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A modest commemoration of a great contribution

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Columnist for The Canberra Times

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John Lovett at the ANZAC Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony.

John Lovett at the ANZAC Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony. Photo: Jay Cronan

As if the bush setting on the slopes of Mount Ainslie wasn't already authentic enough, a big mob of kangaroos bounded past the clearing where we all (about 250 of us) were gathered for the Anzac Day Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony.

We didn't see any echidnas but master of ceremonies Garth O'Connell swore he'd seen one there one Anzac Day and that it was a good place for snakes too.

"They're in bed. It's too cold for them!" one of the many beanie-wearers ventured. Yes, as the sky lightened (the ceremony began at 6.30am, giving people time to troop up to this modest occasion from the grand occasion of the Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial) the still air had some bracingly Siberian qualities about it.

Flight Sergeant Mick Enchong at the ANZAC Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony. Click for more photos

The Anzac Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony

The Anzac Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony, Canberra. Photo: Jay Cronan

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association is beginning to lobby for a grander memorial than the simple one we were meeting at. The present one is modest to the point of being almost obscure. There are no signs pointing to it (until you're almost upon it) and the path up to it from behind the Australian War Memorial is narrow and steep, the kind of track favoured by the sorts of runners and joggers who like to torture themselves.

After about 250 metres of this, a signposted path veers left and 70 metres later you are in a small bush clearing not as big as a tennis court and beside which, in an outcrop of lichen-upholstered boulders, there's a plaque indicating that this place is the memorial.

There are just two park benches there and Thursday's congregation (arriving in single file to the tuneful growlings Jeff Timbery's didgeridoo) filled the clearing and then also spilled and arranged itself among the trees and the boulders.

Jeff Timbery of the Dharawal Nation plays the Didgeridoo at The ANZAC Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony, Canberra.

Jeff Timbery of the Dharawal Nation plays the Didgeridoo at The ANZAC Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony, Canberra. Photo: Jay Cronan

The contrast with the spaciousness and grandeur of the Australian War Memorial and its surrounds was extreme and yet the simplicity and intimacy and leafiness of the space was really rather lovely.

When the one magpie there warbled and trilled and when the one raven there sighed these soloists felt like our little event's very own magpie and raven performing just for us. The mob of kangaroos (some of its members beefy and enormous), hurtling uphill, felt like our very own mob and certainly gave us something the Dawn Service clientele had missed out on.

Bemedalled Royal Australian Navy veteran (35 years) Gary Oakley, gave the Commemorative Address, giving it very informally, conversationally and engagingly. He works at the Australian War Memorial now on the history of indigenous service in the Australian Defence Force.

"I always tells people the ADF was the first equal opportunity employer of indigenous Australians, and it was ... In the Western Mail in 1932 it was said that 'The A.I.F. judges a man not by his colour but by his worth,' which I think sums it up about indigenous service in the ADF.

"We [indigenous people] have been in uniform now, for, golly!, since before Federation. Now, you wonder why we serve. I ask myself that question. In my case I joined [at 15] because I wanted a job, because I wanted to see the world, I wanted to do things. But what went through the heads of [indigenous] people in 1914? I mean, you're not a citizen of your own country. You've really got no rights. And yet you fly to the colours! Why?

"One of my jobs at the War Memorial is to research the over 1000 Aboriginal people who joined up in the First World War ... and out of that 1000, over 100 were killed. That's a big percentage. And of that 1000 some 22 or 23 won awards for bravery, including two winners of the DCM (the poor man's VC). As a people we punch well above out weight.

"But why did they join? The wages for a start. Six shillings a day was good money, especially when you consider the average British soldier got six shillings a week. So for us it was probably a chance to send money home as well.

"But there was also the possibility that after the war when you came back home you'd be looked upon as something different, that people might [at last] look upon your race of people differently."

Oakley told us, to the soft accompaniment of our virtuoso magpie, that in the Great War records of indigenous people he finds a great determination to enlist, against all the odds (some medical officers knocked them back because they suffered the "affliction" of being Aboriginal) with some men trying again and again and even going interstate to try to clear more sympathetic hurdles.

"And you wonder why the hell would they do that? After all some of them are nearly traditional or they're one generation away from being traditional. They've been disenfranchised. But they're warriors. They want to serve. They want to prove themselves. And prove themselves they did ... We [indigenous people] have been in this game [wearing the nation's uniforms] a long time. We've served this country honourably and nobly, though the country hasn't served us honourably and nobly at every stage. But it's changing."

He said that the ADF had changed considerably, too, and that he was proud, now, of the way the ADF looked at its indigenous men and women; and that with that he'd stop because he knew we were all freezing and needed to get on with things.

The things got on with included the laying of wreaths and poppies at the ceremonial stones with people coming and going to the soulful yodellings of the didgeridoo. The bright red poppies contrasted beautifully with the grey/green lichen of the rocks. One young woman placed among the wreaths a framed portrait of a touchingly boyish-looking young man in uniform.

There were no hymns and prayers and the God so much involved and invoked in the Dawn Service was not bothered at all in this ceremony. But Dave Arden sang, to his guitar accompaniment, a hymn-like song Freedom Called he'd co-written with the famous Paul Kelly.

And Garth O'Connell recited, as if it were scripture, the passionate WW2 poem The Coloured Digger that a non-Aboriginal servicemen wrote to honour an Aboriginal soldier he knew in New Guinea. It's feisty sentiments rang in our chilly little glade, and included:

He'd heard us talk democracy, They preach it to his face,

Yet knows that in our Federal House there's no-one of his race.

He feels we push his kinsmen out, where cities do not reach,

And Parliament has yet to hear the Abo's maiden speech.

After our heartfelt "We will remember them," the one minute's silence was especially deep and profound up there on Mount Ainslie's bushy slopes although our very own raven did mutter to himself a little during it.

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