Emily Poelina Hunter

Emily Poelina-Hunter: I can’t describe the feeling of having to prove my Aboriginality. Am I lucky? Or unlucky?

Author: Emily Poelina-Hunter

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Emily Poelina HunterEmily Poelina-Hunter is a Nyikina woman belonging to Marrdoowarra country in Western Australia’s Kimberley area. Emily has spent most of her life living in Aotearoa, and moved back to Australia in 2010. Emily currently teaches Indigenous Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne..

I use the word “lucky” to describe my ability to obtain my confirmation of Aboriginality letter, but I think I just haven’t found the right word to describe my feelings about having to prove my identity to the university where I work. I have an academic position that was advertised to Indigenous applicants only. I’ve always identified as Aboriginal, but in applying for the position I was asked to supply a confirmation letter that relies on a three-part “test”.

I use the word “lucky” because I was able to get mine without fear of refusal, without having to produce a family tree as evidence and without having to wait very long for it to arrive.

I don’t describe the opposite situation as “unlucky”, however. It isn’t bad luck if survivors of the Stolen Generations and their descendants cannot find the missing pieces in their family history. It isn’t bad luck when dislocated and disconnected Aboriginal people have difficulties being recognised by an incorporated Indigenous organisation on their country. The process itself can be personally stressful: collating family history evidence can be difficult and emotionally distressing; there is a fear of community rejection; and a fear that your potential employers may be thinking that you’re “faking it” while you’re waiting for the confirmation document to arrive.

Luck actually has nothing to do with it at all. The ability to produce evidence of Aboriginal descent and community acceptance depends on something out of your control: it comes down to how your family was colonised and the degree they have been affected by colonial legacy.

In order to get my confirmation letter, I filled in two statutory declarations: one asserting that I self-identified as Aboriginal; a second asserting my community connections. I sent both to an Aboriginal incorporated organisation in my Nyikina community in the Kimberley. The organisation accepted both declarations and an email containing my confirmation letter was sent through to the university to go in my human resources file. This satisfied the three-part “test” of self-identification, biological descent and community recognition.

The three-part test for Aboriginality is an “all or nothing” test. The inability for some Indigenous Australian’s to fulfil all three parts of this “test” demonstrates the effects of colonisation.

I teach Indigenous studies and Indigenous policy. In class we discuss how colonisation is the root cause for so many Indigenous issues today. I take my students through the history of Australian legislative control over Indigenous lives. If you know your Indigenous policy, then you can see how my confirmation letter for the university can be viewed in similar ways to the old certificates of exemption that existed during Australia’s official White Australia policy era.

Am I making too much out of this? Let’s look at two contentious cases of non-Indigenous identified positions offered within Australian universities that made headlines in 2016.

In May, the University of Melbourne’s mathematics school advertised a women-only position. What would be the three-part “test” to prove that you were a woman? Self-identification, proof of biologically female anatomy, acceptance by a community of biological women? Presumably the confirmation letter could only be authorised by a biologically female doctor (on a registered list held by the government).

In October we learned of a male Liberal party staffer who “pretended to be a woman” to win a student representative council position. A personal statutory declaration was enough for Alex Fitton’s assumed identity as a non-cisgender male to be accepted by the council’s electoral officer. Biological (and/or psychological) proof wasn’t required. It didn’t even seem to matter to the SRC when a senior voice from the Liberal party community rejected Fitton’s identity claim.

If this type of rejection came from a senior member of an Aboriginal community in the context of somebody falsely claiming Aboriginal identity for financial gain there would rightly be a public outcry. But when it comes to confirmation of Aboriginal identity, our integrity is not trusted. We know who we are, but our integrity is only established by providing similar institutions with hard documentary evidence. This is how the criteria for proving Aboriginality in Australia is couched in historical and continuing colonial legislation, and how it can be discriminatory towards Indigenous people.

As Australian universities set themselves to dramatically improve the number of First Nations students via their new Universities Australia Indigenous Strategy 2017-2020, hopefully the current regulatory “test” for establishing the Aboriginality of future students and staff can be transformed to more appropriately include the experiential diversity of who is and what counts as being Aboriginal.

This story was first published on 23 March 2017 by Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX. Produced with assistance of IndigenousX & Guardian Australia staff.

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