Should We Define An Indigenous Person?

CommentaryThe latest Australian census revealed that about five percent of our population (roughly 800,000) now identify as Aboriginal. This coincides with the ever-heightening profile of Indigenous affairs in public life and particularly in the mainstream media. At first sight, it suggests a burgeoning Indigenous culture is emerging within Australian society. This is accompanied by increasingly strenuous demands from activists at different points of the political spectrum, for things like an indigenous voice to parliament, and recognising the country’s debt to the original owners of the land. Generations ago, some Australians were so ashamed of Indigenous ancestry in their families that they tried to conceal it; now to be able to claim such a heritage is seen as desirable and in some cases comes with a perceived social advantage. This transition from shame to pride is a good thing for our country. Human beings have always had a tendency to boast about the achievements of their ancestors and it is perfectly right and reasonable to appreciate and honour the virtues of those who went before us and made us what we are today. But is that what is happening? The righting of wrongs, restoration of lost or stolen entitlements, dispensing of justice to all people without prejudice based on colour, class, religion or orientation—all these things are noble goals worth striving for. But in order to achieve these goals we need to have complete clarity of definition. At present, the question “What defines an Indigenous person?” is not being addressed. How Do We Define Race? Much of the language of the past once used to define race is now considered not only inadequate but highly offensive. Terms like “full blood,” “half-caste,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” (the latter so rare as to be generally unknown), are today both unacceptable and objectionable. Likewise, categorisation on the basis of physical traits such as skin colour is absurdly inadequate. But can we abandon every attempt at the definition and rely simply on some kind of self-identification test? Is that an adequate basis on which to determine the just distribution of public monies and social services? An Aboriginal flag is seen in Bondi Beach during Australia Day celebrations, in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2022. (AAP Image/Jeremy Ng) The problem is superficially simple but finding a solution is fraught with challenges, especially at a time when questioning anyone’s identity is likely to attract a charge of hate speech. In many parts of Australia, including the Torres Strait Islands, there are ethnically homogeneous Indigenous groups that fully retain their traditional language and culture. In other regions, for example, Victoria, most of New South Wales, and Tasmania, the traditional tribal structures have sadly long been extinct. Yet after decades of intermarriage, a strong and proud sense of primary belonging to the Aboriginal community endures to this day. But it has to be admitted that some individuals’ claims to be Aboriginal are questionable, and there has been increasing disquiet among Aboriginal elders about false or at least suspect claims motivated apparently by a wish to take advantage of available benefits. False claims are embarrassing to the genuine Aboriginal community, obviously, because they can do reputational damage by compromising its integrity. Every Case Is Different Consider a hypothetical case. “Jane” has an Aboriginal grandmother, but her other three grandparents are of Irish and Scots descent. She identifies with her grandmother’s people because they were particularly close; from her Aboriginal grandmother, she learned about the customs and the language of her people, inherited a great sorrow for the losses they sustained, and even an active resentment towards the Europeans who displaced them. By contrast, her other three grandparents were relatively remote and disinterested in her. It is completely understandable that Jane values her Aboriginality above all else. Other members of the Aboriginal community have accepted and welcomed her as belonging to themselves. She has European DNA, but it is irrelevant to her self-image, her social setting, and her mental disposition. No reasonable person would contest Jane’s narrative. But other cases are less clear. An Aboriginal man participates in a smoking ceremony for members of the public before the start of the Super Netball Round 13 match between the NSW Swifts and the West Coast Fever at Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney, Australia, on June 5, 2022. (AAP Image/David Gray) In the case of a person with a more tenuous and distant claim, who had no real connection to the present-day Indigenous community or to the culture, we might reasonably ask why he or she would identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander rather than, say, Irish, Scots, or English. We might also consider if the motive, just occasionally, is connected with gaining advantages financially, socia

Should We Define An Indigenous Person?

Commentary

The latest Australian census revealed that about five percent of our population (roughly 800,000) now identify as Aboriginal. This coincides with the ever-heightening profile of Indigenous affairs in public life and particularly in the mainstream media.

At first sight, it suggests a burgeoning Indigenous culture is emerging within Australian society.

This is accompanied by increasingly strenuous demands from activists at different points of the political spectrum, for things like an indigenous voice to parliament, and recognising the country’s debt to the original owners of the land.

Generations ago, some Australians were so ashamed of Indigenous ancestry in their families that they tried to conceal it; now to be able to claim such a heritage is seen as desirable and in some cases comes with a perceived social advantage.

This transition from shame to pride is a good thing for our country.

Human beings have always had a tendency to boast about the achievements of their ancestors and it is perfectly right and reasonable to appreciate and honour the virtues of those who went before us and made us what we are today.

But is that what is happening?

The righting of wrongs, restoration of lost or stolen entitlements, dispensing of justice to all people without prejudice based on colour, class, religion or orientation—all these things are noble goals worth striving for.

But in order to achieve these goals we need to have complete clarity of definition. At present, the question “What defines an Indigenous person?” is not being addressed.

How Do We Define Race?

Much of the language of the past once used to define race is now considered not only inadequate but highly offensive. Terms like “full blood,” “half-caste,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” (the latter so rare as to be generally unknown), are today both unacceptable and objectionable.

Likewise, categorisation on the basis of physical traits such as skin colour is absurdly inadequate.

But can we abandon every attempt at the definition and rely simply on some kind of self-identification test? Is that an adequate basis on which to determine the just distribution of public monies and social services?

Epoch Times Photo
An Aboriginal flag is seen in Bondi Beach during Australia Day celebrations, in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2022. (AAP Image/Jeremy Ng)

The problem is superficially simple but finding a solution is fraught with challenges, especially at a time when questioning anyone’s identity is likely to attract a charge of hate speech.

In many parts of Australia, including the Torres Strait Islands, there are ethnically homogeneous Indigenous groups that fully retain their traditional language and culture.

In other regions, for example, Victoria, most of New South Wales, and Tasmania, the traditional tribal structures have sadly long been extinct. Yet after decades of intermarriage, a strong and proud sense of primary belonging to the Aboriginal community endures to this day.

But it has to be admitted that some individuals’ claims to be Aboriginal are questionable, and there has been increasing disquiet among Aboriginal elders about false or at least suspect claims motivated apparently by a wish to take advantage of available benefits.

False claims are embarrassing to the genuine Aboriginal community, obviously, because they can do reputational damage by compromising its integrity.

Every Case Is Different

Consider a hypothetical case.

“Jane” has an Aboriginal grandmother, but her other three grandparents are of Irish and Scots descent. She identifies with her grandmother’s people because they were particularly close; from her Aboriginal grandmother, she learned about the customs and the language of her people, inherited a great sorrow for the losses they sustained, and even an active resentment towards the Europeans who displaced them.

By contrast, her other three grandparents were relatively remote and disinterested in her.

It is completely understandable that Jane values her Aboriginality above all else. Other members of the Aboriginal community have accepted and welcomed her as belonging to themselves. She has European DNA, but it is irrelevant to her self-image, her social setting, and her mental disposition.

No reasonable person would contest Jane’s narrative. But other cases are less clear.

Epoch Times Photo
An Aboriginal man participates in a smoking ceremony for members of the public before the start of the Super Netball Round 13 match between the NSW Swifts and the West Coast Fever at Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney, Australia, on June 5, 2022. (AAP Image/David Gray)

In the case of a person with a more tenuous and distant claim, who had no real connection to the present-day Indigenous community or to the culture, we might reasonably ask why he or she would identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander rather than, say, Irish, Scots, or English.

We might also consider if the motive, just occasionally, is connected with gaining advantages financially, socially, or otherwise?

Patching An Emerging Divide

However, anybody who asks too many questions about this issue faces hostility.

But the questions have to be asked because the alternative is to allow the nation to slip into a new kind of apartheid, racial divisiveness, a morass of seething resentment—on both sides of a false barrier between the progeny of the conquerors and the conquered.

To deny that conquest took place is absurd; to maintain the rage and make endless demands for apology and retribution decades and even centuries afterwards is worse than pointless and likely to fester and poison the spirit of the nation.

The only way out of this is to remove the distinctions of the race absolutely.

We should refuse to allow “race” as a criterion for determining public policy. In a healthy emerging nation, no benefits ought to be available to anybody, ever, except solely on the basis of need.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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David Daintree is director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies in Tasmania, Australia. He has a background in Classics and teaches Late and Medieval Latin. Daintree was a visiting professor at the universities of Siena and Venice, and a visiting scholar at the University of Manitoba. He served as President of Campion College from 2008 to 2012. In 2017, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.