Indigenous Australians at war

Media release: Friday, 24 March 2017

Two new exhibitions at the National Archives shine light on Indigenous Australians at war and the prejudice they faced at home when they returned – Facing Two Fronts: the fight for respect and Indigenous Australians at War from the Boer War to the Present.

Service in Australia's armed forces gave Indigenous Australians a new experience and newfound liberation from discrimination. Oral histories suggest that while on the frontline, there was a sense of equality, born from a common concern for survival. However upon returning, having often had their first taste of equality, Indigenous servicemen found discrimination and prejudice, and faced an ongoing fight to gain Indigenous rights.

Ngarrindjeri Elder Uncle Moogy Sumner remembers his great-uncle Ted, who enlisted to serve in World War I in 1916: 'Uncle Ted – he was lucky to come back home, but it didn't change anything for him. He was still chucked back on the mission; he was still looked down on. Over there they were treated as men, equal to other men. When they got back here there was no recognition by the RSL'.

The social impact of military service on Indigenous servicemen, and those left behind, is the central theme of Facing Two Fronts, a National Archives digital exhibition. The story is told through interviews with family members who remember how their relatives were affected by war and discrimination.

'Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn't have access to benefits, recognition or other rights afforded to European–Australians,' says National Archives Curator Amy Lay. 'For a lot of complex reasons, many did not receive soldier-settlement blocks or may have had their pensions and gratuities held in trust. With an increased awareness of the extent of discrimination of Indigenous soldiers, they had a platform upon which to advocate for civil rights.'

Facing Two Fronts is complemented by a touring exhibition from the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Indigenous Australians at War from the Boer War to the Present covers Indigenous contributions to wartime activities in the Boer War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and in subsequent conflicts and peacekeeping.

The National Archives is proud to be presenting these complementary exhibitions in 2017 – a year that marks the 25th anniversary of the Mabo Decision and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum.

Both exhibitions are free and open at the National Archives in Canberra on 24 March.

Contact information

  • Melanie Harwood (Assistant Director, Communications)
    t (02) 6212 3661 m 0417 247 157 e media@naa.gov.au

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Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017