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Unsung heroes remembered and honoured

To the sounds of the didgeridoo and cheering onlookers, Indigenous soldiers, their families and supporters walked through the streets of Redfern on Anzac Day, in what was the second annual Coloured Diggers March reports Susannah Palk in the South Sydney Herald May 2008.

For many, the march was to honour those who served and didn’t receive the recognition they deserved upon returning home.

“The Aboriginal diggers have never been properly recognised,” said Naomi Mayers, CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Service. “Actually they were ignored when they came back home. My uncles where some of them, Jack Patten and Aaron Briggs. They weren’t even allowed into RSL clubs.”

The event was the brainchild of Pastor Ray Minniecon, Director of Crossroads Aboriginal Ministries. During the march, Pastor Minniecon said, “I’m just enjoying being out here, with the community. Showing our recognition, our respect for those who served. It’s good to see our community come out and do that.”

Rob Bryant, Vietnam Vet in the RAAF took part in the march and said he believed a Coloured Diggers march was important for the whole community. “It is so important. The whole Indigenous community can participate in Anzac Day celebrations on their terms.”

Often, Indigenous men and women where treated as equals within the armed forces, only to be treated as second-class citizens when they came home. As Bob Noble, ex-serviceman said, “There was a great difficulty in settling back into society. They weren’t even permitted to go into a pub to share a beer with their comrades they fought in the trenches with.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have fought in every major European conflict, from the Boar War in the late 19th century to recent missions in Somalia and East Timor, with at least 500 serving in World War I and 5,000 in World War II.

One major issue still, is working out how many served and who they were. From the First World War, right up to the Vietnam War, Aboriginals were not asked to state their cultural background. In fact, in WWI in order to serve, you had to be not more than “one-quarter” Aboriginal. Many got around this by stating they were Polynesian, Maori or even Indian.

This is something Ray Minniecon is trying to rectify. “This is a challenge for us. One of the things we are doing at the moment is collecting names from ancestors and also trying to work out what nation group they came from. We don’t know how many of our people have not been repatriated, we still have a long way to go on that front.”

It seems that many Indigenous diggers didn’t receive the benefits due to them, such as war pensions. One reason for this, says Bob Noble, was that they simply didn’t know.

“A lot of our people were not aware that those pensions existed. And it’s only in the last few years that we are now reaching out to those veterans and letting them know that there are entitlements due to them.”

Mark Spinks, Chairman of Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group, whiched helped to organise the event, said that although their ancestors had been forgotten, Australia was heading in the right direction.

“I’d like to think, that with the Prime Minister’s ‘sorry’ announcement, we can build on that and work together to move forward.”

The Coloured Digger 2 art exhibition is showing until May 10 at Damien Minton Gallery (61-63 Great Buckingham St, Redfern), and features works by Martin Sharp [see front page], Roy Kennedy, Reg Mombassa, Daniel Wallace, Jon Lewis, China de la Vega, Clinton Nain and Reg Lynch.

Photo Ben Bontia - On the Sunday before Anzac Day Redfern RSL members lay wreaths at the Memorial in Redfern Park.

Photo Jack Carnegie – WO1 Col Watego

Source: South Sydney Herald May 2008