Anglican Reverend Ray Minniecon cuts an iconic figure in Sydney’s inner city. His heritage is Aboriginal, drawn from the lands of the Kabi Kabi and Goreng Goreng peoples, but also the South Sea Islands, with his grandfather brought to Australia as a forced labourer from Ambrym Island in Vanuatu.
He is honest that he still longs for his hometown, Cairns. Perhaps us city dwellers could better appreciate his presence in “the big smoke” as incarnation, extending himself on behalf of peace. Living in fast-paced Glebe he is somewhat reminiscent of the lead character in the movie Crocodile Dundee. He bears a cheeky grin and an Akubra hat covered in crocodile teeth. But Minniecon isn’t interested in the appearance of anything, really. His gaze looks straight through you to deeper things – maybe things you’d like to keep hidden in the recesses of your soul. Or perhaps, in the nation’s soul. He has no qualms when it comes to speaking truth about he ANZAC story – a story that has become almost central to Australian national identity in the last few years.
He is the ultimate truth teller. This may irritate some in politics who like receiving information through official channels. But it also breaks the spell of fascination that many seem to be under when it comes to all things First Peoples. For many years, Western society seems to have enjoyed crafting a mythological Aboriginality, depicting it as lost in Dreaming mythology and inept at fact.
Uncle Ray dismantles all stereotypes simply by his existence. Which is really his point. Aboriginal people exist. Their trauma is real. And that seems an inconvenient truth many Australians would like to avoid.
If it wasn’t for government cuts to Indigenous services, or states declaring the closure of homelands, or radio shock-jocks speaking out almost weekly on issues facing his peoples, perhaps Minniecon’s voice wouldn’t be needed. But if ever there was a time for truth telling, it is now. As ANZAC Day approaches it’s an honour to meet him on a darkening Autumn night to talk faith, nationalism and hope.
This year you celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Coloured Digger ANZAC March…. How did this movement to honour Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers come about?
Ray: Just like all good problems, we solve them in the pub! The trouble is when we go outside that door… (Laughs) we have so many good ideas in the pub… I was telling a friend of mine, a local non-Indigenous guy Chris Carbon the story of my grandfather who fought in WWI, and the problems he and my two brothers faced when they came back from Vietnam in terms of non-recognition. We decided from that time on we would do something … And, so Chris said “I’ll be the Gubba (non-Indigenous) gatherer” and I was naturally the Koori gatherer. How things start.
So, I organized with the three Aboriginal churches in Redfern at the time – the Catholic Church, and the ministry that I was at Crossroads, and Lighthouse ministries with Pastor Bill Simon. We got together and we decided to have our first ceremony at our church.
… We attracted around thirty odd people, and one old Digger, to this beautiful ceremony. That’s when we decided we needed to take it one step further, and march in the streets of Redfern, to take it into the public arena. Which we did.
What were the experiences or realities for these men, both during the war and when they came home?
The need arose from the way Aboriginal diggers were treated when they came back from the World Wars. Many didn’t get their allotted land grants or benefits for fighting for their country. They actually came back under state regimes and segregation.
The Vietnam vets, I think got treated the worst. But our Diggers weren’t even given that recognition. Yeah. Still. My brother told me the story that he was sick of going to the RSL and them saying, “you’re not allowed in here.” He’d just come home from fighting overseas, and the RSLs wouldn’t allow him in there.
And, one Premier said that he couldn’t give Aboriginal people land rights because they didn’t fight for the country. … It was a whole range of those kinds of incidents that got us involved. Their story wasn’t being honestly recognized or respected.
Why, in your opinion, did they fight for Australia?
First and foremost they did it in defense of our country, our land. Second, because they felt it their obligation or their duty to go and fight. Thirdly, many of them would have said they were going to fight because they were treated differently in the military and they thought they might get something better when they came home. And, fourthly, it’s just that pride in being able to be the warrior you’re supposed to be. So all of those things combined would have added to reasons why our mob wanted to go over and fight for our country.
… Once they did get into the military, they found out on the battlefront that bullets didn’t discriminate. So you had to look after your mates, care for each other. There was no what you might call “discriminatory practices”. You didn’t have time for that kind of stuff… it was just when they came back, that’s when separation between soldiers began.
What have you as a community been able to do to honour the Digger’s legacy?
What we intended to do is just to make sure that we, here in the inner city would have this little march to bring this story to life for us. “Lest we forget”. That’s the reason why we did it.
We decided that we wouldn’t spoil ANZAC day… what we would do is that after the great marches finish and they all go down to the pubs to play two-up with their mates, we would have our march and it wouldn’t interfere with anybody.
What we were declaring was that ANZAC Day is for all diggers. And if our diggers weren’t included, we needed to make sure they were … Of course, once we did that, the community came and wanted their family members recognized, given that recognition. And that’s how it started.
Have other ANZACs supported this movement?
Oh yeah. There were some really good strong friendships there that were formed. I know one Aboriginal Digger was in the prison in Changi, and he saved a white fella. All those Diggers had the highest regard for him. And if he wasn’t allowed in the pub, they weren’t going to it. They tried to fight against the system with the guys. We tried to fight against the system…
Why do you think this march has received so much attention?
We did not realize that this little march would have such an impact on the nation. It wasn’t our intention at the time. But because the institutions resisted our march, it sort of… their ways of dealing with it … highlighted the issue. More than we ever expected. And from that, the floodgates were opened, and people wanted to know about this story, about the Aboriginal diggers.
Because before that, you know, not many people knew about it. Some non-Indigenous people had written records, and highlighted these stories, but it didn’t get what you’d call a groundswell of interest. The moment we started marching then somebody got interested in it. Now universities and other professionals are researching, trying to get as many stories collected as possible, so that there’s a continuation of this story.
It would be unthinkable for New Zealand to whitewash the Maori warrior out of any wars. But over here we did. That’s the comparison I always make. It’s unthinkable for that little nation to say, ‘these fellas didn’t fight and they don’t deserve this and they don’t deserve that” but coming here to Australia, that’s what our people faced.
How many Coloured Diggers were there, do you know?
We think it could be between 3000 – 5000 Aboriginal diggers. We’re not quite sure how many. There’s a lot of research that has gone on and we do know our people fought in every world war, in every conflict –the Crimea War, Boer War and every other war. Our men were there at the forefront of these battles.
There are deeper questions around that that I can’t answer, that we can only surmise. Why would you fight someone else’s war? Because it wasn’t our war. That was a war between England and whomever they wanted to fight against, a white fellas war. So that’s another part of the question I guess.
We were excluded from joining the army. I know my grandfather’s records – the only way that he could get in there was to say that he was brought up by the white people. So the story is much more powerful if you weren’t even allowed, but you fight for the country and then you come back and get treated as though you didn’t exist.
Do you think that much of this has to do with the image of the ANZAC, that it’s become the national myth?
We can make statements about it, but really, it is a very good question to put to the Australian nation, to the Australian government, about the reasons why they don’t recognize us. I can’t get my head around some of the push-back from the white community around these stories. It’s beyond my imagination.
There’s a huge paper mural of a Coloured Digger at Redfern station, and I wondered what the story behind this image was?
Once again, the story captured the nation in so many ways. Hugh Snellgrove is an amazing artist. He was so captivated by this story, and he did all his research around a particular solider from South Australia. He went and visited the family, and he did all the right things in terms of protocols. When he put that up there it became a very big and powerful symbol. It brought a lot of pride to the family… a hidden history has now been revealed and is now open to see and to celebrate together.
How has St John’s Anglican Church, Glebe been involved in the groundswell movement? You mentioned that it played a part?
We’ve had number of significant events here at St John’s. Last year the Aboriginal military men came here before they went to Gallipoli for the one hundred year commemoration. They had a special ceremony with a didgeridoo and some artifacts and dances they had performed. We had a dedication service before they went over. It was a very special moment for the men. I would have loved to have gone over there with them. But they went over with the blessings of our people. And they brought some soil back from over in Gallipoli back to Canberra.
Now the reason that they chose this place was the scarred tree on the property, on the grounds there. We believe it’s one of those very rare scarred trees that were probably here before 1788, one of the trees that some of our people cut some of the bark out of it to use for an artifact or something – either a shield or a Coolamon (wooden dish). So this tree has become very special to the community here in the inner city, and was an important way in which these particular soldiers wanted to honour their ancestors.
How does this connect to your faith, this truth telling and working for justice?
In a sense, this is just an outworking of my faith. It’s a natural, normal part of faith…
We are the beneficiaries of the men and women who fought for this country. The only reason why we can have a church, and have the freedom of religion and of worship, is because of these men.
You said there’s been resistance against the Coloured Diggers, but have organizers invited you into the official ANZAC Day ceremony?
There has always been openness there. But we saw the way our soldiers were treated. If you fought for your country with courage and bravery, and then when you come home you’re told to march at the back of the line, or not allowed to go into institutions that have been sent up for you to get the benefits from, then you don’t want to march. The honour is just is not there.
One of the soldiers who I admire is Captain Red Saunders. You know, he fought for this country in so many different conflict areas, including Papua New Guinea, and I think he went through Tobruk as well, and all these other countries. And he fought with such bravery and such honour. That he would have to come back and try to fight the government and the RSL to get recognition of our own Diggers… I mean, that’s just … you know… the fight didn’t stop for him.
We’re not doing this because oh, this is a wonderful idea. We’re walking in the footsteps of all of those Aboriginal men and women who fought very strongly to get that recognition. This is not you know, something new. We’ve just got to continue to allow their spirit to continue this journey until the country “comes up proper ways”.
We fought hard for five things when I first started. First, the march. Second, a commemoration service to go with the march. Third, we had in the early stages there, a couple of art exhibitions to tell the stories. Fourth, We wanted to have a roll of honour of Aboriginal people so that my grandfather for example would be “Private James Lingwoodock, Kabi Kabi”. So he would have his tribal identity associated with him so any of our young people could see, “Eh, that’s my grandfather there, he comes from my tribe”. Fifth, we really wanted a proper memorial for Aboriginal Diggers. We’ve got that now in Hyde Park here. They’re the things we wanted to see, and that gave us the passion to march every year.
We still have a ways to go, and I know there’s a lot of research happening now, but because we’re in this one hundred year commemoration of the Great War, we’ve got two more years until Armistice Day. Even though we didn’t achieve “armistice”. But at least that time frame gives us something to work towards, to commemorate and celebrate.
Sydney Council recently announced withdrawal of their funding. Do you feel sad about that?
I mean, the City of Sydney can celebrate with something like Chinese New Year or some other wonderful event like that –I’m not taking anything away from that celebration. But here are people who fought for the flaming country. You would expect a little bit more of a response. But you can’t just blame the City of Sydney. The state and federal government, they haven’t come to the party yet. Only within departments and the way they want to handle or manage it.
I mean it’s right that the RSLs should start doing something, but they couldn’t get an understanding of what we were trying to do. We were just trying to get our community to celebrate. If no one else wanted to do it, then we would do it ourselves. And just honour the fathers, mothers and grandparents that fought for this country. It’s still a community event.
What would you say to the people who are reading the article who are struggling with guilt over this, or don’t know how get engaged?
That’s a good question. White guilt. Well, it goes with a few other things too. White privilege. And a history of White power through White policy. It was exclusively a White man’s world and a White man’s system and a White man’s culture. We weren’t given opportunity to participate in that culture much until 1967 when we got the vote.
So when you’ve got constitutional processes that exclude us, and state regimes that push us away, and then you’ve got institutions like the church who keep us outside the centre of activities, then suddenly those particular institutions begin to realize, “we’ve done something wrong, what do we do?”
Shame is much more corporate thing. There’s a difference there. Once someone feels guilty, and they’ve found the truth, well I mean the truth sets you free. They can deal with it in their individual way. They can express their regret, and move on, and find a new release from the knowledge that they’ve been given.
But shame? Does that need some kind of community response?
Well we’re seeing more non-Indigenous people march with us to celebrate or commemorate the Coloured Diggers. There’s other things we need to expose and bring to the forefront. One major issue is really the Frontier Wars. I mean, we’re in this national conversation about invasion now. If the truth will set us free, then say it – the place was invaded. Simple as. You can’t hide the truth. It’s impossible. We can’t do that as a nation.
The 10th year anniversary of the Coloured Diggers March will be held on ANZAC Day, Monday 25th April 2016 beginning at 2pm at The Block, with the remembrance service held in Redfern Park at 2:30pm.
Please note: This piece was also published by ABC Religion & Ethics. If you’d like to share it, please do so from here: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/04/25/4449614.htm