“It’s not easy being Aboriginal, out there. It is not easy”
(Kickett 1999, p. 74)
As I recently sat at the airport waiting for my plane, I picked up a copy of The Australian to pass the time. On the front page was the headline ‘Push for Aboriginal ID tests by indigenous leaders’. It was no surprise to see such a sensationalised introduction to the issue of Aboriginal identity. Such headlines have become commonplace in recent years. Today, another headline, and again in The Australian, ‘Land council slams Aboriginality rorts’. All too often the process of obtaining proof of Aboriginality is framed by much mainstream media as an easy task. This is usually set against the sub-text that there are masses of people fraudulently claiming to be Aboriginal for all the perceived ‘benefits’. I have been doing several radio interviews of late and I have frequently been asked about the stories in The Australian. While I am not familiar with these ‘new’ iteration of mainstream media’s interpretation of this issue, I do claim some knowledge of this topic, having written about the Confirmation of Aboriginality in my new book.
The Confirmation of Aboriginality is a piece of documentary evidence. It is a form used by many of our organisations and most government departments and it states clearly that making a false declaration is a criminal offence. So on the rare occasion someone does make a false claim to Aboriginal identity, our organisations have a legal framework to deal with it. I worked for many years for our local Aboriginal Medical Service and while we did not provide confirmation documents to clients, it is the case that many of our organisations have been tasked with an extremely difficult job in determining and confirming Aboriginal identity. The establishment of community-controlled organisations in Australia is an outcome of a Federal government initiative in the 1970s, ostensibly to develop autonomy within and across all Aboriginal organisations and to establish community-based protocols and procedures. Any government agency, employer, service provider which requires proof of Aboriginal identity to allocate a service can accept a Confirmation of Aboriginality document from an individual. Usually the documentation must be verified by an Aboriginal organisation that has been formally incorporated under State or Territory legislation.
The Confirmation of Aboriginality is accepted as a pseudo-legal document by institutions and their officers. The few services or programs available exclusively to Aboriginal people meet the required exemptions to the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination ACT (1975) to positively discriminate in favour of Aboriginal people (despite over two centuries of negative discrimination). Although requirements may vary, they are usually satisfied with a signed statutory declaration from the applicant affirming the provision of factual information. The information required must verify Aboriginal descent, self-identification, and community recognition. This three pronged requirement constitutes the legal definition of Aboriginal identity in Australia. There are various ways of providing this documentation. The presentation of evidence is subject to the relative ease or difficulty of establishing lineage and the ability to have this recognised and / or sanctioned by Aboriginal people. Where community recognition is well established it is relatively easy to achieve an official sign-off in the formal process. In other cases, where individuals have to appeal to the organisation for community recognition due to a lack of required documentation, it is not an easy task.
Like any regulatory process, the Confirmation of Aboriginality document has both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, it supports the distribution of resources and the development of targeted programs for Aboriginal people. It can also act as a deterrent for fraudulent identity claims, and can assure that designated benefits are distributed accordingly and appropriately to Aboriginal recipients. On the other hand, Aboriginal people who cannot provide documented proof of Aboriginality may be refused access to a range of services, including the fundamental needs of health, housing, and legal aid to which they may be legitimately entitled. An official refusal by an Aboriginal community organisation to confirm Aboriginal identity can have real, long-term material and social effects on those seeking verification of their cultural identity. Indeed, a formal refusal can be detrimental to mental and physical health, to social relations, and can cause inter-generational effects on families. What of the Stolen Generations who may for various valid historical reasons be unable to provide evidence such as legal documents or confirmed genealogy? And what of those individuals and families whose ancestors hid their identities as a survival strategy in the onslaught of colonial violence? And what of those who, due to enforced relocation, have no access to any form of identifying documentation? Being denied Confirmation of Aboriginality in these not uncommon instances, all brutal effects of colonial domination, can set in motion an extremely painful process that is arguably counter-productive to the very notion of a requirement for confirmation of identity.
The case of Aboriginal man Dallas Scott exemplifies these complexities. The Weekend Australian Magazine (March 24-25, 2012) published an article entitled, ‘Not so Black and White’ which relayed the experience of Dallas Scott’s application for a Confirmation of Aboriginality certificate and the subsequent denial of his request. Scott stated he has identified as Aboriginal all his life but claimed that when he wanted to access a service specifically designated for Aboriginal people, he was asked to provide proof of his identity. Scott was shocked by the rejection of his application for a Confirmation of Aboriginality document claiming, “every time I walk out the door I’m Aboriginal, and suddenly I’m not”. Of course in this case, yet again, the media reporting was sensationalised and intentionally divisive in the way it framed Aboriginal identity as an issue of skin colour, (similarly to the infamous Andrew Bolt rantings). However, my own research and lived experience indicates that Scott’s experience is far from uncommon.
The Confirmation of Aboriginality is a topic of some interest, both for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Clearly it is of interest to mainstream Australian media. It seems that much media coverage of this topic alludes to the proposition (again, like Bolt’s public claims) that Aboriginal people identify as Aboriginal for the sole reason of claiming ‘benefits, most of which do not exist. I discuss the Confirmation of Aboriginality in some detail in my book. The following is an extract that sums up some of the problems and questions that continue to accrue around the issue of Confirmation of Aboriginality:
In all this busy-ness and surveillance about who counts as Aboriginal today, we witness also the inculcation of our younger generations into a divisive politics that will surely guarantee many more years of squabbling over the morsels the governments keep throwing at our feet as we tear ourselves apart for a share, rather than return our younger generations to our former political agenda of addressing the legacy of dispossession and disenfranchisement of all Indigenous peoples in Australia.
I suggest there is room for Aboriginal people to reflect on and examine our own practices and our compliance with a de facto government regime that insists on applying definitional criteria for access to government resources as the complete ‘truth’ of what it also means to be Aboriginal in all aspects of our daily lives. There is also room for reflecting on and extending our analysis of the discursive constraints that shape the possibilities and the limits of what it means to be Aboriginal. In what other ways can we express ourselves and conduct a community discourse that is open to all Aboriginal experiences? What can we achieve in our relations with the wider nation-state if we are not so pre-occupied in our own community with regulating and surveilling each other for a few crumbs thrown under the master’s table?
Bolt, A. 2009, ‘White is the new black’, Herald Sun, April 15th available at, http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/column_white_is_the_new_black
Kickett, M. 1999, in Oxenham, D., Cameron, J., Collard, K., Dudgeon, P., Garvey, D., Kickett, M., Kickett, T., Roberts, J. &Whiteway, J. 1999, A Dialogue on Indigenous identity: Warts ‘n’ all, Gunada Press, Perth, Western Australia.
Overington, 2012, ‘Not so Black and White’ Weekend Australian Magazine, March 24-25, pp. 14-18.
Bronwyn Carlson is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong. Her book The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today?, from which this article is adapted, is published by Aboriginal Studies Press.
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