I’m an Aborigine . . . just ask me

Aborigines face the unending task of resisting attempts, on the one hand to cut them off from their heritage, and on the other to bury them within it as a thing of the past.  This statement is indicative of the struggles that Indigenous Australians face in the constructions of their own Aboriginality.

Min put up a post a couple of months ago in response to Andrew Bolt’s claim that Aborigines should be black. In Fair to be Fair she alerts the reader of Bolt’s assertion that the hue of one’s skin is the only thing that matters when a person identifies themselves as an Indigenous Australian.

I was fairly livid at his claim and set out to quickly counter his argument.  I gave myself a week, while the topic was still fresh.  Two months later . . . here is my answer to Andrew Bolt.

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 carried in the blood, 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 artefacts 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 continuos network embracing all Aboriginal people throughout the continent.

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 are 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.  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 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 sociality 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.  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 there you go.  If you want to know if I’m an Aborigine, just ask me.

32 comments on “I’m an Aborigine . . . just ask me

  1. When I went to high School in Port Augusta, in the early ’60’s the racists had no trouble identifying Aboriginals (as “boongs”) on nothing more than their (family) surnames.

    Appearance and skin colour meant nothing to them, as all were discriminated against, on the basis of their Aboriginality.

    It’s seems a bit rich, and is hypocritical, for the current generation of the same ilk to now claim that only “black” Aborigines should be recognised – although, sadly to expected from the likes of Bolt

  2. Fortunately Port Augusta has changed a bit, Pterosaur, and although the town still has a racist streak it is nowhere near as bad as that now.

    When I moved to Port Augusta in 2000 I was a bit apprehensive. But I soon found out it wasn’t the black fellas in Port Augusta who were the trouble makers: it was the white fellas in Adelaide who wrote about them.

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  4. Excellent and informative piece as always Migs. I agree absolutely Pterosaur..after decades of discrimination because g/grandma had a touch of the tar Bolt suddenly says that you cannot claim Aboriginality because you’re too white.

    Ok, I’m game and as per your final statement…I’ll ask are you an Aborigine?

  5. Is “racial background” important? Or “racial purity”

    ‘Cause most people born in England can “lay claim” to an extremely wide range …

    I “assess” a person as either “good” or “bad” 99% of the people I meet are “good” …

  6. TB, you are right of course. However nobody in England was ever discriminated against because they were part Cornish or part Welsh. Bolt’s statement was that a person could not claim Aboriginality due to one factor only and this is because the person was too white. It’s about the same as saying that you can’t claim to be a Yorkshireman because you don’t look like one.

  7. I once worked in a West Australian wheatbelt town where there was a big Aboriginal community. Many were unemployed because by then they were entitled to equal pay. Before this they had always been the mainstay of the farming labour force for subsistence wages. After generations of working as domestic and farming ‘slaves’ you can guess why there were so many part-white Nyoongahs there! And why they were all accepted by their Nyoongah families and living together, a strong community who were and still are proud of their Aboriginal descent. I wondered then how many part-Aboriginal children would have been accepted into the families of white farmers, shopkeepers and policemen in the early days of settlement? What sort of an Australia would we have today if white settlers had truly embraced their offspring?

  8. Patricia. I would have to defer to Miglo on this one but wasn’t there a disconnection between the sexual act and conception…that in Aboriginal lore a child was a spiritual being placed into the woman’s womb rather than the result of a physical act. Aboriginal women were therefore innocent lambs who had no idea that the sexual act would result in a child.

    Yes it seems that our venerable ancestors treated blacks in the American mode, that a child born to a slave was tallied in nothing more than a cattle count. Hence the reason that anyone trying to trace family history has a lot of difficulties..as a family historian I would say that SA has the worst records.

    I know that there were many good workers and I count my granny Lucas as one of them..she hid women and children when the authorities came around to collect white looking children.

    Which makes Bolt’s statement even the more abhorrent. There are many people still living who remember losing siblings because their brother or sister was too white or being taken themselves. The authorities instruction was to take the white ones..the whiter supposedly being an indication of the volume of black blood to the exact drop.

  9. Min, discrimination in England NOW is based a lot on colour – in the past its was based on where you lived and how you spoke – and the “upper class” is alive and well, believe me.

  10. Very true TB, upper class, middle class, lower class and all to do with one’s ‘pedigree’. And as you say people of color are automatically consigned to the lower classes this is in spite of the fact that one’s GP or accountant might be of Indian descent.

  11. Prince Charles keeps getting referred to as British. He’s 50% Greek, 25% German and 25% British. He certainly doesn’t look Greek, so he must be either German or British. He looks more British than German, so he must be British. What would Andrew Bolt say? British, no doubt.

    I’m 25% Australian, 25% British and 50% Lebanese, but I look Italian. So therefore I must be an Italian based on Andrew Bolt’s model for ethnic classification.

    I have an Aboriginal friend who actually looks more Indian than Aborigine, although he has no Indian heritage. But it’s all good; I’m adopting Bolt’s model and my mate is now an Indian. I’ll let him know. He’s bound to be surprised.

    And how about the Scotsman I work with who hasn’t got red hair. How dare he call himself a Scotsman when he would clearly pass as a Canadian or New Zealander. I’ll let him know that he’s no longer a Scotsman and Andrew Bolt is a little bit stumped on what nationality he really is. If only he had red hair we wouldn’t have this problem.

    I know a Muslim lady that doesn’t wear any form of clothing above her shoulders. I guess that means she’s not a Muslim. The colour of her skin suggests she must be an Aborigine. Andrew Bolt will be pleased: he likes dark Aborigines.

  12. Min
    “wasn’t there a disconnection between the sexual act and conception…”
    which is why, no doubt, they had very strong laws to prevent incest/in-breeding in such tight-knit communities. I think you’ll find that Aboriginal people had a fairly good knowledge of the basics of procreation.

  13. Polyquats, I was thinking of the Polynesian cultures where there was no connect between the sexual act and a resulting baby. That a baby came to be placed there in a woman’s womb due to the decision of spiritual forces. And this is a fairly reasonable conclusion given that not every sexual act automatically results in a baby.

    Hence the reason that I deferred to Miglo as I was wondering if this same thing was a part of indigenous culture.

    Yes precisely, when I was growing up in Hawthorn in the 70’s I was often spoken to in Greek as Hawthorn was a predominatly Greek community in those days. Why? Who me, a Greek? Brown hair (at least it was in those days)..apparently it was my dark green eyes.

  14. I think and this is just from my perspective what we have here is the only 50,000 yr old culture on the face of the planet. I am not asking that the Aborigines be put into a museum, I’m not asking that they be forgiven for crimes. But maybe just a little bit of acknowledgment and respect wouldn’t go astray.

    Apparently young urban indigenous these days relate more to north american music c’os the bro’s get respect.

    I read an article earlier this week (apologies no link mind was elsewhere) and this person of Aboriginal descent who is an academic suggested just maybe a few simple gestures would be good, such as all kids in primary school be taught a few words of an Aboriginal language and be taught a little of the dreaming.

    And maybe stop treating Aboriginal history as a slice of White History..they have a history of their own. I hope that my meaning is clear here..we treat Aboriginal history as a reference to our white history – such as the landing, the rounding up, the displacements and indeed the stolen generations – but it’s all in reference to white history.

  15. Several more reasons why he should change his name to Dolt.

    Just another excuse for Dolt to spread his ignorant, racist crap. Like everyone else, you are Aboriginal or Scottish or Polish or any other nationality by culture, not by skin or hair colour.

    Dolt and his sycophants are too ill educated and ignorant, in the sense that they have no manners or functioning brain cells, to comprehend that.

  16. And maybe stop treating Aboriginal history as a slice of White History..they have a history of their own.

    … and I strongly agree … BUT (always a but …) Aboriginal history is also the history of my adopted “culture” (for want of a better word) … if I want to be Australian then understanding the history, traditions, beliefs, gods, way of life of our Aboriginal culture, should be part of my life … and my kids and my grandchildren’s children …

    … as a kid, I was taught British History that traced back before, the Druids, the Britons, and the Celts, and the Scots, and the Romans, and the Vikings, and the Saxons, and the Normans all those “cultures” were part of my heritage … their traditions, gods, beliefs and way of life had influenced British history.

    For me there is a massive hurdle that has to be overcome … Aboriginal culture is not freely shared … and its “secret” nature is part of the very culture we seek to acknowledge and become part of … but it creates its own barriers to those of us who are non-Aboriginal …

    … it is in fact a means that Indigenous people, all over the world use, to maintain the exclusivity of their culture … and hopefully extend its life …

    … my own experiences in FNQ with Aboriginals (and the Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre) and in PNG (all over the islands) have always been positive … and friendly …

    … the greatest negative influence on the “cultures” of Aboriginals, Papuans and New Guineans, I believe as been Christian missionaries …

    We have a Sorry Day (a negative term in my book) what about a Sharing Day …

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  18. Exactly, TB @5.44pm. However, Dolt and his fellow travelers represent the nasty underbelly of Australian culture.

    Personally, I’d be very proud if somewhere in my ancestry, there was a first Australian. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely; Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, bloody Normans, Scots and Irish is my lot, I’m afraid, probably not even an original Briton lurking in there.

  19. Jane, you may have some Indigenous heritage but you’ll never know. It was usually shunned upon to have Indigenous blood so it was never admitted by many of those ‘whites’ that had some.

    Even Bolt might have some.

  20. Migs, as a genealogist this usually shows up as a missing entry on the various states’ BDMs. You have the child’s christening but not their birth registration. There were however a good number of close families who ‘adopted’ a child of color and registered the birth. But mostly children born to indigenous mothers were not registered. There are some for example, Mother ‘Jilly Aborigine’, father not stated.

  21. I wonder how Bolt defines or identifies himself. What does being Australian mean for him? Does he feel part of any pre-1788 traditions or cultures?

    I used to work with someone who was very critical of migrant (esp. Greek) students speaking their language and keeping their traditions and culture. She always wore tartan skirts and was a regular at Highland gatherings. The wee lassie just couldn’t see the contradiction.

  22. Kevin, exactly and precisely.. only a couple of decades ago the slight shade differences of white determined one’s status…hence the reason that Greeks and Italians were called wogs. And why? Because they were a shade darker than pure Brits. I very much doubt that say Polish refugees suffered the same discrimination as the Greeks and the southern Italians.

    But as far as Bolt, he’s just a shock jock and who knows what he thinks in real life..he only does things for shock value and not because he believes in one thing or another.

  23. Migs @4.16pm, unlikely because both sides of my family didn’t arrive in this country until the early 20th century and lived in the inner city. I doubt they even saw an Aborigine in the flesh most of their lives.

    Kevin, Dolt should identify himself as a w@nker, nothing else will do.

  24. Indeed he does Kevin, fellow w@ankers to be sure. He should open a social networking site; W@nkerbook, MyW@nk or W@nkerSpace spring readily to mind.

    Has anyone else had to fill in their details on a daily basis, of late? This has happened to me quite a few times,so it seems to be more than a glitch.

  25. Andrew Bolt seems to spend alot of time worrying about who is & isn’t Aboriginal…who are bona-fide refugees…the negatives regarding migrants…then, once in awhile he realises he’s crossed the line and decides to go into bat for some discriminated group.

    He’s yer typical Murdoch empire TRICKY DICK that pretends to be other than he is. Whilst stirrin’ up community dividin’ angst by actin’ like an old worry wart & pointin’ fingers…all to get attention & bring in the doe for his master’s monstrous organo-machine.

    I used to watch docos on the main political & media figures that drove totalitarian regimes…oft smilin’, softly-spoken scumbags, pushin’ ideas w/ a priest-like calm & tone of sincerity…articulate, occasionally jovial…yet once in a while you could see the mad ferocity in the eyes & intensity of their argument…and see the demon within.

    I see the same in Bolt. He needs to chillax. Hunt down his own demons…and purge them. He could be quite a nice fella if he tried harder. A life spent apologisin’ & justifyin’ the dark side can be exhaustin’. Barely worth the money & fame I reckon.

    Good post Migs. With all the corporate, rich dynastic corruption & crimes & uncompetitive behaviour that goes on it makes ya wonder sometimes why people bother pointin’ fingers at the little people.

    But then ya remember that it is in the interest of too many of the mega-rich to use their puppets to fingerpoint…and distract from the piles of toxic manure they are dumpin’ on the rest of society…and other species. And the mountains of treasure they accumulate to ensure their own security, longevity…and need to collect…influence…and attempts to pleasure their driven, troubled, mortal minds.

    Aboriginal elders recognise their kin…

    The corporate aristocrats recognise the smell of worker’s blood & skin of the disadvantaged on their fellow CREEPING stain on humanity.

    Who benefits financially more from the recognition?


  26. Many good points made here. I wouldn’t take Bolt as a fool; he is a mercenary lie-spinner, I doubt he has a drop of sincerity in him.

    His argument about the whiteness of self-identified aborigines deserves to be torn down. It is inherently racist. If a white-skinned aborigine married a Sudanes immigrant and had black kids, no doubt the kids would be aboriginal enough to Bolt even though their indigenous parent would not be. It’s just about skin colour for him, apparently, and here’s innocent me thinking it’s racist to reduce people to their skin colour. It makes no sense.

    In fact, for Bolt it’s probably not actually about skin colour at all. It’s about propagating the myth that aborigines get more than “ordinary Australians” (welfare etc) and that too many people (the non-black ones) are riding on the taxpayers’ backs to claim these extra benefits. Which is all a myth. I reckon that’s the dog-whistle he’s blowing on.

    I hope the courts take him to the cleaners. I’m not holding my breath but it would be nice. (And if I’ve defamed him here, he’s welcome to sue me. He couldn’t get enough out of me to cover an hour of his lawyer’s fees though!)

  27. Pingback: I’m an Aborigine: just ask Andrew Bolt « Café Whispers

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