Ongoing battle for recognition of Australia's indigenous soldiers

In the latest of our weekend series PETER COLLINS interviews a Hamilton man who is determined to tell the stories of Australia's forgotten heroes- the indigenous soldiers.

HISTORY has been unkind  to indigenous soldiers who served Australia in military conflicts, but a south-west researcher is helping give them due credit.

Amateur historian Peter Bakker of Hamilton, who helped uncover 88 Victorian Aboriginal soldiers from World War I, is planning to distribute his updated Fighting For Country booklet in schools and libraries across the region and further afield.

“I want it to be an education resource so people will learn the facts,”  Mr Bakker told The Standard yesterday.

“We now know that more than 1000 people of Aboriginal descent served  Australia in the Great War — more than double the figure of what was reported 10 years ago.

“South-west Victoria had a very, very unique contribution with 28 — that’s more than a quarter of the Victorian total.

“We may never know the full extent of their contribution.

“Their enlistment and service gave them a sense of identity and they aspired to be rewarded.

“Unfortunately, they returned home to find their country being carved up by the government as farms for white ex-soldiers and their families forced off homeland.

“It was like another version of the stolen generation — Aboriginal people lost touch with their spiritual country and family connections.”

He expects his research will be incorporated into a much larger nationwide project launched on  Wednesday.

 The Serving Our Country initiative  will compile stories of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who fought for Australia from the Boer War until the year 2000. 

Among the team of researchers is Professor Mick Dodson of the Australian National University, who said the work would give families a chance to tell their stories about war service and the hardships faced when they returned home, such as finding their children had been put into state care and not being entitled to benefits afforded non-indigenous soldiers.

Mr Bakker’s booklet, which was funded by an Anzac centenary grant,  was launched on Saturday at the Lake Bolac Eel Festival where he met several Aboriginal family representatives tracing their past.

He has spoken at various venues across the district and interstate and will be guest speaker at Glenthompson’s Anzac Day ceremony on April 25.

“I think there’s a growing appreciation in the community of  military service by Aborigines,” he said yesterday.

“There are hundreds of copies of my booklet which I plan to distribute to local secondary schools and libraries in the next couple of months.

“Warrnambool has  Victoria’s only Aboriginal war memorial and we are starting to see others being established interstate.”

Mr Bakker’s research helped correct a mistake in a Shrine of Remembrance exhibition which featured a former Boer War soldier believed  to be of Aboriginal descent, but who turned out to be a West Indian. 

A trip to Western Australia by Mr Bakker enabled him to identify an Aboriginal man who had served in the Australian infantry and was the grandson of an Aboriginal woman kidnapped from Westernport in the 1830s by sealers.

“Our research significantly changes thinking on the service by Aborigines in the Boer War,” the author said. “It had always been said they were mainly used as trackers, but the ones I identified were incorporated into normal units.”

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