ANZAC Day and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

ANZAC Day and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Did you know that over 800 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diggers served in the First World War? And around 3,000 in WWII? Some even served in the Boer War!

Of course, we don’t have accurate figures (you didn’t have to declare your cultural background when you enlisted to serve) but attempts are being made to clarify this number by organisations such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association and the Australian War Memorial.

It was technically illegal for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to enlist during WW1. Because neither group was recognised as Australian ‘citizens’ and only Australian ‘citizens’ were allowed to fight for Australia, technically they couldn’t enlist. But so great was the need for soldiers that the Defence Force overlooked this requirement! In 1917, a change was made to the law to allow “half-castes” to enlist.

Why did they bother enlisting? Much of this is lost to history but probably a mix of loyalty, patriotism and a chance to receive living wages. 

We now know the stories of some of the Aboriginal soldiers who fought. We also know that on return to Australia, these soldiers were often treated with the same disregard as other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We know that soldiers bought back virulent influenza that swept around the world in 1919 and many Aboriginal communities were decimated when the flu was introduced by returning soldiers.

We also know that many Indigenous veterans had their wages stolen. Others who died were never given a Defence Force burial or grave. Of course, none were allowed into RSL clubs! For the majority of black diggers, it was hard to go from being treated equally while in the war to being treated unequally when they returned home.

And the inequality is not over yet. Just last month the Western Australian Branch of the RSL introduced a ban on Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies as well as the flying of the Aboriginal flag at Anzac Day ceremonies in Western Australia. Why? Because some RSL members were unhappy that the Ode of Remembrance was translated and delivered in Noongar at an ANZAC ceremony at Fremantle last year.

A large public uproar saw this unpopular and iniquitous decision overturned.

Given that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders fought for Australia as non-citizens, recognising the traditional owners of the land on which ANZAC day ceremonies are delivered seems the least white Australia can do. Well, that and recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers make up part of the ANZACS that are being remembered.


Image courtesy


In 1971, Harold Thomas, a Luritja man of Central Australia, the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an art school in Australia, designed the Australian flag.

In 2019 Aboriginal people first became aware that they would have to fight to “free the flag” as it’s use is protected under copyright law.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Black Santa Claus!

Yes, Virginia, there is a Black Santa Claus!

Did you know that NSW had its very own Black Santa for over 30 years?

Aboriginal children who lived in the western part of NSW in places like Wellington, Dubbo, Gilgandra, Bourke, Peak Hill, have waited eagerly every year for Black Santa to bring them Xmas gifts that their families may not have been able to afford.

Who was Black Santa and how did the tradition start?

Sydney Cunningham, of the Yuen people of the South Coast of NSW (he grew up in La Perouse and Redfern), became the Black Santa when he dressed up in rudimentary Santa clothes (a red pyjama top and black gumboots) and delivered a handful of toys to children in the 1960s.

By the 80s the whole thing had grown dramatically with thousands of toys transported by helicopter with the Black Santa in a more traditional Santa outfit.

Syd was the co-ordinator of the Western District Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in St Marys. After he retired in the 90s he continued his annual trips out west as Black Santa and raised money by setting up a bucket for donations in King Street in Newtown to fund the toys he bought. ( A plaque was installed to commemorate him in this spot.)

Syd was awarded an Order of Australia Medal and was named Aboriginal of the Year in 1987.

A number of other Black Santas also exist in different parts of Australia. Ronnie Garrawurra visited Ramingining, a remote community 560 kilometres east of Darwin in Arnhem Land in 2015.  Over the years more and more black Santas have been appearing in different communities as these communities have adopted the tradition so that Aboriginal children have a recognisable Santa Claus.

The original Black Santa in NSW, Syd  Cunningham will not be forgotten, however.

Described in his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald as having a “chord of kindness” and being a “fearless fundraiser” who “just loves kids”,  Syd died in 1999 at the age of 72 – by then he was giving out toys to over 6000 Aboriginal children a year.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

  • Jessica Staines