A Voice for thee but not for me. But who is thee, that’s my question? At the last census in 2021, 812,728 people self-identified as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (indigenous) descent; that was 3.2 percent of the population. The population has since increased, as will have those identifying as indigenous.
How many in this self-identifying indigenous population are “full-blooded,” I thought. A first reaction to my thought was whether it would be considered racist. All I can say is poppycock. In any event, I find it hard to get a number. I found one source which put the number at only 5000. But that seems much too low and I know little about the source, so don’t want to rely on or cite it. However, it’s clear that those who self-identify as being indigenous are overwhelmingly of mixed race like the rest of us.
Intimate intermingling has consequences. Moreover, those consequences make progressive dilution inevitable. My daughters are half Italian. Their five children are only one-quarter Italian and, sadly, for three out of the five, only one-quarter English. And so it goes. And, perforce, multiracial societies like ours speed up dilution. Which returns me to the question: Who is thee? In Australia there is a three-part test for claiming indigeneity:
♦ Being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
♦ Identifying as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.
♦ Being accepted as such by the community in which you live, or formerly lived.
It’s clear, is it not, that the first part of this three-part test has fallen into disuse. Bruce Pascoe and others of similar hue and genetic background prove that. Yet, of course, it is the only part of the test which is sufficient onto it itself. You might not self-identify; you might not be accepted. All the same, your DNA tells the tale. Though, that tale is not necessarily given the weight it deserves. Thus, many of those claiming to be indigenous have far less claim than my grandchildren do to being Italian.
You’ll recall US Senator Elizabeth Warren claiming Cherokee ancestry, based on a photograph in her parent’s house of a distant relative with high cheek bones. Apparently, it did her no harm at Harvard. In fact, DNA testing showed that there was a Native American in her family tree from 6 to 10 generations gone by. Pathetically, she used this testing to continue to justify her claim before being laughed off the stage. If, in fact, the Native American concerned had his or her way with a white Warren ancestor six generations before, Sen. Warren would be 1/64th Native American. And if it was ten generations before, she would be 1/512th. This brings me to blood quantum rules which apply in America and to the debate within Native American circles about them. It has relevance here.
According to Wikipedia, certain tribes, the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona, for example, require a stiff 1/2 degree of blood quantum for full membership. The Cheyenne Tribe 1/4. The Comanche Nation 1/8. The Caddo Nation 1/16. None go down to 1/64; though the Cherokee Nation, among some others, has no specific blood quantum rule. Sadly for Sen. Warren, she’s still on the outer, unless she can establish lineage from an individual on the tribe’s designated roll. She can’t or she would have done.
Blood quantum rules pose a problem. Native American Leah Myers addressed the topic earlier this year in The Atlantic. Her tribe, she wrote, “requires that members be at least one-eighth Jamestown S’Klallam by blood.”
“Because I am exactly one-eighth, unless I have kids with another citizen, my kids will be ineligible to join … blood-quantum laws are used by many tribal nations to determine citizenship … by enforcing these laws, tribal governments…not only exclude some active members of their communities, but also may be creating a future in which fewer and fewer people will be eligible for citizenship.”
This view is echoed by fellow Native American Kylie Rice: “If native communities uphold strict blood quantum rules, it is inevitable that enrolment numbers will decline and tribal communities will no longer be viable as sovereign nations.”
There is a desperation at the heart of clinging onto a defunct past, which is becoming dimmer and more defunct each passing day. The problem that Leah Myers and Kylie Rice face is that clinging on to a tribal identity when it becomes one-quarter of who you are is hard enough. When it becomes one-eighth, one-sixteen, and one-thirty second, you’re really getting into Elizabeth Warren territory. And that’s the future. There is no stopping it. Native-American bloodlines will become more and more diluted. Some people might still want to live in a half-world in which some Native-American cultural norms are preserved. But they shouldn’t kid themselves that they are Native Americans. Biology trumps wishing and hoping.
What applies to Native Americans applies here to Indigenous Australians pari passu. If there are financial incentives in play, the numbers self-identifying as Indigenous might go on increasing. However, Aboriginality has declined, is declining, and will continue to decline until, eventually, over generations to come, it will become barely detectible. Accordingly, apropos the Voice, compartmentalising Australia into indigenous and non-indigenous populations is farcical. You can say the same, as it applies to land rights. Giving native title to people of distinctly mixed heritage is self-evidently absurd.
Finally, how awful is it that Aboriginality is heading south, cultures and languages lost? Perspective, perspective. I looked up the ancient tribes of Britain at the time of the Roman conquest. The BBC listed 27 major tribes. I could recognise not one – e.g., the Ordovices, the Selgovae, the Dubunni. (My spell check lit up.) Alas, all of those cultures and languages lost. It’s called life.