Debunking: No definition of Indigenous

11 Jul 2019

Spoiler alert: There is a definition of Indigenous, and Pauline Hanson is not it.

Spoiler alert:
There is a definition of Indigenous…

Pauline Hanson has become fond of telling everyone that there is no definition of the word Indigenous, and then offering her own definition of Indigenous by stating that she is Indigenous to Australia because she was born here.

So, according to Pauline’s definition then sheep and cows or even a lion born at Dubbo zoo are all animals that are Indigenous to Australia.

Spoiler alert:

There is a definition of Indigenous and that’s not it.

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The word ‘indigenous’ (uncapitalized on purpose) as a word in the English language, has a pretty clear definition.

originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.

Internationally, Indigenous peoples have long fought for their rights as Indigenous people, most famously articulated through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

According to the UN,

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples  have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognises that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.”

In the Australian context, the word Indigenous (capitalised) refers specifically to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia.

Since the early 1980s, there has been a three part definition of who is or is not an Indigenous person which has been used as a working definition by most levels of government and institutions across Australia, this is that ‘An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he [or she] lives.’

This is usually established through a ‘Confirmation of Aboriginality’ document, which is a letter confirming that a person meets the above definition supplied by an Aboriginal Land Council or an Indigenous organisation registered with the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC).

It is by no means a perfect definition, but it is the current definition in use in Australia, and is a substantial improvement on the long and sordid history of legal definitions that have been used by various states and territories in the past. Indeed, according to the Australia Law Reform website, “the legal historian, John McCorquodale, has reported that since the time of white settlement, governments have used no less than 67 classifications, descriptions or definitions to determine who is an Aboriginal person”.

These past definitions tended to focus on descent, and often included ‘blood quantum’ classifiers which were used to decide if an individual would be included or excluded from the wide variety of discriminatory laws and practices rife throughout Australia’s history.

One very significant reason why the three-part definition is preferable to past definitions is that it comes from Indigenous people as opposed to externally created and enforced definitions imposed on Indigenous people.

Article 33-1 of the UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live”.

Simply put, it is a matter for Indigenous people to decide who is or is not Indigenous. That is why current Confirmation of Aboriginality documents must come from Indigenous controlled organisations.

Again, this system is not perfect and there are countless anecdotal stories of people who are Indigenous being unable to obtain documentation, and people who are not Indigenous being able to, but it is still a vast improvement on some non-Indigenous person looking at an Indigenous person and determining their ‘blood quantum’ based on their appearance and choosing which laws should or should not apply to an individual on that basis.

That is why external suggestions from random racists about DNA tests (which isn’t actually a thing) are so often rejected. White people should not have the right to determine who is or is not Indigenous in Australia.

The status of Indigenous people, and our relationship with the colony is what is at question here, not false and misleading claims about anyone who is born here is Indigenous, there is no definition of Indigenous, or it doesn’t matter who is or is not Indigenous because everyone should be the same.

Australia has never reconciled its history in relation to Indigenous peoples, beginning with invasion and terra nullius through to today.

This is not just in terms of addressing past injustices and atrocities or ‘closing the gap’, it is about establishing a new relationship within the colony that will not just impact on the next election cycle, but that may impact on the next century and beyond.

There are many things to discuss in the next three years before we go to a referendum, if we go there at all, and we need to focus those conversations on the many legitimate concerns that many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are going to have. We simply don’t have time to waste on bad faith arguments put forward by those individuals who are comfortable to wilfully misrepresent such basic and easy to research concepts as the definition of Indigenous in Australia.

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