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Byron Shire
February 5, 2023

The Aboriginal identity explosion

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A recent episode of the SBS show Insight discussed the vexed issue of Aboriginal Identity and featured a number of notable Aboriginal community members and prominent Aboriginal academics. Suzanne Ingram, a Wiradjuri woman and Sydney University postgraduate student shared some disturbing data arising from the 2021 Australian census involving what Ms Ingram calls ‘race shifting’. 

Ms Ingram explained that there’s been more than a 25 per cent increase in people identifying as Indigenous since the last census in 2016. 

Explanations for this explosion are as elusive as they are contested but wherever truth lies, this matter has been festering in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community for decades.

So, who are Aboriginal people, what is the three-pronged definition and perhaps more importantly, who decides? 

The three-pronged definition can be traced back to the early 1980s and declares that people seeking to identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander must meet all three criteria of the definition. 

The three criteria are: ‘An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he [or she] lives.’

Culturally grounded Aboriginal people know their Country, their culture and kinship systems and the responsibilities and obligations stemming from them, whereas the growing list of people who are claiming their ‘Aboriginality’ based solely on their heritage speak of their Country but have rarely visited it. 

Nor do they understand the importance of knowing Country and how it helps to inform and shape identity. Heritage Aboriginal people exist in a world that is disconnected from the community they claim to be connected to, and it seems that they have more in common with their non-Aboriginal heritage than their Aboriginal ancestors. 

One of the big challenges that must be confronted if fraudulent claims to Aboriginal identity are to be arrested is that white systems, the public service, universities, not-for-profits and other corporations must cease to accept and appoint heritage Aboriginal people to ‘identified’ positions simply on the basis of a ‘Certificate of Aboriginality’ (COA). 

COAs are too easily obtained, leading to what Ms Ingram refers to as a ‘distortion’ of Indigenous identity and realities. 

Of course, there are individuals who are legitimately seeking to reconnect with kin, Country and culture, they don’t want anything and simply want to claim their Aboriginal heritage rather than benefit from it. 

Speaking on the Insight program, Dr Stephen Hagan, a Kullilli man from Queensland and long-time Aboriginal rights activist said that he had no concerns with individuals ‘who are on a road of discovery. I encourage people.’ 

However, Dr Hagan added that when he has asked people, ‘who’s your mob? where are you from?’, which are important markers to establish what I refer to as ‘cultural credentialling’, a process used to establish a person’s identity, Dr Hagan reported that a common response to his questions is a claim of ‘lateral violence’.

Echoing the concern that many Aboriginal community members have regarding the rise in the number of people with dubious claims to Aboriginal identity being appointed to lucrative jobs, Dr Hagan added, ‘People are being remunerated very handsomely to hold a lot of senior positions in our business and organisations’. ‘People are growing rich on our misery’.

Kumarah Kelly is a Pambalong woman and CEO of Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council with a pedigree of Aboriginal activism spanning generations. Ms Kelly is concerned with the increasing number of people conducting cultural sites visits who may not have the cultural knowledge or authority to do so. Ms Kelly claimed, ‘We’re seeing people participating in cultural site surveys for the protection of artefacts and sacred sites. They’re making $1,500 a day. Where did they get that cultural knowledge from?’ 

Ms Kelly added, ‘If you find out that you’re Aboriginal when you’re in your late 40s, you cannot be a cultural knowledge holder, because it was not given to you from your people’.

These types of concerns have been festering in the Aboriginal community for decades and will persist unless urgent action and agreement is taken to resolve the explosion in Aboriginal identity irrespective of whether it involves genuine efforts to reconnect or the more pernicious issue of ethnic fraud. 

A plethora of academic papers, judicial rulings and other policy analyses have probed the issue of Aboriginal identity and a common finding is that an administrative definition such as the three-pronged definition identified above is insufficient and ineffective to deal with claims to Aboriginality. 

Aboriginal customs and laws must be the benchmark against which Aboriginal identity is measured.

♦ Professor Morgan is a Gumilaroi man from Walgett, western NSW. He is a highly respected and acknowledged Aboriginal educator/researcher. 

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  1. The gateway to claiming aboriginality in Australia is far lower and easier than some other countries, where a 50% or greater bloodline is required before preferential treatment for jobs and state benefits can be claimed.
    No wonder there are so many fakes here.

  2. Andrew Bolt has been denigrated for 10 years for raising this specific issue. Now the issue seems to be mainstream. Bolt deserves an apology for the puerile attacks from lunatics on the left who continually branded him racist for daring to speak.

  3. Unless a person has been spiritually initiated into that tribe they can’t make claim to be of that mob because they would have had to survive their initiation ceremony which many men I know in the bush are too scared to go through .
    I declined that honour they bestowed upon me that I could be one of them because I didn’t want to mix the bloods which they acknowledged was the right proper thing to do so we remain connected forever spiritually .

    The stolen generation is not so because it were the Elders of each tribe who requested the government remove the mixed blood children .
    In fact it were the Elders who could be accused of stealing the children from their mothers to protect their pure blood line which to their tribal way of life was very very important .
    Stolen is not the correct word to be used but to the mothers it felt like it was the only description of what they had to endure watching their children being taken from them, to watch them disappear into the horizon in a cloud of dust leaving them feeling despair .

  4. Well, it is a well-known fact the Aboriginal population in Australia doubled , over night when ‘Land- Rights ” was concocted 1n 1976 due to the history of a’ Pacific Islander ‘ Eddie Mabo , who had no relationship with Australian natives .
    The heroic protestors, who saved the last remnants of the ‘Big Scrub’ now the Night Cap World Heritage National Park, were proclaimed aboriginal by the acknowledged elder Burnum Burnum.
    While the self proclaimed leader of Tasmanian aborigines, the blond , blue eyed Michael Alexander Mansell , popped up after the fully documented last of the race died in 1803, it is obvious that this is a contested identity.
    When you become eligible for free housing, education ( eh Bob ), loans ,transport ,taxis and no need to ever earn a living ( eh Bob )and first place in any employment opportunities , is it any wonder the numbers are increasing ?
    The potential now arises for the racist special ‘voice’ that has the potential to govern this country in the apartheid tradition , stand back and watch us make this country into the traditional racist ,ill-educated, violent, criminal culture we all love.
    Cheers, G”)


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