The Hall of Remembrance at the Australian Wall Memorial. (Photo supplied)

Maarama Kāmira, a New Zealand-born academic who’s lived in Australia since she was four, finds Anzac Day commemorations problematic. Exactly what, and who, are we commemorating?


It’s that time of the year again. Daylight saving is over, the days are getting shorter and colder, and on Ngunnawal Country (Canberra), where I live, the heaters are being dusted off as we start our run of minus-Celsius mornings. We have a saying here that you don’t turn your heaters on until Anzac Day.

Anzac Day in Canberra is a big deal. The day starts with the dawn service at the Australian War Memorial. Afterwards, there’s the Indigenous service, which remembers those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who fought in the colonists’ wars.

And then there’s the march along Anzac Parade. It starts at Lake Burley Griffin, under the bronze statue of kete handles, a gift from the New Zealand government, symbolising the whakataukī: Ko koe tēnā, ko au ki tēnei ki wai o te kete! You hold that handle and I’ll hold this handle, and together we’ll carry the kete! One side Aboriginal and the other Māori: First Nations people symbolising the genesis of the myth of nationhood.

The march ends at the Australian War Memorial, after which the clubs and pubs are filled, usually with young men and women who proceed to get drunk and play two-up.

Anzac Day commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli on the Turkish peninsula in 1915 — but it has now evolved to include all wars and all service in war. But whose war? It was a war we should never have been part of. A British war. And our people, Pākehā and Māori, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous, were duped into becoming part of it under the guise of “freedoms” and supporting “the Empire”.

But exactly who gets representation in Anzac Day commemorations? In the country we now call Australia, that official representation lies solely with the Returned Services League (RSL), the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA), and the office of the Minister for Defence.

As children in the 1970s, we were trotted out to Anzac memorials at our local parks by our schools. I recall that, back then, the notion of Anzac “commemorations” was dying. Many of the men who fought in the First and Second World Wars refused to participate — their memories still too raw.

As I got older, I saw the women who were commemorating “Women who were raped in War” being booed and spat on — the patriarchy in full display. Later still, I learned that my husband’s grandfather, as a member of the 2/30th Australian Infantry Battalion, was killed in the Battle of Gemas in Malaya, in World War One. My father-in-law maintained that Legacy, an organisation set up to support the families of those who died fighting in that war, never supported their family because they were Chinese Australians. My father-in-law, a navy veteran, never commemorated Anzac Day either.

Every year that my son returns from the Anzac Day dawn service at the Australian War Memorial, where he goes to remember his great-grandfather and place a poppy on his name panel in the Hall of Remembrance, he tells me the Aotearoa New Zealand national anthem wasn’t sung, even though Anzac stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. Maybe they forgot? Maybe they forgot for the past decade or more?

Marchers commemorating the Frontier Wars between European colonists and Indigenous Australians are prevented by police from joining the Anzac Day parade in Canberra. (Photo supplied)

The memorial at Burwood Park on Dharug Ngura includes the men who fought in the New Zealand Wars. (Photo supplied)

I’ve stood at the Anzac Day parade and watched the police physically stop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from marching in the parade to commemorate the Frontier Wars, the conflict between European colonists and First Nations people from 1788 onwards. Yet I’ve also seen the so-called enemies of World War One and Two (Turkey, Greece, Italy) march in that same parade.

I’ve stood in the Hall of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial to lay a poppy on the name of my husband’s grandfather, and for other Māori who fought for the Australian Imperial Forces in World War One — and I’ve looked to the end of the row to see the names of the men killed while fighting against our people in the New Zealand Wars. 

At Burwood Park on Dharug Ngura, I’ve seen the memorial to the British men who fought in the New Zealand Wars for “King and Empire”. Those men who were offered our land if they killed us. I have attended the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service but haven’t heard those mob killed in the Frontier Wars commemorated either.

I wonder why we have a separate Anzac Day ceremony for Aboriginal and Māori at Redfern Park every year. Why does the amazing mental health charity Haka for Life have a corroboree and hui for Anzac Day that doesn’t have the official blessing of the National RSL, DVA or the Minister of Defence’s office?

And the answer I come to every year is because our losses as First Nations people are ignored.

So, as we hurtle towards April 25, and I start unpacking my jumpers, coats and heaters, my thoughts are firmly on Anzac Day and how problematic it is.

It’s a fictional view of what we are as a nation. It celebrates the righteous fiction and jingoism of nationhood — supporting a “motherland” and fighting for “freedom”. And the fiercest and loudest defenders of this fiction are usually those who never served.

If it’s about both nations, does Aotearoa New Zealand sing the Australian national anthem at the dawn service? If we commemorate wars and service in war, then why not all wars? Why do we just remember the settler colonists and their wars? And why are those settler colonists the only ones remembered?

This Anzac Day, no matter what side of the ditch you’re on, I ask that you look, really look, at whatever service you’re attending, and ask yourself: “What, and who, am I really commemorating?”


Maarama Kāmira (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whakaue) was born in Aotearoa New Zealand and has lived in Australia since she was four years old. She is a PhD candidate and adjunct fellow at the Department of Critical Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University. Her research area is wāhine Māori in Australia.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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