Is the point of extolling Aboriginal identity to remind others of past trauma suffered by Aborigines? Is it to assert Aborigines’ contribution to the nation? Or, is it no more than to be recognised as different from others? Each of these is an unsound reason to trumpet difference. After all, past trauma has been well documented and understood and apologies have been granted for long-ago wrongs. There is little point in continuing that conversation and no compensation will be forthcoming. And the historical contribution of Aborigines to the nation is modest and certainly insufficient to remark upon. Although the contribution of many contemporary Aborigines is the same as other citizens, it deserves no less and no more recognition than others. It certainly does not justify any claims on the body politic, but it seems to soak up an inordinate amount of public discussion. But most of all, the desire to extol Aboriginal identity raises the question: How different is different?
A fair skin should not disqualify a person from identifying as an Aborigine. It may cause the person to be subject to ridicule, but identifying is a matter for the Aboriginal identifier and their “identity community”. No sensible person would care, unless, of course, the declaration is an attempt to claim an unwarranted privilege. An unwarranted privilege would be one where the person granted the privilege is not in need relative to others in the community. Many Aborigines are not in need, especially the hordes of “designated” public servants and “blackademics” (as one of my Aboriginal colleagues calls them). Clearly, many Aborigines are in need, but that is not a matter that requires identification per se. The welfare state is identity-blind, or, at least, should be.
Only unwarranted claims to privilege require Aboriginal verification. In some circumstances, Aborigines agree with this proposition. For example, Aborigines have little interest in having Aboriginality measured where taxpayers foot the bill. The more, the merrier. Where, however, identification may diminish the share of the benefit or the power of those who dispense benefits, Aborigines contest Aboriginality. This can occur in native title cases and elections for Aboriginal corporations and associations.
Clyde Mansell, chairman of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, has recently been in conflict with Rodney Dillon, former commissioner of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, over who is an Aborigine. Mansell claims that “wannabe” Aborigines “falsify their identity, their culture and use whatever they can to gain acceptance”. Mansell argues for a test of “continual connection” with the Aboriginal community over generations. He wants history to count. Dillon accuses Mansell of trying to “control” Aboriginality to protect the power of established groups. Dillon’s solution is for “Tasmanians claiming Aboriginality to undertake DNA testing”. Dillon wants blood to count. He may get his wish because it is now possible to measure exactly how much “Aboriginality” is in an individual.
A recent genetic study of thirty-eight participants (thirty female and eight male) from the Riverina in western New South Wales calculated, through DNA testing, a single European versus “Australian” (Aboriginal) ancestry fraction for each. The Australian component ranged from 28 per cent to 100 per cent. One person only was “full blood”. Those involved in the study had maternal Aboriginal ancestry with some Aboriginal, European (Scottish), and other non-Aboriginal paternal connections. Presumably, Dillon would allow a claim for Aboriginality provided any fraction of “Australian” DNA was present. Mansell would require both DNA and longevity in the community.
Nevertheless, as science makes identification possible, the desire for the science of identification has disappeared. Apart from the Tasmanian stoush, there has been little call for measures of “blood” to determine Aboriginality because Aboriginality is now a “cultural” construct. And who would care if one had Aboriginal blood? Is it any more than a curiosity, much as I like to trace my Cornish (and other) antecedents? It is as if, as the bloodlines thin and historic continuities fade, the identity game needs a new story.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that there were 60,000 Aborigines in Australia after the Second World War. The number has now risen to more than 500,000, mostly through identification—that is, by those for whom their Aboriginality may not be obvious from their appearance or behaviour and indeed who may have no longevity in the Aboriginal community. Nevertheless, it has been the policy of the ABS for some decades to encourage parents to count every child of a mixed marriage as being of Aboriginal descent. Most Aborigines have mixed marriages, ergo growth in the number of “identity” Aborigines.
The difference gambit feeds off “DNA” and “historical” Aborigines, typically those living on “country”. Indeed, such people are urged by city advisers to reclaim their “culture”. Of course, they cannot, because they have not lived it for generations, and in any event, much of their culture—bigamy, under-age betrothal, payback and sorcery—is illegal. Recourse to welcome-to-country statements and ceremonies at the commencement of public events, conducted by governments, universities and the like, is a pale attempt to assert legitimacy. There is little that is genuine about such pro-forma demonstrations of Aboriginality.
As for reclaiming identity through land rights, especially native title rights, this political movement has created enormous conflict in Aboriginal communities, turning clans and families against one another. On the island of Mer, where Eddie Mabo lived, 400 locals are involved in “more than eighty disputes over which families have full ownership or occupational use of various lots”.
Many Aborigines suffer terribly, often at their own hand. An extract from a recent criminal case in the Northern Territory, R v Duncan, makes the point. The respondent, an Aboriginal woman, and the victim, her partner, lived at Kalkarindji, a remote Aboriginal community between Katherine and Halls Creek:
They were in a domestic relationship and have a one-year-old daughter. On 14 April 2014 the respondent, the victim and some of their friends were drinking alcohol at a drinking spot seven kilometres from Kalkarindji, and they got drunk.
After drinking for some time, the respondent asked the victim to return home with her. He refused. She became very angry and they had an argument …
The respondent … asked her friend for a knife which the respondent had brought with her. As the victim started moving away, the respondent raised the knife to shoulder height, closed her eyes, and stabbed him once in the back. The knife handle broke off in her hand and the full length of the blade remained embedded in the victim’s back …
The respondent was 19 years of age … She is an Aboriginal woman who speaks Gurindji … She has never been in employment.
The respondent lives with the victim, their child, and her brother and sister-in-law. She receives a Centrelink parenting payment.
This woman is suffering from trauma entrenched by clumsy and cruel policies such as land rights and “embracing culture”. Why would she want to embrace that culture?
Such violent drunken assaults by Aborigines upon Aborigines are prevalent in the Northern Territory. As a recent report from the Menzies School of Health Research concluded, “There is an epidemic of alcohol-fuelled assault which is frequently the result of family violence.”
The source of assault in Australia tells the tale. As an example, in New South Wales in 2014, in 68 per cent of assaults the victim knew the assailant. For non-Aborigines the figure is 65 per cent; for Aborigines the figure is 89 per cent. For Aborigines, the assailant is a family member in 54 per cent of instances; for non-Aborigines, in 33 per cent. For Aborigines the assailant is a stranger less than 8 per cent of the time; for non-Aborigines the assailant is a stranger 28 per cent of the time. It seems as though Aborigines need to stop hanging around with Aborigines, it is too dangerous.
If asserting, capturing, recapturing, or just plain old inventing an Aboriginal identity were a solution to endemic Aborigine-against-Aborigine violence I might even consent to pay for it. As it stands, there is no proof that asserting Aboriginal identity solves anything. It is just as likely that it is either delaying Aborigines’ entry to civility or driving them farther from it. Why should I pay someone to convince me they are different?
Fortunately, most Aborigines are not that different from others. Neither historical nor DNA Aborigines are any longer Aborigines in any real sense. They are citizens with needs and contributions similar to other Australians and should be treated as such.
Gary Johns’s books include The Charity Ball, Recognise What? and Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman’s Dream.