Aboriginal Australian identity

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Aboriginal Australian identity, sometimes known as Aboriginality, is the perception of oneself as Aboriginal Australian, or the recognition by others of that identity. Aboriginal Australians are one of two Indigenous Australian groups of peoples, the other being Torres Strait Islanders.


A legal historian estimated in 1991 that at least 67 classifications, descriptions or definitions to determine who is an Aboriginal person had been used by governments since white settlement in Australia.[1]

18th – 19th centuries[edit]

20th century[edit]

1980s: Commonwealth Definition, rise and respect[edit]

In 1978, the Cabinet of the Australian Government offered a three-part definition, based on descent, self-identification, and community acceptance. (For the purposes of the Australian Census, the last factor is excluded as impractical.)[2] A definition was proposed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the Report on a Review of the Administration of the Working Definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Canberra, 1981): "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 (she) lives". The 1981 Report added impetus to the definition, and it was soon adopted by all Government departments for determining eligibility to certain services and benefits. The definition was also adopted by the states, for example in the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983.[3] This definition has become known as the "Commonwealth Definition".[2]

Between 1981 and 1986, a rise of 42 percent identifying as Aboriginal occurred across Australian census areas. The rise roughly amount to "68,000 new claims of Aboriginal identity".[4] Anthropologist Ian Keen has suggested that the scale of varieties of Australian Aboriginal languages "plays an important role in questions of Aboriginal identity".[5]

In 1988, as part of bicentennial celebrations, Prime Minister Bob Hawke was presented with a statement of Aboriginal political objectives by Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Wenten Rubuntja, in what became known as The Barunga Statement. Among many requests, the Statement called for the Australian government to facilitate "respect for and promotion of our Aboriginal identity, including the cultural, linguistic, religious and historical aspects, and including the right to be educated in our own languages and in our own culture and history".[6]

1990s: legal challenges[edit]

The Commonwealth Definition continued to be used administratively and legislatively, notably in the Mabo case, which in 1992 recognised native title in Australia for the first time. However, debate about the definition became heated, particularly in Tasmania, over whether the emphasis should be on identification by self and/or community or by descent. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) emphasised evidence of descent, and started refusing services to people who had previously been identified as Aboriginal. A report commissioned by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) found that people seeking to identify as Aboriginal should satisfy all three criteria, and should provide documentary evidence to show a direct line of ancestry through a family name linking them to traditional Aboriginal society at the time of colonisation of Tasmania. Debate over the issue was also included in three Federal Court judgements, with varying interpretations.[3]

After 1999 ATSIC election, questions were raised about the Aboriginality of many of the 824 voters and some of those who were elected. Debate continued until November 2002, with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), which referred the question to the Federal Court. AAT found that

It is probable that there are in the wider Tasmanian community persons who have a degree of Aboriginal descent although there are no public records which support their claim. 2. Self identification and community recognition of applicants as Aborigines, particularly where there is evidence of a family history or tradition of Aboriginal descent passed on orally, can provide evidence of Aboriginal descent.

TAC complained that now more than a third of the 30 candidates standing in the election were "white", and called for a boycott.[3]

Factors in the development of Aboriginal identity[edit]

Recognition of Aboriginal land rights in Australia is said to have played a decisive role in its development, as "lands rights has demanded that both Aborigines and white develop and articulate definitions of a unique Aboriginal identity."[7] Academic Gordon Briscoe has also proposed that, among many other factors,[8] Indigenous health in Australia has historically shaped this identity, particularly in relation to British settlement of Australia.[9]

Aboriginal music has been positively utilised in public performances to non-participating audiences to further enhance public recognition in, and the development of, Aboriginal identity within modern Australia.[10] Historian Rebe Taylor, who specializes in Australian Indigenous peoples and European settlement, has been critical of negative associations of Aboriginal identity, such as with the Australian welfare system.[11]

Early 21st century[edit]

Growth in census figures[edit]

The numbers of Indigenous-identifying people have grown since 1986 at a rate far exceeding that of the whole population and what would be expected from natural increase.[3][12][13][14] This rise has been attributed to various factors, including increased preparedness to identify as Indigenous and by the propensity for children of mixed partnerships to identify as Indigenous. One possible confounding factor is that the census question allows a person to acknowledge both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origins but does not allow a person to acknowledge both Indigenous and non-Indigenous origins – perhaps leading to the expectation that people of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal origin will identify as Aboriginal.[3]

In urban Australia there is a high proportion of such mixed partnerships (incidentally, much higher than black/white partnerships in the United States). By 2002, it appeared that there was likely to be a narrowing of the gap between the socioeconomic indicators of the two groups, particularly in urban areas, leading to government policy possibly moving away from Indigenous-specific services or benefits in these areas.[3]

Sustaining identity[edit]

Observing particular aspects of Aboriginal culture and spiritual beliefs help to maintain continuity and cohesiveness within a community. Ceremonies can play a large role in passing down Dreaming lore, customs connection to country, and laws of the group.[15]

Contemporary discourse[edit]

In 2014, an Indigenous research fellow at the Australian Research Council proposed how further "understanding the true nature of Aboriginal identity gives us an opportunity to begin to make decisions on who has the right to claim Aboriginality."[16] Writing in the The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016, Ben Wyatt called on all Australian citizens to recognize the "ancient identity and story of Aboriginal Australians", and that it was "this identity, this story, which still remains to be embraced, captured and adopted by all Australians".[17] Later that year, Will Hodgman announced a relaxation to rules regarding the identity of Aboriginal Tasmanians. Causing some backlash in the Aboriginal community, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (reconstructionists of the Palawa kani language) protested that the Premier of Tasmania's proposals would mean that residents need only "'tick a box' if they wanted to claim Aboriginality" and that "the community would be 'swamped with white people'".[18]

In March 2019, Mark Latham announced the One Nation party's plans to introduce reforms to "tighten the eligibility rules for Aboriginal identity" in Australia, which would "require DNA evidence of at least 25 per cent Indigenous - the equivalent of one fully Aboriginal grandparent."[19]

Aboriginal identity can become a controversial element in Australian politics. In May 2019, The Guardian revealed how Liberal Party candidate Jacinta Price, daughter of Aboriginal activist Bess Price, had received criticism for incorrectly calling into question a constituent's Aboriginal identity, referring to him as a white Australian.[20] In June 2019, government minister Ben Wyatt, who had admitted struggling with his own Aboriginal identity as a teenager, praised NAIDOC Week for its "strong celebration of Aboriginal identity and culture".[21]

Later in the year, an ABC News "Indigenous" piece reviewed Anita Heiss's Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, which reported how the book was helping to counter the "racist myth of a singular Aboriginal identity".[22] Similarly, ABC Innovation's Little Yarns podcast aims to "celebrate the diversity of Indigenous cultures and languages", dispelling misconceptions regarding a "homogenous Aboriginal identity".[23]


There are subsets to Aboriginal identity in Australia. Regional versions relating to a specific Aboriginal sub-culture or sub-ethnic group include a large number of groupings, based on language, culture, traditional lands, demonym or other features, but there is also a broader "pan-Aboriginal self-identification".[24][25]

Factors affecting self-identification[edit]

Aboriginal identity contains interconnecting parts, some or all of which may constitute an individual's self-identification:

  1. Aboriginal peoplehood,[26] one of the two Indigenous Australian ethnic identities.
  2. Aboriginal religion,[27] the observance or recognition of the Aboriginal belief system.
  3. Aboriginal culture, celebration of the religio-cultural worldview and customs of dreamtime.


  1. ^ "36. Kinship and Identity: Legal definitions of Aboriginality". Essentially Yours: The Protection of Human Genetic Information in Australia. ALRC Report 96. Southwood Press for Australian Government. Australian Law Reform Commission. 28 July 2010. pp. 911–932. ISBN 0-9750600-0-7. Retrieved 12 January 2020. Originally published May 2003, see Essentially Yours: The Protection of Human Genetic Information in Australia (ALRC Report 96).
  2. ^ a b "1200.0.55.008 - Indigenous Status Standard , 2014, Version 1.5". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 8 October 2014. Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Gardiner-Garden, John (3 February 2002). "Defining Aboriginality in Australia (Current Issues Brief Index 2002-03". Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  4. ^ Matthew Hoddie (2006). Ethnic Realignments: A Comparative Study of Government Influences on Identity. Lexington Books. p. 37. ISBN 978-0739113264.
  5. ^ Diana Eades (2006). Aboriginal Ways of Using English. Aboriginal Studies Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-1922059260.
  6. ^ Melanie Whelan (16 September 2019). "Why this treaty step is important for indigenous people in our region". The Courier.
  7. ^ Jeremy R. Beckett, ed. (1988). Past and Present: The Construction of Aboriginality. Aboriginal Studies Press. ISBN 978-0855751906. Distinguishing a unique Aboriginal identity (and concomitantly a unique interest in the land) has been a crucial step in validating Aboriginal claims for lands rights.
  8. ^ Gordon Briscoe (1993). Aboriginal Australian Identity: the historiography of relations between indigenous ethinic groups and other Australians, 1788 to 1988 (Volume 36, Issue 1, Autumn ed.). History Workshop Journal. pp. 133–161.
  9. ^ Gordon Briscoe (2003). Counting, Health and Identity: A History of Aboriginal Health and Demography in Western Australia and Queensland 1900-1940. Aboriginal Studies Press. ISBN 978-0855754471. Its theme has been the part that disease has played in shaping Aboriginal identity and in influencing the interaction between the Aborigines and the various members of the settler community
  10. ^ Gwenda Beed Davey; Graham Seal, eds. (1993). The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore. Oxford University Press. p. 134. ISBN 978-0195530575. However, in the continuing struggle to establish an Aboriginal Australian identity in the late twentieth century, some Aboriginal groups are arranging performances of their music for display to non-participating audiences.
  11. ^ Rebe Taylor (2004). Unearthed: The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island. Wakefield Press. p. 326. ISBN 978-1862545526. The history and perception of Aborigines' dependency on government support is so entrenched that the notion of a modern Aboriginal identity is seen by its relationship with the welfare state, by its 'parasitical' nature.
  12. ^ Hughes, Helen (November 2008). "Who are Indigenous Australians?". Quadrant.
  13. ^ "2071.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016: Religion in Australia, 2016". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 28 June 2017. Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  14. ^ "Aboriginal or not: More Australians than ever are identifying as Indigenous". Special Broadcasting Service. 7 August 2012. Archived from the original on 1 July 2014.
  15. ^ Aboriginal Ceremonies (PDF) (Report). Resource: Indigenous Perspectives: Res008. Queensland Government and Queensland Studies Authority. February 2008. Retrieved 17 January 2020.
  16. ^ Victoria Grieves (18 September 2014). "Culture, not colour, is the heart of Aboriginal identity". SBS World News.
  17. ^ Ben Wyatt (4 January 2016). "'It's time for Aboriginal identity and story to be embraced by all Australians'". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  18. ^ Linda Hunt (30 June 2016). "Tasmania changing rules for people claiming Aboriginal identity". ABC News.
  19. ^ Ester Han (11 March 2019). "'Everybody hates a welfare rorter': Latham spruiks DNA testing plan for Aboriginal people". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  20. ^ Lorena Allam (10 May 2019). "Liberals' Jacinta Price accused of hypocrisy after racial and anti-Islamic posts". The Guardian.
  21. ^ Vanessa Mills (27 June 2019). "Minister Wyatt "stunned and shocked"". ABC News.
  22. ^ Daniel Browning (12 July 2019). "Recommendations of what to watch, read and listen to this NAIDOC Week". ABC News.
  23. ^ Peter Wells (18 July 2019). "Little Yarns: Podcast wakes up our 'sleeping languages'". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  24. ^ Jocelyn Linnekin; Lin Poyer, eds. (1988). Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific. University of Hawaii Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-0824812089.
  25. ^ Jocelyn Linnekin (2003). Building Identity: Access and Affect in the Capitol Center. University of California Press. p. 26. At the same time that the federal government began to focus on the design and construction of a new permanent Parliament House, indigenous Australians were actively forming a pan-aboriginal Australian identity.
  26. ^ Manfred Berg; Simon Wendt, eds. (2011). Racism in the Modern World: Historical Perspectives on Cultural Transfer and Adaptation. Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-0857450760. And like Pearson, he wants to reconcile the persistence of Aboriginal peoplehood with a diversity of identities, and thereby relinquish romantic notions of singular Indigenous selfhood.
  27. ^ Hans Mol (1982). The Firm and the Formless: Religion and Identity in Aboriginal Australia. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 978-1554585564.

Further reading[edit]