Bennelong Papers

Who is an Aborigine?

Extract from Relhiperra: About Aborigines by Paul G. E. Albrecht. 

From the very beginnings of the European settlement of Australia, the indigenous inhabitants, although classed as British subjects, were seen as a distinct category of persons. At first, who belonged to this category of persons, was obvious. But later, as a result of liaisons between settlers and Aboriginal women, children of mixed racial descent were born. To which category of persons did these people belong? Were they to be counted among the settlers, or the indigenous people? The various Australian colonies/states, in the course of their histories, answered the question: ‘Who is an Aborigine?’ in different ways. Additionally, they began to impose restrictions and/or grant privileges to people they classed as Aborigines.

To give an example. When I began my ministry in central Australia in the late 1950s, only people of full Aboriginal descent were categorised as Aborigines. At the same time, they were declared to be wards of the state so that special assistance could be provided to improve their health and general welfare, and to teach them the skills they would need in order to attain the same standard of living as other Australians. In addition they had restrictions placed on them. Among other things, they could not legally marry a non-ward without permission; they were not allowed to purchase or consume alcohol; they were not allowed to vote.

On the other hand, people whose ancestry included a person or persons of Aboriginal ancestry and another race, for example, Caucasian, Chinese, Afghan, were not classed as Aborigines, and therefore not wards of the state. They were Australian citizens who could vote, own property, drink in a pub, buy alcohol, etc. At that time, many of these people of mixed Aboriginal/Caucasian or Chinese or Afghan descent took umbrage if they were referred to as Aborigines. Later, when a change of government policy provided benefits to Aborigines not available to other Australians, but without the restrictions which previously had applied to Aboriginal people, many of these same people chose to identify as Aborigines.

When the various Australian States formed the Commonwealth in 1901, Aborigines, as a category of persons, did not have the right to vote and were not included in the Australian census. (I have been told that Aborigines in South Australia had had voting rights until federation. However, one of the conditions South Australia had to accept in order to join the federation was to withdraw the voting rights of Aborigines living in the State, in order to bring it into line with the other States.)

As the Australian colonies were granted statehood, the Aborigines living in the various States became the responsibility of those States. The Commonwealth, when it was formed in 1901, only had responsibility for Aborigines living in the Australian Territories. The referendum of 1967 did two things in particular. First, it changed the Australian Constitution so that Aborigines could be included in the census. And second, it gave the Commonwealth of Australia power to make laws and do thing for Aborigines Australia-wide. Practically, this meant that the Commonwealth, for the first time since federation, had the constitutional power to override State laws relating to Aborigines. (However, the Commonwealth has not always been prepared to use its constitutional powers, when opposed by the States. For example, Prime Minister Hawke’s attempt to introduce uniform Aboriginal land rights laws Australia-wide was thwarted by Western Australia and other States.)

The powers of the Commonwealth to make laws on behalf of Aborigines, and provide special funds for Aborigines in areas of health, housing, education, economic development, etc., meant there was also the need for an Australia-wide definition of who was an Aborigine. In the event, the Commonwealth adopted the following definition, based on race:

An Aborigine is a person descended from the original inhabitants of this land, who chooses to identify as an Aborigine, and who is accepted as such by his/her group.

This definition replaced the past official practice of referring to Aborigines either as full bloods, half-castes, quarter castes, octoroons, or whatever the case may have been. Understandably, many Aborigines found this former practice objectionable and demeaning. The current definition also echoes the common Australian practice of referring to anyone with Aboriginal features as an Aborigine.

The current definition makes it clear who is an Aborigine, for legal purposes, and therefore eligible for the special assistance provided by governments for Aborigines only. At the same time, the Commonwealth government also uses the definition to frame its Aboriginal policy and its programmes aimed at ameliorating Aboriginal disadvantage.

However, the definition says nothing about Aboriginal culture, or the cultural differences between the more traditional Aborigines[1] and those who have lost much, if not all, of their culture. Hence it is legitimate to ask whether the definition provides an appropriate base for the development of policies and programmes.

Race is a largely meaningless concept when it comes to defining social problems and working out their solutions. Whether one has an aquiline or broad nose, whether one’s skin is dark brown, beige or some combination of pink/white, is irrelevant—except to bigots and racists. Rather, what is important is how a defined group of people perceives reality, how they organise themselves socially, what their values are, what their goals in life are, what they consider to be adequate punishment and reward, and so on. These are matters determined by culture, not race.

The definition of who is an Aborigine, by omitting any reference to culture, and cultural differences between Aborigines, has helped to father a number of negative consequences. For example:

  • It has helped create monochromatic policies and programmes. While some of these have been appropriate and helpful to Aborigines who have lost their culture, they have been unhelpful to, in fact they have often been harmful to, the more traditional Aborigines. The continuing shocking statistics for Aboriginal health, educational attainments, employment etc., point to this.
  • It has helped give the impression that Aborigines were/are a homogeneous people, a nation. Aborigines never were a homogeneous people, much less a nation. The small Aboriginal land-owning clans that lived scattered over the Australian continent never thought of themselves as belonging to some larger federation of Aboriginal states, or constituting a nation. The clans did not even have single authority figures like chiefs.
  • It has helped to gloss over the fact that there are fundamental cultural differences between Aborigines whose attitudes, lifestyles, and values have been fundamentally shaped by their traditional culture, and those who have lost their traditional language and culture, and whose attitudes, lifestyles and values have been shaped, either by their experience of living among other Australians as Australians, or by their experience of living on the fringes of Australian society, and not being accepted by Australians.
  • It has helped gloss over the fact that while both the more traditional and some non-traditional Aborigines have needs, these needs differ greatly. Both need to be addressed. But the answers in each case need to be different, because the causes of disadvantage are different.
  • It has helped to silence the voice of the more traditional Aborigines. In traditional Aboriginal societies, only designated leaders could speak on behalf of their group, and these leaders always represented only themselves. This is still the case in most, if not all, of the Northern Territory. Yet the government chose to ignore this cultural fact when it established ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission),[2] and gave it the role of advising it on Aboriginal issues. ATSIC was an elected body, which in no way corresponded to the way more traditional people need to be consulted, or to the only way they can advise Government. The result was that the more traditional people had no voice in the formulation of Government policy and programmes, which affected them. Rather, a small group of Aborigines, who by and large had no knowledge of traditional Aboriginal culture and didn’t speak an Aboriginal language, but who had learnt to manipulate the system established by Parliament, succeeded in influencing policy and effectively setting the whole agenda for Australian and Aboriginal relations.
  • It has resulted in Land Rights legislation, and laws of incorporation, which cut across traditional Aboriginal ‘law’, making a mockery of the government policy of self-determination and self-management. But more on this later.

The more traditional Aborigines have their own definition of ‘Who is an Aborigine?’ According to them:

An Aborigine is someone who knows the customs and laws of his/her own group, and lives by them.

For them, Aboriginality is not a matter of race, but of culture.      

The more traditional Aborigines’ definition of who is an Aborigine points to what differentiates Aborigines from other Australians. It is not race, but culture. By focusing on culture, the definition provides some clues to understanding continuing Aboriginal social disadvantage. I believe it can be shown both empirically and statistically, that the Aborigines who have benefited most from current Government programmes are the Aborigines who have lost their traditional culture, and whose values and lifestyle approximate those of other Australians. The Aborigines whose deplorable health, education, employment and housing statistics haven’t really changed for decades are the more traditionally oriented Aborigines, whose life is largely governed by their culture.

Bearing all these factors in mind, I am of the opinion that any special assistance needed to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage should be uncoupled from the racial definition of who is an Aborigine.

  • This would have the immediate effect of freeing Aboriginal policies and programmes from their racial base and making it possible to develop policies and programmes based on the cultural differences that need to be addressed. (Apart from that, it would also benefit Aboriginal–Australian race relations.)
  • It would make the definition of Aborigine non-contentious, because no special benefits would be attached to being an Aborigine. It would place Aborigines on the same par as Australians who refer to their racial origins, for example, by calling themselves Greek-Australians.
  • It would put an end to the resentment felt by Australians who find themselves as impecunious as Aborigines, but unable to access the kind of benefits available to Aborigines.
  • It would stop Aborigines who have similar incomes to those of Australians from accessing funds meant to assist less advantaged Aborigines improve their standard of living.

There may have been some initial value in basing Aboriginal policies and programmes on race. For example, many Aborigines who had lost their culture, but were socially disadvantaged, benefited from the funds made available. However, this initial value is now overshadowed by the failure of the current policies and programmes to improve the standard of living of the more traditional Aborigines. The indices on Aboriginal health, employment, domestic violence, substance abuse, have not improved in the past 30 years—if anything, they have become worse.

Instead of basing Aboriginal policies and programmes on race, which have demonstrably failed, I would suggest the following approach. First, State and Territory governments must again assume the same degree of responsibility for the provision of physical infrastructure (roads, water, sewerage, electricity) for Aboriginal towns, as they do for other towns. The same applies to the provision of police, health and educational services. These are normal State and Territory functions and must not be palmed off to so-called Aboriginal organisations in the name of self-management and self-determination. The only result of this policy has been to provide Aborigines living in their own communities with second-rate services.

Second, the Commonwealth and State governments need to put in place culturally appropriate structures and mechanisms through which to consult the more traditional Aboriginal people, and be advised by them.

Third, the Commonwealth and State governments need to establish culturally appropriate organisations of their own to dialogue talk with genuine Aboriginal leaders and work with them on cultural factors which are at the root of their continuing social disadvantage.

To give an example. I believe the single most important reason why the culturally diverse people who have come to Australia have been able to fit into the mosaic of Australian society and make a home for themselves and their children, has been their ability to plug into their adopted country’s economy and economic institutions. By the same token, the primary reason why Aborigines have remained on the margins of Australian society, from the very beginning, is that they haven’t been able to plug into the economy.

The broad outlines of the Aboriginal economy, as it existed at the time of European settlement, is known. The correct performance of certain rituals, was the means of production. It was the ritual which produced what the various clans needed to live on. This was then gathered, and the kinship system provided the mechanism through which this production was allocated and distributed to individual clan members. In this respect the kinship system in Aboriginal societies served the same purpose as the old Australian arbitration system. This understanding of economy is still a part of the culture of the more traditional Aborigines.

As Australians perceive and interpret Aborigines and the functioning of their social system through their own cultural eyes, so Aborigines perceive the Australian social system through their cultural eyes. As a consequence, few Australians have understood the Aboriginal economic system. Similarly, few Aborigines have understood how the Australian economy works. Hence Aborigines have a ‘Cargo Cult’[3] understanding of the Australian economy. What we call work is what they understand as collecting what has been produced by ritual. They maintain that it is the ritual we use to produce our wealth (food, cars etc., etc.) which we do not, and will not, share with them. This they see as the major reason for their poverty and marginalisation.

I believe it’s their inability to understand the workings of the Australian economy that is at the heart of more traditional Aborigines remaining on the margins of Australian society. Our history shows that, providing ethnic groups enter our economy, they become a part of the mosaic of Australian society. Whether, and to what extent they intermingle with others on the social level is not crucial to their well being. However, the ethnic groups who do not enter the economy, don’t become a part of the mosaic of Australian society either. They remain on the margin. Unless Aborigines enter the Australian economy, they will continue to live on the margins of Australian society.

However, for change to occur in this area, the traditional Aborigines’ perception of how a modern economy works will have to undergo quite fundamental changes. And then they will also have to make a commitment to enter this economy to the degree that they wish to share in its material benefits. By this I mean that if an Aborigine wants no more than a pair of trousers and a shirt each year, then he can probably get them by making a couple of spears or boomerangs and selling them. But if he wants a four-bedroom house with wall-to-wall carpeting, and all modern conveniences, his commitment to the economy will have to be much greater, and will require trade-offs with his cultural values.

I have found it useful when thinking about, and analysing Aboriginal issues, to think of Aborigines within the traditional–modern continuum. The terms ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, as used by sociologists, are neither pejorative, nor are they value judgements—that is, they don’t imply that one is better than the other. They are terms which characterise states and stages of human social development. For example: 

Traditional societies
Subsistence agriculture 
Strong kin structure
Lack of differentiation

Modern societies
Market economy
Weak kin structure
Highly differentiated 

Aborigines can be found all along such a traditional–modern continuum. The place presently occupied by individuals and groups on this continuum will have been determined by such things as their contact history—that is, were they dispossessed of their land; length of contact with other Australians; degree of racial admixture; where they live in Australia, etc. Where Aborigines are found on this continuum must determine the type of policies and programmes that governments formulate and institute to help them overcome their social disadvantage.

In raising the question of who is an Aborigine I have had no desire to question the right of any person whose genealogy includes an Aborigine, or Aborigines, to identify as an Aborigine. To identify as such is an entirely personal matter and should be of no concern to anyone else. However, because the definition of an Aborigine carries with it legal and pecuniary privileges, this question is not simply a personal matter, but also a matter of legitimate public debate.

There are people interested in Aboriginal issues who consider it counter-productive to raise this question, let alone debate it. They are of the opinion that behind this question is an attempt to drive a wedge between the traditional or tribal Aborigines and urbanised Aborigines.

My interest in the question arises from the indisputable fact that there are vast social differences between Aborigines whose lifestyle is still significantly influenced by their indigenous culture, and those whose lifestyle is largely, if not completely, indistinguishable from that of other Australians. And to these two groups of Aborigines must be added the many Aborigines whose lifestyle lies on the continuum between these two groups of Aborigines. These differences have vast implications for legislation and programmes designed to deal with Aboriginal rights and to ameliorate Aboriginal disadvantage. It is my contention that one of the fundamental reasons for the present failure to deal effectively with Aboriginal disadvantage stems from not taking seriously the differences between the more traditional and the non-traditional Aborigines. 

From Relhiperra: About Aborigines by Paul G. E. Albrecht. Download a free copy (pdf) here… 


[1] Throughout, when applying the term ‘traditional’ to Aborigines I am referring to Aborigines whose lives are still largely influenced by The Dreaming, to use Stanner’s phrase.

[2] ATSIC was abolished in 2005 and has not been replaced. In its stead, the Federal Government has created an Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination (OIPC), a bureaucracy to oversee and implement its Aboriginal policies, and established a National Indigenous Council (NIC)—whose members are elected by Government—to advise it on Aboriginal issues.

[3] Peter Lawrence’s book Road Belong Cargo, University of Manchester, 1964, did much to bring this concept into popular usage. According to Lawrence, cargo cult ‘is based on the native’s belief that European goods (cargo)—are not man-made but have to be obtained from non-human or divine sources’, through ritual. When ‘cargo’ is not obtained, it is the result of incorrect ritual. While Aboriginal societies did/do not display the classic features of cargo cult as occurs in Melanesia, the underlying Aboriginal world view, in which correct ritual is the primary technology of production, leads to similar outcomes, often expressed as the white man’s unwillingness to share his secrets of wealth (cargo).


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