When people gather to commemorate the lives of Australians lost in service there is a palpable sense of the mateship and gratitude that the ‘lucky country’ is so well known for. 40,000 of us stood huddled together at Kings Park on Tuesday morning, watching the sunrise over the Perth city skyline as wreaths were laid to the sombre drone of a lone piper. Amid the reverence, bowed heads and respectfully hushed tones, I couldn’t help but notice an absence. A silence that was deeper and more complex than the pause between the Last Post and the Reveille could ever capture. In one of Perth’s most significant Noongar areas, on a day of remembrance, there was no acknowledgment of the Noongar people whose land we stood on. How could this be? This lack of Indigenous voice became even more puzzling when the New Zealand national anthem commenced, in Maori, and the service was followed by a performance of the traditional Maori dance the Haka.
How in the preparation of such a significant commemorative ceremony could every single person involved not see that a Welcome to Country by a Noongar person would not only be a respectful inclusion, but actually a significant and meaningful addition? The usual anti-acknowledgment arguments that “it’s just tokenistic”, “we need to move on”, “what difference does it actually make” just don’t hold up on ANZAC Day. ANZAC services are all those things: symbolic gestures that commemorate the past. They make no real tangible differences to the lives lost but to those who remain they are incredibly meaningful. They give voice to the voiceless, shining a light on aspects of life that we often neglect.
When I asked the people around me about the lack of Aboriginal presence in the service I was, in most cases, met with a rolling out of the same tired old rhetoric that is so often used to justify these situations. In the pause after my question I could feel the air become tense as though people wished I would just shut up so the issue could become invisible once more. As if we had more important things to be remembering that day. Then, dismissive comments: the relatively small size of the Aboriginal population in Australia, the magnitude of the conflict in WA due to Aboriginal people being “so much more difficult to assimilate than the Maoris were”, “too disorganised to do performances like that”, “they don’t all speak the same language”, “there is Aboriginal stuff happening at other services”. These comments are at best misguided and at worst totally ethnocentric or downright racist.
As a nation, ANZAC Day says that we can learn much from conflict and that we see respect and remembrance as an important part of moving forward. Why can’t we treat our Aboriginal roots with the same reverence we do our ANZAC stories? Owning our shared history warts and all. Offering acknowledgment of Aboriginal strength, pride and connection to country not as a tokenistic or guilt-laden gesture to shut up the whingers, but from a place of genuine humility, understanding and gratitude.
Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better”. Are we really doing the best we can? Many Aboriginal lives were lost and broken. Reverence and acknowledgment are owed. We know from ANZAC Day that in being with the suffering and loss of others, we bring to light what is truly meaningful and we are united and uplifted. This solidarity is a crucial step in our journey to reconciliation in Australia. I know that we know better and I know that we can do better. Lest we forget.
Anna Balston is a yogi, fledgling poet and ICEA's Yarn Program Manager. With a background in education and behavioural science, Anna seeks to drive reconciliation and respect in our community by exploring the intersections of diverse ways of being, doing and knowing.