Lest we forget about indigenous disadvantage


In October, some medals turned up in a Melbourne rubbish tip. They belonged to a miner, Edward Ernest Leonard Kimberly, who died “for king and country” in France in 1916. The story engages us unreflectingly, but if it’s good enough for The Australian it’s good enough for Joe Blow.

The ANZAC legend is always newsworthy because it forms, we’re told, the root of national consciousness. The remembrance service is observed by millions. From the Latin servitium (meaning ‘the condition of a slave’ or ‘body of slaves’), via Anglo-French servise, the word entered English in the 1400s, after slavery had ended in the British Isles. The roll of observances (from Latin observare: ob-‘in the way’, ‘toward’; and servare, ‘to keep’) is endless.

In observing the forms at a service, we safeguard the value of our forebears’ service. It is a way to make culture, but can we broaden the cultural franchise to include those on the margins?

In social enterprise, the object of a business is not to merely increase shareholder profits. A company may want to improve the living conditions of ordinary people. Grameen Bank, for example, gives small loans to poor people. A hit in Bangladesh, it was launched in the United States for Americans unable to raise a loan through regular channels.

A ‘social service’ could help involve those living on society’s fringes. Indigenous disadvantage remains a problem for Australia despite the Apology. Including forgotten Aboriginal warriors in a high-profile, mainstream service like ANZAC Day could be an effective way to address it.

“Your critics are not your enemies,” observed Fred Chaney, a federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Fraser Government and now a director of Reconciliation Australia, during the Myall Creek Massacre commemoration service two years ago.

Chaney told the 430 participants that, walking down the path to the memorial rock just above the site of the crime of 170 years earlier, he had the same sense as on ANZAC Day. Lyall Munro, a long-time Indigenous adviser of Chaney’s, added drily over the mic: “The Europeans outgunned us.”

Colonial Aboriginal policy in New South Wales disturbed George Gipps – Whig statesman, ex-military engineer – when he arrived in early 1838 to take up the governorship. His predecessor, Richard Bourke, had left some time earlier, and during the interregnum administrators had sanctioned swift retribution for attacks on settlers.

Replying to a petition from leading citizens soliciting military action in response to Aboriginal attacks near Port Phillip that year, Gipps declared London’s resolve:

“As I have the most positive direction from Her Majesty’s Government, to treat the Aboriginal Natives as subjects of Her Majesty, it is entirely out of my power to authorize the levying of war against them, or to give sanction to any measures of indiscriminate retaliation.”

For Aborigines taking refuge on a holding of Henry Dangar at Myall Creek, a run located some 40km south-west of modern-day Inverell in New England, Gipps’ pronouncement came too late. Ten days before Gipps wrote that down, squatter John Fleming with a dozen convicts roped about 30 Wirrayaraay together, pulled them into the bush, and cut their heads off.

They burned the corpses. Colonial police “dispersing cheeky blacks” would also use this tactic.

Gipps worked hard to treat the deaths as murder and seven of the convicts involved at Myall Creek were hanged. It was the first time that Aborigines had been given the same rights as colonists. The ensuing public outcry ensured that it was also the last until the late 1960s.

Many Indigenous people would say that their rights are still infringed. They feel, rightly, that they are often placed in the too-hard basket. It’s not a rubbish tip, exactly, but you wonder whether we have really done enough to make them feel a part of the nation.

Isn’t it time to rethink ANZAC Day?

The Myall Creek Massacre commemoration will be on 12 June, beginning at the CWA hall on the Bingara-Delungra Road, Gwydir Shire, NSW.

Matthew da Silva is a freelance journalist

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