Fight for recognition continues

April 30, 2018

Important step: Private Daniel Cooper looks out from Shepparton’s Eastbank Centre — an important step in the fight for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women.

‘‘They have forgotten him, need him no more

He who fought for his land in nearly every war

Tribal fights before his country was taken by Captain Cook

Then went overseas to fight at Gallipoli and Tobruk

This black soldier who never marches on Anzac Day

Living in his Gunya doesn’t have much to say

Thinks of his friends who fought some returned some died

If only one day they could march together side by side’’

These are the words of poet, Cecil Fisher, a Korean War veteran.

Uncle Cec was born at the Cherbourg Aboriginal community in 1933 and was a recognised elder in the south-east region of Queensland.

His words capture the reality of the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women the forgotten heroes of the conflicts from the Boer War to the Korean conflict.

Forgotten and not named in the numerous memorials across the nation.

Forgotten and excluded from soldier settler land grants.

Forgotten and precluded from support services for returned veterans.

Forgotten and denied membership of servicemen’s clubs.

Forgotten and excluded from Anzac Day marches and gatherings.

Forgotten by all except their families and communities — families and communities who deeply mourned their losses and whose hopes, that this wartime service would be reflected in changed attitudes in the wider community, were continually dashed.

Private Daniel Cooper was one such Aboriginal serviceman to volunteer.

Born in Echuca in 1895, he grew up at Cummeragunja and enlisted on February 8, 1916.

He was killed on September 20, 1917, at the Battle of Menin Road, Ypres, and is buried far away from family, home and country in the Perth Cemetery (China Wall), Belgium.

With the outbreak of World War II imminent, Daniel’s father, a well-known campaigner for his people’s rights, William Cooper, wrote to the federal minister of the interior:

‘‘I am the father of a soldier who gave his life for his King on the battlefield... the Aboriginal now has no status, no rights, no land and... nothing to fight for but the privilege of defending the land, which was taken from him by the white race without compensation or even kindness. We submit that to put us in the trenches, until we have something to fight for is, not right.’’

In 2014, the same sentiments were expressed by Mick Dodson, a member of the Yarawu peoples and Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University and Professor of Law at the ANU College of Law: ‘‘If you fight for your country, it owes you equality; if you can fight for freedom you should be entitled to that freedom, too.’’

‘‘His medals he keeps hidden away from prying eyes

No-one knows, no one sees the tears in his old black eyes

He’s been outcast just left by himself to die

Recognition at last black ANZAC hold your head high.’’

The face that now looks upon us from the wall of the Eastbank Centre was witness to horrors of war that are beyond our comprehension.

It is the face of Private Daniel Cooper.

Here, in Shepparton an important step in the fight for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women has been taken.

Our next step is to look further back to the Frontier Wars — to the defence of country from 1788.

To recognise those conflicts that produced what Mick Dodson calls ‘‘some of the bloodiest actions of Australia’s history’’.

For this is also part of our history, as important and nation-defining as the Anzac stories of battles far away.

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