Learning about Indigenous military service in Australia

 

First Nations peoples have occupied and cared for Australia for over 65,000 years. They also have a proud history of military service in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that continues today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have served in each of the major wars and conflicts in which Australia has been involved since World War I and have taken part in global peace operations.

Past injustices

The Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) recognises the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We're proud of the contribution they have made, and continue to make, to the ADF.

World War I

It's estimated that between 1,000 and 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War I from 1914 to 1918. They volunteered despite regulations that discouraged their enlistment. They served on equal terms for the rank they held, but none held a commissioned rank.

After the war, Indigenous veterans and their families faced discrimination in civil liberties, education and employment.

Learn more about First Australians in World War I.

World War II

It's estimated as many as 6,000 First Nations people served in World War II from 1939 to 1945.

It's difficult to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples served Australia in support of the British Empire during both world wars. At the time, they were:

  • not recognised as the Traditional Owners of this land
  • not permitted to vote
  • not eligible for veterans' benefits.

These are some of the many injustices suffered by Indigenous veterans, their families and communities.

Learn more about First Australians in World War II.

Storytelling

We can learn a great deal about the experiences of First Nations veterans through their service stories.

Stories of Service series

Our short videos look at the experiences of wartime through the eyes of Australian veterans.

Veterans' Stories

Our oral history interviews share the personal recollections from First Nations veterans who have served in war, conflicts and peace operations.

  • Gary Oakley is a Gundungurra man who joined the Navy at 15. He served on HMAS Sydney, transporting equipment to South Vietnam.
  • Roy ‘Zeke’ Mundine served in the Army in Malaya and Vietnam. Later he became the Australian Army's first Indigenous Elder.

Biographies

Learn about the lives of some First Nations veterans, from before their enlistment, through their service years and later life.

Reflections of wartime in the Top End

  • Gladys Waters talks about her husband Len Waters, Australia's first Aboriginal Fighter Pilot.
  • Michael Bell, Australian War Memorial’s Indigenous Liaison Officer, gives a fascinating insight into Indigenous war participation during World War II.

Others who served

Kapiu Masi Gagai

Many Indigenous defence personnel have served with distinction, such as Torres Strait Islander, Kapiu Masi Gagai. He was renowned as a skilled boatman and fearless soldier in World War II.

Aunty Lorraine Hatton

After 21 years of service, Aunty Lorraine was appointed the Army’s second Indigenous Elder. Formally recognised as a First Nation’s Quandamooka Elder she served Australia in peacekeeping, humanitarian, peace-monitoring and war operations.

Teaching resources

Stories of Indigenous Service

An engaging book on the lives of First Nations veterans from World War I and World War II. Discover stories of bravery, heroism, determination and service.

Generations of Service: The Lovett Family

This digital book shares the stories of service of some Lovett family members. Designed for students in primary school, it is also for anyone interested in learning about the important role of First Nations people in Australia's military history. This book explores some experiences of those who served, what happened when they returned home and commemoration.

Indigenous Service workbooks

Five ready-to-use workbooks introduce students to the military service of First Nations people. You could ask students to complete parts of each workbook in class or as home learning.

Expressions: Commemoration through art

Printable activity sheets to help develop students' understanding of wartime artworks. Use the background text and inquiry questions to encourage student research and learning about Indigenous service in Australia's military history.

Indigenous Service

These 2 workbooks - one for primary and one for secondary - acknowledge the service and sacrifice of Indigenous men and women. They'll help you to investigate wartime experiences, providing the social and political contexts of their service in the light of past discrimination. Each book contains sources and activity worksheets.

Get in touch

If you need help with our resources or you'd like a hard copy of our books, please contact us.


Last updated: 26 May 2023

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2023), Learning about Indigenous military service in Australia, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 28 May 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/education/theme/indigenous-service
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