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Black Diggers and the Great War: more than service.

by on July 2, 2014

A symposium – Black Diggers and the Great War: more than service.

Date:  Thursday, 10 July 2014; 10am -3 pm; Metcalfe Auditorium, State Library of NSW.

Free event; light lunch provided; RSVP @ http://www.eventbrite.com.au/o/the-history-council-of-nsw-2344519554?s=24853731.

2014 marks the centenary of the First World War. Records show that more than 800 Aboriginal men enlisted, eager to fight on behalf of their country they and served in this conflict on equal terms, successfully breaking down cultural barriers by forming friendships with those they fought side by side. The participation of Aboriginal Servicemen in the First World War held immediate implications for families and communities on the home front. Not the least as government control and interference increased in the lives of Aboriginal people that saw servicemen relegated to second-class citizens with new threats to land and family emerging in the post war period.

This symposium contributes to our understanding about the level of participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens in the ‘Great War’ and the motivations and aspirations for enlisting and how the experience of service shaped social, political and economic issues on the home front.

The following speakers will contribute to the forum:

–       Prof Mick Dodson, Director of The National Centre for Indigenous Studies, ANU;

–       Prof Heather Goodall, University of Technology, Sydney;

–       Prof John Maynard, Director of The Wollotuka Institute, The University of Newcastle;

–       Jessica Horton, postgrad researcher, LaTrobe University.

Abstract and speaker bios

Paper: The Serving Our Country Project: a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia.

Professor Dodson’s paper will discuss a major research project underway tracing the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia.

Indigenous Australians have a proud history of defence service and despite fighting in all major conflicts and serving in peacekeeping and defence support roles, have been relatively overlooked in Australian historical narratives. ‘Serving Our Country’ highlights the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to Australian defence and auxiliary services from the Boer War to 2000.

In partnership with the University of Newcastle, Australian Catholic University, Department of Defence, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, National Archives of Australia, Australian War Memorial and the AIATSIS the research team will record oral and video histories, research archival papers and other sources to create a more inclusive understanding of Australia’s defence history.  

The project website is http://www.ourmobserved.com/

Prof Dodson AM is Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at The Australian National University and Professor of law at the ANU College of Law. He has been a prominent advocate on land rights and other issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as a vigorous advocate of the rights and interests of indigenous peoples around the world.

Paper: Aboriginal women and twentieth century wars

Awareness has been growing about the many Aboriginal men who enlisted as soldiers in Australian armies in the twentieth century. There has been less inquiry into the ways their role was viewed by their families and particularly by Aboriginal women. This paper will consider the records left by two Aboriginal women in NSW – Isabel Flick and Pearl Gibbs – to ask how they viewed the military service of men in their families and the contexts in which they spoke about warfare. 

Heather Goodall is Professor of History at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has published widely on Aboriginal land and political history and on environmental histories in both southeastern and central Australia. She has worked collaboratively with activists Isabel Flick and Kevin Cook to produce two co-authored life stories: Isabel Flick: The Many Lives of an Extraordinary Aboriginal Woman and Making Change Happen: Black and White activists talk to Kevin Cook. Heather’s current research continues her collaborative projects with Aboriginal people in relation to environment and to Aboriginal controlled education in Australia. At the same time, she is researching the links between India, Indonesia and Australia during the dramatic campaigns around decolonization at the end of WW2.

Paper: Missing Voices: Aboriginal Dissent and Patriotism in World War I

Aboriginal involvement in World War I is complex and full of contradictions. During the war, many Aboriginal people and communities were keen to enlist and supportive of the war effort; but others spoke out against conscription, and against the war itself. I am not interested in the non-Indigenous view of Aboriginal peoples’ role in this history, whether that view be pro- or anti-war. It is critical to disentangle the Aboriginal experience from these separate debates, and to trace Aboriginal voices both during and after the war, to comprehend what Aboriginal people themselves had to say about the conflict. In my paper, I discuss my involvement with the current project ‘Serving Our Country’. Through snapshots of the Aboriginal WWI experience, this project seeks to provide answers to some of the tantalising issues around Aboriginal individual and community responses to the war. These sometimes unexpected stories will both enrich and dismantle the Australian mythic First World War narrative.

John Maynard is a Worimi man from the Port Stephens region of NSW. He is currently Director of the Wollotuka Institute of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Newcastle and Chair of Aboriginal History. His publications have concentrated on the intersections of Aboriginal political and social history, and the history of Australian race relations. He is the author of several books, including ‘Aboriginal Stars of the Turf’, ‘Fight for Liberty and Freedom’, ‘The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe’ and ‘Aborigines and the Sport of Kings’.

Paper: ‘Willing to fight to a man’: war time experiences on Aboriginal reserves in Victoria.

This paper examines the impact of Aboriginal men’s war efforts during the First World War at Lake Condah reserve in the Western District of Victoria. Many Aboriginal families found that the mobility and financial independence gained from their men’s war effort jeopardized their position on reserves and their right to government assistance. As the Aboriginal Protection Board sought to reign in these families’ freedoms, Aboriginal people increasingly turned to letter writing in order to assert their rights. Upon return servicemen were met with hostility from the station manager who believed their material gain represented an inappropriate rise in social status. Ultimately, these wartime experiences highlighted the sharp ironies of Aboriginal people’s political status. The research shows that the First World War had a larger impact on Aboriginal communities in Victoria than has previously been acknowledged, and played a large part in shaping the political culture that emerged on these reserves.

Jessica Horton is completing a PhD at La Trobe University titled, “Letters from Aboriginal people in Victoria, 1886 – 1923”. Her research explores Aboriginal peoples’ letter writing as a form of political activism and the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in the colonial period.

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