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How will you keep him down on the farm?

Wesley Enoch on the experience of Indigenous soldiers while they served and once they returned home, and on the commemoration of the Rigney Brothers.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: So ‘Black Diggers’ isn’t just about the experience on the front line. It’s also a huge focus on what happens when the soldiers come home. Can you tell us a little bit about the repatriation process that you’ve found in your stories? I mean, we’ve even found with the James Arden story, how he fought for entitlements, is that anything that you’ve discovered?
WESLEY ENOCH: Oh, absolutely. I think this idea of hope, hope for change, why do they go off and fight? To make the world a better place for everyone. And come back and to see that the world hasn’t changed. It’s interesting that, also the rise of a meritocracy– that if you were good at something, you could rise up the ranks in the AIF, and you could to be in charge of a group of men. It was no longer about just the aristocracy or the kind of the idea of being born to rule. It was actually, you know, if you were good, you could get somewhere.
And so a lot of these indigenous men came back good at things, they were useful, either on the, the reserves or maybe at the stations they were working on, et cetera. And there were demands that they could use those skills to either make their world a better place, or to get some kind of payment for their work. And so there was that agitation that also came back with them– a sense of, you know, that wonderful song, you know, “How Will We Keep Them Down on the Farm, Once They’ve Seen Paree?”
The sense, also, of an aspiration, how will we keep them oppressed if they’ve known the freedoms of travel and, and money and being treated as equals, and fantastic stories of how Indigenous soldiers who were being oppressed uh well, let’s say ex-servicemen, people have returned, and how their white counterparts then will fight for their rights, either on what would then become Anzac Day and about bringing people in, into the pubs to have a drink or suddenly changing the rules to say, no, no. This is my mate. He’s, he’s not really aboriginal. He served World War I. You know, that, that kind of exceptionalism that kind of formed around talking about Indigenous soldiers, which was very interesting.
Um, I, I think that they were as many terrible stories as there were uplifting stories. And there are none, I, think it’s incredibly difficult to say that there’s a uniform approach, individual by individual. You know some, some people absolutely recognised, you know, there’s stories of their names going on war memorials, and all these small towns, and those kind of generic war memorials that went up everywhere. You know, their, names were there, and they were recognised, and other towns where that wasn’t the case. So it’s interesting that there is no unified narrative around Indigenous service. And why it’s easy to forget it. There’s no way of talking about what it means.
One of the stories I love telling is on the 50 dollar note, there is the, on the back, there’s David Unaipon and there’s a church in the back of that image. And in that church is what I say is the first memorial to Indigenous service uh in, in any war. And it’s a stained glass window in that church, that the local aboriginal community and then in the white community, put together and put it up there. And it says something like, in loving memory, da, da, da, who fought not– and it doesn’t say King and Country, but it says, for freedom and justice.
And that notion of Indigenous people fighting for freedom and justice, whereas a lot of times, it the narrative was around King and Country, and da, da, da. And I think that says something about how Aboriginal people saw that war. And when they returned, they continued to fight, continued to make a difference in some way, shape, or form.

Watch Wesley Enoch discuss how different the experience could be for Indigenous soldiers, while they served and once they returned home. He talks about the commemoration of the Rigney Brothers.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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