On being Indigenous

By August 27, 2012Indigenous, Other, Society

This is the first of a set of small essays about the place of Indigenous people in contemporary Australia, an issue that has interested me for at least fifty years. This one begins with little stories.

In early 1966, after having been overseas for the best part of two years, we drove from Sydney to Canberra, stopping for lunch in the Penrose state forest. I walked into the trees and stood on a large granite rock. Everything was still, birds called, the smell of the Australian bush filled my nose, I registered the clear Australian light filtering through the leaves. I was home. This was my place, my country. It was an immensely powerful moment in my life. You are at home here, the bush said to me. There is nothing to fear, here.

It is the early 1980s, and I am chatting with a friend, Peter Baume, who is the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and has a problem: how do you know whether or not someone is a ‘real’ Aboriginal? I think about it, and finally send him a letter: one way is to construct a 2 x 2 table that gives you four possible answers to two questions. First, does X claim to be an Aboriginal person? (Yes/No). Second, do Aboriginal people accept X as one of them?  (Yes/No). Two Yes answers are needed. I don’t know what happened, but we seem to have something like that today.

My third story is more recent, and I am at an official gathering, about to have ‘the welcome to country’, a now obligatory ritual before any event conducted by our governments. A local elder is to officiate. He is breezy, good-humoured and effective. He looks about  as Aboriginal as I do, and his constant references to his ‘ancestors’ makes me scratch my head.

Aboriginal people have come a long way since the 1950s, when I lived in Armidale, whose few Aboriginal residents seemed to live at the town dump. The success stories are many, but it is the shock/horror tales that make the news. In rather the same fashion as with the women’s movement, one could feel that nothing at all has changed, and that would be quite wrong. In a later essay in this series, I’ll document what seem to me to be the most significant changes in the situation of what we now call the ‘Indigenous’ people of Australia.

But now I want to reflect on my three stories. I feel that I am an indigenous Australian: I have been in most parts of it, and feel at home everywhere. But as far as I know I have no Aboriginal ancestors, and though it is a wise child who knows its father, my guess is that the Aboriginality of DA is nil.

So I have an incipient objection to the appropriation of ‘Indigenous’ to exclude those born here, who feel that this is their country, and who love it. But I also recognise that my Scottish and English ancestors moved into land that other people had occupied, and paid nothing for it – at least to those original occupiers. Relative to most of them, my ancestors and their descendants have a privileged position. I did not think that an Apology was necessary, but I did think, and do think, that I have a responsibility to do what I can to redress the balance. And especially in the world of higher education, where Aboriginal students, after a slow start, have done very well, I have been able to do something.

But who is an Aboriginal these days? On the face of it, the Aboriginal part of our population is growing very rapidly, but some of that increase is simply the result of people identifying with their Aboriginal ancestors, even if there were only one of them, and that a long time ago. Had the local elder in my third story not officiated in the welcome to country, he would have looked like everyone else.

And ultimately, it seems to me, that has to be the future in this increasingly diverse but still remarkably harmonious society of ours. To hang on to some imagined past, and not take part in building a better present and future, is the wrong way to go. That dictum applies to Indigenous people, not just to recent immigrants from seriously troubled parts of the world.

Marcia Langton has said that it is about time that welfare was provided on the basis of need, not on the basis of race. It is getting difficult to categorise most people on the ground of race anyway, unless they claim a special entitlement by doing so. I do not always agree with Professor Langton, but on this occasion I think she is on the right track.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • george villaflor says:

    Dear Don, that was a very refreshing tale. The connection that all feel to Australian lands is universal. Take only one glance at the huge fight in WA by Greens and Aboriginal to save something for the future. Aboriginality has, like land rights occupied many minds & confused many. I myself have at least to my knowledge, three cultures: Aboriginal, White Australian and Portuguese. I could pass for two but definitely not for white. It realy doesnt matter to me. I love & respect them all. Aboriginality finds you no matter how hard you might try to suppress. Henry Reynolds is one who has “a bit” of Aboriginality in his past. Ray Martin another. Like former Justice Kirby, being honest with the public can sometimes backfire- for if Kirby made public he was was gay (& very happy about being gay as well) public office to the High Court might have been denied to him. Aboriginality is like that. I have lived like a “half caste” as they called me which confused me for many years as I did not know which “half” they felt so bad about- the white or the Aboriginal? Today my turn on it all is when (still would you believe in 2012) a Canberra Doctor inquired “how much Aboriginal blood do you have”? I laughed & said “i do not know- but whatever it is it is 100%”. Meaning I have embraced my Aboriginality as me & as told many years ago by some of the early Aboriginal “activist” -the troublemakers- who come into a “perfectly contented society” that “treated Aboriginal people the same as everybody else” even the contented period in Don’s time that he does not mention- you are part of us & must help. So I could have turned away & “blended in”. But I did not. Which gets down to this I suppose- it is a personal choice & at other times it is an obligation. And who would not want to be connected & stay connected to one of the oldest cultures in the World & with this amazing country now filled with so many other amazing cultures. It is not all about race “need”- hanging onto some imagined past- for an educated man like Don- I suspect from his tale above that his education has been wasted on him in these areas if he can still not understand. The Native Title Act spends millions of public moneys that should be directed to the “needs” areas but fights in the courts all Aboriginal claims to at least have some of their lands to build their futures. That is the Aboriginality that Australia fights realy fights against- not one of need for need is unviverals to all Australians but of the Australian law which now has said that Aboriginal people do have a legal right to their lands & always did. The first fights on colonisation in 1778 was about land & I had hoped by now that more well educated men & women like Don would provide some workable answers to addressing this. Law is filled with strange things like values & is but a reflection of its society. Enjoy your retirement Don & no thanks for no fish.

    George Villaflor

    • donaitkin says:


      Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful response. I do respect your observation that deciding on whether or not to emphasise one’s ‘Aboriginality’ is ‘a personal choice & at other times it is an obligation’. You ask for me to provide ‘some workable answers’ with respect to the land issue. I don’t have any. I’ve watched other people’s answers not work, and that tells me that there is no silver bullet here, any more than there is one in road safety. In the long run, as I suggested, I see no real option other than what you call ‘blending in’. It must be true of almost everyone, that their ancestors encountered expropriation. My Scots ones were driven out of the Highlands of Scotland by the English. That was in the mid 18th century, and the memory does linger on, at least in Scotland. So I understand your feeling while I look forward to a future when ‘Aboriginality’ is less of an issue because all Australians are well educated,in good health and in enjoyable work, whatever their ‘ethnic’ background.

      Darug Elder,

      Thank you for responding. I don’t think I can do other than read what you have written and accept it as your honest feelings. I hope that in time, as I wrote in my response to George, you will feel that the future for your people is increasingly better.

  • A Darug Elder says:

    Dear Don my ancestors were raped by the whiteman & when they had children they had no time for us half castes who then were taken in by the so called missionaries who believed they could cleanse our souls by taking us away from our families scrubbing us & putting us in dresses but we survived & still exist with our heritage & culture intact which we will preserve like Shane has done for future generations.
    Shane should be respected for his position within the Aboriginal community it is ashame that you cannot learn more about the days when we were called Abos,half caste ect & then tell us we are now white exscuse me but on my last blood test it said a 100% pure pre 1878 Aboriginal vintage a collectors drop but has been spoiled by the addition of white mans blood I am now trying to get a blood transfusion to rectify this.
    But just rembered that I have never given up my rights to my lands so to me you are just another tourist with no respect of a community that has survived with out polluting our mother earth who can live with our animals & plants taking only what was needed to survive all you can claim is the MASS destruction & pollution in just over 200 years OF OUR LANDS whilst we try to preserve it.
    Well said George Villaflor

    • Me! says:

      Couldn’t have said it better. Here is a so called educated man who has very uneducated views on the Aboriginal people of this country. Don, you should try using your education to shove your head up your a$$

      • Don Aitkin says:

        I wonder whether or not you have read the other essays in this theme. May I suggest that you do. Your comment only just passes the test of civility.

  • […] If you are naive to this issue start by reading this blog post by Professor Don Aitkin. […]

  • Terry Stokes says:

    I have followed the response to this from those who claim to be Aboriginal, and those who deny it, with interest. Down here in Tasmania we have the Michael Mansell mob, who deny the claims to Aboriginality of others, and resist any attempt to use DNA to establish them. It seems to me that we have a homeopathic view of race in this country, which has all the scientific status that homeopathy has in medicine.

  • Court Case says:

    Hullo Don,

    I understand that Shane Mortimer is suing you in the Federal Magistrates Court for $6 million for alleged racial discrimination based on some comments above.

    [ http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/aitkin-sued-over-alleged-slur-20121110-295ip.html#ixzz2G9Nli79I ]

    Shane clearly believes these comments are a racial slur, and a court case is underway to test this interpretation – the case to resume in February, 2013, I believe. I wonder if he appreciates how this litigation plays into the hands of Andrew Bolt and the ‘free speech’ agenda items espoused by ‘The Australian’. To equate your blog comments with Andrew’s case is to miss salient facts such as shoddy journalism, a failure to check facts and possibly the lack of a warm heart to the advancement of indigenous people.

    The effect of Shane’s case is to restrict how anyone can write or speak about genuine questions and political issues that are of interest to many. Andrew Bolt and ‘The Australian’ are of this persuasion. An honest, respectful and truthful attitude to the issues is obviously an important consideration.

    What makes this a painful case – besides the prospect of costs, law court proceedings etc – is that for such a long period you have been a supporter of indigenous people and their education and that it has never been your intention to cause hurt. Quite the contrary.

    Shane Mortimer might be better advised to pursue people who have malice towards indigenous people; furthermore, if he attacks friends and supporters, he forfeits the good will of many Australians. Too precious by far, too thin-skinned, too lacking any sense of humour or capacity for criticism. As a distinguished academic, you are not compromising on a matter of genuine free speech and I believe the merits of your case will be recognized.

    In my immediate family [NSW], I have seen financial costs and harm incurred where vexatious litigation has been initiated, the claimant conducted their own case, had costs awarded against them by the court and no payment has ever been received. The recent Ashby Slipper judgment [on appeal] illustrates how judges regard what they see as an abuse or misuse of the Law. I wish you well.

  • Cynical says:

    Dear A Darug Elder,

    I think that is just a teeny, tiny bit … Pathetic. Mr Aitken is actually a SUPPORTER of Aborigines and their rights – He tries to help. With regards to Mr Mortimer’s case, perhaps the public funds would be better spent helping Indigenous people in remote areas who really need funding, than assisting white, urbanised Aborigines to sue academics over comments which are supposedly racially discriminatory. And to be honest, I agree with Mr Aitken – Mr Mortimer does look white. However, this is not a slur on his Aboriginality – The law states that you simply have to indentify with being an Aborigine and be accepted by others as one.

    Furthermore, it is exeedingly unfair to say that Mr Aitken has polluted all of your traditional lands etc. He hasn’t – The community as a whole (you included) has. Believe me, if you drive a car you are polluting just as much as everyone else, whether you are an Aborigine or not.

    And please, what you said about blood transfusions etc is just rubbish – And it is racist as well. You may claim that white people are racist to you – But no wonder, if you are just racist to them too.

    Why don’t you step back and take a good, long look at what you have just written? And please go back to school and learn some spelling and punctuation whilst you are at it.

  • margaret says:

    I’ve just come to this piece and these are my thoughts on the slow processes of acceptance of change and the changing of unconscious ideas white Australians hold about aboriginality.
    The welcome to country took me a while to understand and accept and now truly appreciate for its symbolic significance.
    A few years ago when I attended a course in a large regional Victorian town and welcome to country preceded it I looked around at the participants hoping and wishing to see what I then regarded as indigenous participants – meaning, in my own mind, darker skin.
    I never saw evidence of my own mind’s prejudice in the township itself of indigenous first nations. It took time, some conversations and a lot of reading, for me to realise that the kids I went to school with in far northern NSW and who had dark skin, and instantly were recognisable as ‘not us’ (to the extent that they had to sit on the opposite side of the aisle of the nissan hut that served as a picture theatre in this town), were not the only people who are the descendants of the first nations of the Australian continent.

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