Is Identity Dividing Rather Than Uniting Aboriginal Peoples?

The question of Aboriginal identity – who is, who isn’t, who can be, who can’t be – is one that, despite our best efforts to teach, and explain, and rationalise, and debate, resists resolution. It’s commonly thought of as an issue of non-Aboriginal people refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Aboriginal peoples claims to their heritage, a reflection of the persistent state of ignorance and racism that remains within certain sectors of Australian society. However, the question of identity is also prevalent within and between Aboriginal communities; a form of lateral violence that arguably keeps us divided, and prevents us from moving forward both within our own communities, and within the broader Australian society.

While the three-part definition of Aboriginality has been the general, universally accepted criteria for a person to claim Aboriginal identity, it has been recognised for at least the last fifteen years that this definition is insufficient to adequately define whether an individual is or isn’t Aboriginal. This becomes very apparent when a person’s identity is challenged, for example, in the case of Dallas Scott, who was recognised as Aboriginal in one State, but not in another (ironically, his home State). How is it that a person can be Aboriginal one day and not the next?

In my experience, the issue of identity within some Aboriginal societies is more often one of colourism rather than descendency. Extrinsic ‘identifiers’ – skin colour, body shape, facial features, for example – are still considered to be primary identifiers of who is or isn’t Aboriginal. The fact is that the last 250 years of Australian history has resulted in a high proportion of Aboriginal peoples of mixed descent. Based on the census data alone, which demonstrates an exponential increase in the Aboriginal population from census to census, it would be reasonable to expect that Aboriginal peoples of mixed descent now represent the majority of the Aboriginal population. Further, it could reasonably be expected that successive generations of Aboriginal peoples are even more likely to have varied physical characteristics, especially skin colour, than their ancestral lines. The idea that we can identify who is or isn’t Aboriginal based on appearance has become a fallacy, yet the idea that the darker you are the more Aboriginal you are, persists.

Since the 2016 census identified a substantive increase in the Aboriginal population that could not be attributed to births alone, another method that has become more popular in identifying ‘real’ Aboriginal peoples is their understanding and connection to their traditions and culture. Essentially, the more you know about who you are, where you come from, your people’s language, what your people’s traditions are, and increasingly important, whether you actively participate in those traditions, the more legitimate your claim of Aboriginality. On the surface this might seem reasonable, and has been a method quickly adopted by many non-Aboriginal people wanting to disprove many Aboriginal peoples claims to Aboriginality (often because they are outspoken or public figures falsely believed to be gaining ‘benefit’ or ‘unfair advantage’ simply by being Aboriginal). However, this method neglects the effects of over 100 years of assimilation practice and policies. From the Stolen Generation onwards – and likely prior – Aboriginal peoples have been forcibly removed from their communities, their traditions, and their cultures, either directly, as people who experienced these atrocities first hand, or indirectly, as their descendents. While Aboriginal peoples continue to struggle to preserve, and where possible, reaffirm, their language, culture, and traditions, so much has been lost to time, and so many have had to live their lives knowing little to nothing about who they really are. To argue that a person who cannot speak their traditional language, or does not know their ceremonies, or even the language group they belong to, is not really Aboriginal is akin to stating that someone who can’t sing the National Anthem or recite Banjo Patterson’s, The Man From Snowy River or speak in rhyming slang is not really Australian.

There is an age-old saying, “divide and rule” or more commonly, “divide and conquer”, which is often attributed to the strategies imperialist nations have used usurp power and exercise control over others. It’s a saying often associated with the strategies British forces used when dealing with Indigenous populations when they have sought to ‘colonise’ other lands. It could be argued that we still see this in Australian society today. The issue of identity has been used to divide Aboriginal peoples since the time of assimilation. It is bad enough that the definitions of who is and who isn’t Aboriginal have been imposed upon us by non-Aboriginal peoples, but far worse when we adopt those arguments as a way to further segregate, marginalise, and exclude each other.

When someone discovers their Aboriginality and then chooses to identify themselves as Aboriginal, it should be a cause for celebration. Every person who discovers and then embraces their Aboriginal heritage by standing up and saying, “I am Aboriginal!” is a victory against genocide, assimilation, and racism. Identity should be something that unifies us, not divides us. We should be approaching it from a position of support and inclusion rather than suspicion and exclusion. Perhaps if we, as Aboriginal peoples, can do that, then maybe non-Aboriginal people will be more accepting of it too, which could help us move closer to a Reconciled Australia. And from there, who knows? Maybe eventually we will adopt a new identity that includes both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples?

As my cousin, now deceased, once said: “We are all Bundjalung. Some of us just don’t know it yet.”

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