No, Pauline, we do not need a debate on Aboriginal identity – by: Michael Taylor

In yet another display of pandering to sensationalism, Pauline Hanson wants a debate on Aboriginal identity, lamenting to an enthusiastically agreeable Andrew Bolt that there exists no “set definition to determine whether a person is Aboriginal”.

In essence Hanson wants a debate because she doesn’t know what set of biological or cultural characteristics define a person’s Aboriginality. And I would assume that she wouldn’t be happy with the outcome of the debate unless it packaged and labelled Aborigines into something that fits perfectly into her world view. That would explain why a debate is required over, say, a simple internet search for the answer.

Since 1788 there have been literally hundreds of politicians, anthropologists or other social scientists who have endeavored to piece together the very same question posed by Hanson (without, of course, the need for a political debate manufactured to endorse a shallow world view). Through the work of those ‘others’ – and with of course the benefit of consultation and engagement with Aborigines – we have a very clear picture of what determines whether a person is Aboriginal.

It is far more complex than Pauline Hanson would ever envisage. I am assuming that she seeks a simple answer (and of course, some googling would provide one with some simple answers) but the complexity of the issue is like one large cultural jigsaw puzzle.

I mentioned the year 1788. Let’s start with that piece of the puzzle.

If we cast ourselves back to 1788 we would embrace an environment where Aboriginality did not exist, but was to soon be invented by the colonising power. The European invaders constructed Aborigines as an ethnic category based on their own notions of culture and saddled Aboriginality on the Indigenous Australians, and European ideology continued to shape European ethnic perceptions. Prominent among the perceptions it was believed that culture was carried in the blood.

Over the next hundred years European ideology continued to shape the whites’ perception of Aborigines. Among these perceptions it was believed that culture was more than simply carried in the blood, but that culture was the external indicator of biological ancestry and culture, and that cultural characteristics, either heredity or unchanging, separated human groups from one another.

Ethnographic evidence indicates that before the arrival of Europeans, numerous distinct groups had occupied the Australian continent. Although these groups shared physical and cultural features and had ties of affinity, trade, and religious cooperation, these societies were distinguished by geography, language, and culture. With the benefit of hindsight, the ethnographic evidence failed to recognise that in determining identity, Aborigines traditionally attributed greater importance to culture and genealogical ties to heredity. Groups were differentiated on the basis of presence or absence of certain beliefs and behaviours, and of spiritual ties between people and land.

Basing their construction of Aboriginality on inadequate theories of culture, early anthropologists defined Aboriginality as constituting a pristine and timeless and cultural condition. Some still saw them as savages, remaining noble, despite constraining nature and unbending adherence to rules; the Aborigines typified a fossilised and primitive stage of social evolution. Ethnocentrism further led to the attribution or projection of negative characteristics. Even to this day many people have a stereotype of Aboriginal people as being very black, standing on one leg with a spear and living in the desert.

Up until recently, the social and cultural practices in Australia rendered Aboriginal people invisible. As a consequence, while Anglo-Australians have continued to ‘know’ about Aborigines they have known them only by report. Even in the rural Australia, local Aboriginal people have been ignored in favour of ‘real Aborigines’, supposedly living in a tribal life in the bush. The public has been largely dependent on representations of Aborigines to be found in the statements of various ‘authorities’, the work of painters and photographers, the printed and recently the electronic media, or even artifacts aimed at the popular and tourist markets.

“Such representations of Aboriginality called into doubt the special status of those who called themselves Aboriginal, but lived in urban settings, practised no traditional arts or ceremonies, and generally failed to ‘look the part’. Such people had constructed their Aboriginality in other modes, primarily by reference to proximate ancestors and living kin. Some have identified it as a major component of what is called ‘the Aboriginal commonality’, implying as it does a continuous network embracing all Aboriginal people throughout the continent” (Jeremy Beckett).

Regardless, under the doctrine of Social Darwinism it was always expected that the Aborigines would not survive alongside the presumed European superiority. However, only Europeans had selected Aborigines for extinction. Nature had not. While Australia was told that Aborigines were not going to die out, it was also given to understand that Aboriginality was doomed. Timeless and unchanging, Aboriginal culture was incapable of coexistence with the modern world: the old Aboriginal cultures were collapsing everywhere under the impact of while settlement, mining exploration, pastoral expansion and the effects of State assimilation policies.

“Managing Aboriginal people under one guise or another, the State has been in a position to influence their public constructions. Not only has it determined who should have access to them, but it has played a major role in the assembling of information about them, has commissioned much of the research conducted by experts on them, and has acted as patron for artistic representations of them” (Myrna Tonkinson).

Consider, for example, the Western Australian interpretation of what constituted an Aboriginal person. Every person who is:

  • an Aboriginal inhabitant of Australia, or
  • a half-caste who lives with an Aboriginal as husband or wife, or
  • a half-caste who, otherwise than as wife or husband habitually lives or associates with Aborigines, or
  • a half-caste child whose age does not apparently exceed sixteen years, shall be deemed an Aboriginal within the meaning of this Act . . . ” (Western Australia Aborigines Act of 1905, Section 3).

Aborigines though are no longer silent objects of study, but increasingly challenge the very terms in which they are written about. However, it is not easy to re-examine the intellectual heritage; a heritage that is a body of knowledge understood by those sharing the same discourse and built into our contemporary consciousness in many intricate and hidden ways. Aborigines are exploring their own Aboriginality and are finding that the white Australia cannot accept their own view of themselves. You can’t define Aboriginality in terms of the colour of their skin or in terms of what genes and chromosomes were inherited. Aboriginal people have a very strong spiritual heritage: above anything else it is the essence of being an Aboriginal.

Consider how different an Aboriginal interpretation of Aboriginality compares with the political or social construction. The emphasis on spiritual and cultural unity is absolute. They identify the following characteristics as common to all Australian Aborigines:

  • descent from the original inhabitants of Australia; a shared historical and cultural experience, particularly that arising from relations with non-Aborigines;
  • the Dreaming, or Aboriginal worldview; intimate familial relationship with the land and the natural world, and knowing the pervading moulding character of these in all matters Aboriginal’;
  • social interaction based predominantly on the mutual obligations of kinship; observance and social importance of mortuary rituals; and
  • bi or multilingualism.

Whilst these elements constitute Aboriginality, Aboriginal values such as reciprocity and individuality could also be included, although these are not unique to Aborigines. However the list provided could be considered typical of cultural inventories: they constitute a coherent set of characteristics that are present and enduring in all Aboriginal people. However, significantly, the operative definition of Aboriginality has shifted from biological to the cultural. The Aboriginal emphasis on kinship and behaviour in determining identity is apparent. Another notable characteristic of Aboriginal social life is the self-conscious identification with notions of sociability and behaviour ascribed to Aboriginality, a world view with definable social values, attitudes and cognitive orientations.

In denying people the right to relate to themselves through their bodies and where notions of kinship are organised around cultural notions of the body is denying Aboriginal a major aspect of their Aboriginality. The dominant theoretical prescription of ideal Aboriginality would act to prevent Aborigines from creating their identities out of the body and out of biology, and would also in effect prevent them talking descent and moreover reinventing their notions of descent.

‘The assertion of Aboriginality is part of a political process’, wrote Tonkinson, further noting that:

Although the legal and social status of Aborigines has changed significantly, they are by no means equal participants in Australian society. They still suffer severe social disadvantage and defacto discrimination; in the eyes of many whites, being Aboriginal is still a social stigma. Against this background, many Aborigines are consciously and actively working to establish positive images of themselves and their cultures. This involves the rejection or reversal of dominant European definitions; the promotion of colour as a desirable feature rather than a taint; and the revival, invention, or adoption of distinctively Aboriginal cultural behaviours and symbols . . . the construction of a new identity in which all Aboriginal people can share.

So no, Pauline, we don’t need another debate on Aboriginal identity. We simply need to respect that they exist. Debate over.

About the author: Michael Taylor recently retired from the Australian Public Service, which included a decade in Aboriginal affairs, three years of which were spent visiting remote Aboriginal communities in the Flinders Ranges and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands. He holds an Arts degree in Aboriginal Affairs Administration and an Honours degree in Aboriginal Studies.