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Category: Indigenous

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Working with Indigenous Australians in 51 FNQR

Note: In this draft RFSU Trg Note continual reference is made to Indigenous (Australian) peoples. This term is used to describe all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people regardless of cultural location or specific clan/colloquial name. All other people are described as non- Indigenous people.


Indigenous people have had a long association with the defence of modern Australia. There are numerous examples of individual or small groups of Indigenous people serving in this country's Defence Force since Federation. During WW2 whole tribes or communities of adult male Indigenous people where employed in both offensive and support roles across the North of Australia. Some Indigenous people actually engaged the Japanese while others perished in Japanese bombing raids.

One of our many indigenous members

Regardless of early perceptions by non-Indigenous people, the contribution made by Indigenous people was both significant and reliable in the context of maintaining Australian sovereignty.

Many so called Western cultures have over time conducted warfare on foreign soil, where it was recognised that the indigenous, or Aboriginal, people of that country could either be used or supported to achieve their own aim. Most countries acknowledge that to successfully conduct unconventional, special, guerrilla warfare [(U/S/GW) raise, train and develop para-military, mainly indigenous forces to conduct offensive operations] requires the careful selection and training of personnel who will ultimately interface with the indigenous people of the country concerned. 

(Example: T.E.Lawrence - Arab Forces, WW1).

Therefore, it is not surprising that during WW2 Australia selected such people as W.E.H(Bill) Stanner, and Donald Thomson, both Australian anthropologists with detailed experience and knowledge in Indigenous culture, to raise and lead the 2/1 NAOU and NTSRU respectively.* The Australian Coastwatcher organisation was also led by expatriate Australians with years of experience, living and working with the indigenous people of New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. * (Northern Australia Observer Unit - Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit) The RFSU Experience.

RFSUs were created in the early 1980s with the aim of filling a gap in the ground surveillance capability of Australia's Northern defence. Specifically, RFSUs were to utilise the extensive local knowledge and skills that already existed among the population of the North. It was recognised that to operate in this austere environment would require knowledge and skills that the regular forces would not readily possess.

A key feature of this concept was the valuable contribution that Indigenous people would be able to make again, as they did during WW2. Many Indigenous communities are located on the front line and in areas where an Enemy may wish to lodge, and on approaches to remote vital assets. For particular reasons, the Pilbara Regt has been less active in the employment of Indigenous people. But NORFORCE and 51FNQR boast high percentage of establishment Indigenous representation: the former between 25-35%, and the later 45-58%. The RFSUs have the highest Indigenous representation of any other ADF organisation, and possibly any other Government agency (less ATSIC).

The Regional Force Surveillance List (RFSL)

It is now well accepted that many Indigenous people, and indeed non-Indigenous people living in remote Australia, are not able to meet the strict criteria for enlistment and service in the wider ADF. Literacy, numeracy and health standards preclude many from this. However, to follow these standards rigorously would deny the RFSUs access to a large portion of a sparse recruiting base, effectively negating the original concept for creating RFSUs.

This was recognised as a key issue on the formation of the RFSUs. It was overcome by the creation of the RFSL (sometimes referred to as the special list). The primary document providing policy for personnel and training issues for RFSUs, previously AOSI 30/85 now DI-A Pers 173-8, details the conditions of the RFSL. This document allows COs of RFSUs to enlist, appoint and promote, personnel for employment as ECN304 Patrolman, or as part of a Local Observer Element(LOE) network, while waiving specific enlistment criteria.

In many ways, the need to select and train suitable personnel to interact with indigenous people, the concept for creating the RFSUs, and the RFSL, well complement each other. It stands to reason that the ability of COs to select and appoint local non-Indigenous personnel who have experience with Indigenous people is a strength of the RFSL.

However, in the case of the regular or full time personnel posted to RFSUs, suitability and training to deal with Indigenous circumstances, is not always a prerequisite. Many of the general military standards and methods of training are not appropriate when working with indigenous people. The way in which non-Indigenous, mainly European, people relate to one another is quite foreign to Indigenous people.

This training note has been developed to outline the cultural diversity that exists within a RFSU. It should be referred to as a guide for those non-Indigenous personnel who find themselves interacting with Indigenous people, either in a unit liaison role, or when directly leading and training Indigenous people in the course of unit operations. The first meetings between people of different cultures can often be awkward because of uncertainty about how to behave. When you first meet Indigenous people you might find it helpful to remember some of the information in this training note. In time you will develop your knowledge and skills in communication.



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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces