolises the ‘coming together after a struggle’.  The Commission would be similar to previous initiatives in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. To mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August, the seven biggest Aboriginal organisations in NSW marched to the NSW Parliament calling for a Makarrata (https://www.theguardian.com/australianews/gallery/2018/aug/09/marching-together-worlds-indigenous-peoples-day-in-sydney-in-pictures).

The Uluru Statement called for a Referendum and a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. Despite polls showing 61% of Australians agreed to a Referendum, the Prime Minister dismissed it.

At the 2018 Anzac Day March in Canberra, some courageous young Indigenous people who were not Veterans marched while older War Veterans applauded.  This was a reminder of the 2011 Anzac Day March in Canberra when Michael Anderson, founder of the Canberra tent embassy, led Indigenous people carrying signs saying ‘Lest we forget the Frontier Wars’. I wrote to Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial, asking why the Memorial has done nothing to commemorate the Frontier Wars. He replied ‘the War Memorial’s charter and mission is defined by the 1980 Australian War Memorial Act’ and referred specifically to  ‘overseas wars’.

Brendan Nelson’s term as Director finishes in 2019. Before he leaves perhaps he could persuade the prime Minister to revise the Australian War Memorial Act to recognise the Frontier Wars.

The Australian historian, Henry Reynolds , argues in his book ‘Forgotten War ‘ (2013)  that there can be no complete reconciliation without acknowledging the wars fought on our own soil, that is Australia’s war between the settlers and the original inhabitants. In the spirit of Reconciliation, I am sure the majority of Australians would support recognition of the Frontier Wars in the Australian War Memorial.

Kerry Goulston is a retired Gastroenterologist and medical academic – and a concerned citizen.

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