John Maynard Says Frontier Wars Deserves Canberra Memorial

With the Garma Festival ending on Monday, an important weekend in Australian politics and Indigenous affairs also comes to an end.

With the prime minister revealing what he thinks the question for the forthcoming referendum on an indigenous vote should be to parliament, many across the country are considering the other key recommendations outlined in the Uluru Statement From the Heart, such as a Makarrata make a commission for the treaty and tell the truth.

“I think telling the truth is the next big step for us,” Professor John Maynard told Living Black.

“Nothing can change unless we heal from the past. Hopefully the government will come on board and we can actually move the country forward and move towards a shared, just future for all.”

This appears to be the Prime Minister’s plan, after explaining to NITV at the Garma Festival that he wants all Australians to take responsibility for voting to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament constitutionally in the Australian Constitution.

But Maynard believes that telling the truth means that we all need to take a closer look at our uneasy past and what really happened during Australia’s founding years as a British colony.

“There is still that denial of border war (in Australia). The reality is it’s part of history: you can’t sweep it under the rug, you have to deal with that history and then hopefully heal from it.”

Asked by Living Black host Karla Grant why some people don’t want to recognize this part of our history, Maynard was disheartened.

“I don’t think Dr. Sigmund Freud could find out,” he said.

“And when you read the story of Myall Creek and the brutality and the horrific nature of what happened to those Aboriginal people there, you shake your head in disbelief.

“[But] some people just can’t be dragged into reality kicking and screaming.”

‘I dropped out of school’

The life of the young John Maynard proceeded at a very different pace than it is now for the author and historian. Growing up as the son of a successful Aboriginal Jockey, John found himself around the stables of the nearby Broadmeadow Racecourse or traveled from town to town following the horse races.

“I remember my mom telling me that by the time I was 12 months old I’d been to every town in New South Wales, at least the one with a racetrack on it, so I think there’s definitely a strong connection was with horse racing for me.”

It’s surprising that Maynard didn’t make it into the horse racing world. As a student, he had little interest in going to class, as he often stared out the window thinking that life must be better on the outside.

Black and white photo of child John Maynard, his mother standing behind him and a horse leaning its head over both of them

“There was no value of an Aboriginal background, culture or history in the things taught there. And I think it was just that I turned off.”

But at age 12, Maynard remembered some of his father’s grim words over breakfast.

“My father came out of the stables and sat down with his cup of tea and looked at me across the table. He said, “Son, if you’re thinking about becoming a jockey, reconsider.” I’m clearly not made to be a jockey. So he advised me to go in a different direction.

Fortunately for Maynard, his lack of interest in the classroom didn’t spread to the house. He loved to read.

“I have consumed an incredible amount of books, especially history. I wanted to know what the hell happened [to our people]. Where have we been in the history of this country?”

It would take Maynard another 25 years and random jobs, including as a truck driver, construction worker, and bartender before he found what he was really looking for.

black and white portrait of long-haired teenager John Maynard.

Family Tree Reveal

It would take unemployment and a “kick in the ass” from his father to eventually send Maynard to his greatest calling.

Tasked with compiling his father’s family history, Maynard set out to find what he could find at Newcastle University’s Wollotuka, Aboriginal Education Centre.

“There was a woman I spoke to there named Tracey Bunda, and the quickest way to tell the story is that by the time I turned around, Tracey had kidnapped me and enrolled me as a graduate student. It had a huge impact on me. It was completely different from what I had experienced in school. I took it like a duck to water.”

John Maynard, 41 years old, graduates from Newcastle University

At 41, Maynard would graduate with a degree and a fresh look at Australia’s history. He made it his mission to learn about the First Nations stories long forgotten by the history books.

John’s master’s thesis was just one example. He traced his grandfather’s involvement in organized Aboriginal political activism from 1924. His work proved groundbreaking and helped reveal that Aboriginal political activism had begun in Australia much earlier than previously thought.

“The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association was led by my grandfather. No one realized then how big that movement was and how influential they really were.”

Maynard would also write a book on Aboriginal jockeys entitled “Aboriginal Stars of the Turf” in response to his interest in his father’s career and his desire to recognize the other Aboriginal jockeys who had come before.

“I always wanted to know, where were they in the history books? Where were they in history? You know these stories are there; and for me that is what drives us to deliver that to our communities.”

Mervyn Marynard drives 'English Standard' to an easy win over Randwick in 1955

First Nations Warriors

For many Australians, our nations’ involvement in war is often a topic of great concern. For Maynard, the interest extends to Aboriginal soldiers and women who served. In 1988, the historian received a small grant for research on indigenous soldiers of the First World War,

“At the time it was said that there were 230 Aboriginal men who had served in the First World War. Well, that number has now grown to over 1,000. So now we hear about their sacrifices for their so-called country. It’s unbelievable.”

But Maynard knows that Aboriginal people have been fighting for much longer than just Australia’s recognized wars.

Border War or Colonial Wars in Australia

“We’ve been in conflict since they first got here, you know, and it’s had a horrendous impact on our lives from the time the British first got here.”

“Just six decades after Britain’s arrival, 60 to 90% of our people were dead from disease and war. Imagine if 60 to 90% of this population were knocked out today, you would have to drop a number of atomic bombs across the country to get to that level of decimation.

When is a war not a war?

There’s no denying that mass killings of Aborigines took place all over Australia during colonization, but the question remains whether they should be considered a war.

The Australian War Memorial sees it as its role to tell the stories of Australian men and women in the armed forces who went to war or peacekeeping missions.

But looking at the colonial past, the monument has previously said their plan will mean “increasing our colonial period collections, especially relics and artwork related to border violence.”

Frontier Wars protesters outside the Australian War Memorial, Canberra on Anzac Day 2012

Maynard thinks the AWM should do more.

“[Aboriginal warriors] fought for their families, they fought for their communities, they fought for their country. They need to be recognized and they deserve that recognition of what they stood for.”

When asked what a Frontier Wars memorial might look like in Canberra, Maynard told Karla Grant:

“It should be part of the Australian War Memorial. If you look up that driveway and they have monuments to the Boer War, and they have monuments to Korea and Vietnam, how about a monument to the Frontier Wars too.

“Instead of having a monument on the back of the hill, it should be covered with the Australian War Memorial. Take it to the next level. Be brave, you know, be brave. Don’t be afraid.”

Looking Down ANZAC Parade to the Australian War Memorial

But there is movement in the right direction. Just last year, the prime minister, then opposition leader, publicly commented on the Frontier Wars. The first time the leader of one of the major parties acknowledged that the conflict had taken place.

However, Maynard says the politicians need to go further in recognizing our past to see things change.

“We know the historical implications of this kind of thing, and we’ve been talking about it for a long time. When will we get a politician brave enough to stand up, or a political group to stand up and support us and move the country forward? That’s what it takes.”

You can hear more from Professor John Maynard about Living Black, available now on SBS On Demand.

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