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First Peoples Assembly call for recognition of Aboriginal veterans denied land packages

Dechlan Brennan -

The First Peoples’ Assembly have marked ANZAC day with a call for the Victorian and federal governments to recognise Aboriginal soldiers who served but were denied land packages provided to their non-Indigenous counterparts on their return from the two world wars. 

The Soldiers Settlement Scheme allowed returning soldiers to build farming communities on their return from war by making sections of Crown land available, in a coordinated program between the state and federal governments.

Assembly co-chair Ngarra Murray said her grandfather Stewart Murray was one of many Aboriginal soldiers who should have been given access to the scheme after returning from the Second World War. 

The Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman told the Yoorrook Justice Commission last week that all her grandfather wanted to do “was own a piece of his ancestors' land that was stolen from his grandfather".

She shared a photo of her grandfather, stating: "This is a photo of him at 17, he'd put his age up to go and fight in a war.”

In his unpublished manuscript, Mr Murray detailed his experiences.

“I had made a number of applications for soldier settlement land in NSW and Victoria. I was after a sheep farm or mixed farming... I was married and had two children and was hoping to get something for them to live on and feel secure in owning a piece of my ancestors' land.”

He was heavily involved in the fight for land rights in Victoria, and served as the first chairperson of the Victorian Aboriginal Land Council.

Stewart Murray (Image: Murray Family Collection)

 

Victorian Treaty Minister Natalie Hutchins told Yoorrook that about 1,000 Aboriginal soldiers from across the two conflicts would have been eligible for the scheme — only two were successful. 

Ms Murray said many of the other Assembly members had relatives who served, and while acknowledging the past cannot be altered, it was never too late to recognise an injustice was done and try to address the disadvantage it caused. 

"Having volunteered to serve a nation that barely recognised our peoples’ existence, Aboriginal soldiers, like my grandfather, risked their lives fighting for Australia. But when they got home, they faced the same old racism and discrimination," she said.

“They were denied equal opportunity in their own country and the disadvantage that caused has trickled down generations.”

Yoorrook Commissioner and Kerrupmara/Gunditjmara man Travis Lovett told Guardian Australia earlier this year that five of his uncles - the famous Lovett brothers - represented Australia in the first world war. 

“Against the odds, all five came home alive,” Mr Lovett said. 

“When they returned, however, they continued to face racism and discrimination. While white soldiers were given parcels of land to farm, many Aboriginal soldiers had their land taken while they were away.” 

Ms Murray said she would write to the Federal Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Matt Keogh, and Minister Hutchins, to invite them to a meeting with herself and other families to have a discussion on how the experience of returned Aboriginal soldiers could be better recognised. 

“It might sound like a small thing, but I hope this might also spark broader conversations about how the injustices of the past have continued to flow down and compound over the generations,” Ms Murray said. 

“Think of all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forced off their lands, while those who stole it were able to benefit from it and consolidate and pass down this stolen wealth.”

Speaking at the Yoorrook hearings last week, Minister Hutchins acknowledged the way returned First Nations soldiers were treated was a disgrace which resulted in a lost opportunity to become holders of that land through that scheme.”

"I'm deeply, deeply saddened to read and hear about the returned soldiers, how they were treated and the ongoing effects that that's had on their families," she said.

In her own statement for Yoorrook, Ms Murray said: "Inevitably, soldiers who were given land as part of the scheme generated wealth from that land and passed it on to their descendants.” 

"While the inheritance of colonial descendants was stolen wealth, the inheritance of our people was the complex, overlapping, harm of dispossession,” she said. 

Asked if it felt offensive to not be given the land back that was taken, Ms Murray told the truth-telling inquiry: "I think a lot of Aboriginal families would feel that way."

Former Parliamentary Secretary to the Special Minister of State, Shaun Leane, said that by 1934, 11,639 returned servicemen were allocated blocks of land in Victoria's settlement scheme. 

By 1930, the Victorian government had acquired the equivalent of about one million hectares of land.

In some cases, such as Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve near Healesville, land was taken from Aboriginal people in the 1950s and given to non-Indigenous soldiers. 

"Reallocating that to non-Aboriginal people was yet another part of the terrible injustice that happened with this scheme," Minister Hutchins said.

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