I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I recently watched on TV a discussion about the concept of aboriginality. What is it and who should have the right to claim it?

When the whites came to Australia and claimed it for themselves, they almost completely destroyed Aboriginal culture and heritage. They did it in many ways, some of which were blatant and some more subtle. They did it by making a sport out of shooting Aborigines. They did it by taking away from their families those who had a white parent (thereby creating what is known as The Lost Generation). They did it by banning the use of Aboriginal languages and ceremonies. They did it by forcing Aborigines to abandon their traditional way of life. They did it by spreading diseases and alcohol. They did it by mocking and ridiculing black people.

Today, many descendants of the first Australians live in appalling conditions. On average, they live shorter lives than non-Aboriginal Australians. Their unemployment rate is shocking. And they end up and die in jail all too often.

It is not possible to erase what has already happened, but it is our collective obligation to provide to the Aborigines a better than fair chance to progress. I said “better than fair” because, after centuries of neglect and marginalisation, they need all the help they can get. Not as an act of charity, but as an act of justice and hope. They need help in finding ways of helping themselves.

We have in Australia a kind of affirmative action for Aborigines and Torres-Strait Islanders (Torres Strait is between Australia and Papua New Guinea). For example, all applications forms to apply for jobs with any level of Australian government (local, state, or federal) include a box to tick if you can claim to descend from original Australians.

If you are recognised as an Aborigine, you have access to funding and grants that are unavailable to other Australians. This makes some Australians unhappy, but I fully support it. It is in my opinion a must.

That said, the fact that benefits are associated with being recognised as a person of Aboriginal descent clouds the issue of Aboriginality. Inevitably, some claim to be Aborigines to take advantage of the benefits, although they are not. Because of the benefits, the question of whether somebody is an Aborigine ceases to be purely a matter of identity, heritage, and culture.

Who decides whether you are an Aborigine? There are Aboriginal Councils and other organisations that can issue certificates of Aboriginality, but on which basis?

If somebody has the colour and the somatic traits of an Aborigine, speaks an Aboriginal language, and is known by the elders of the clan to which he belongs, there cannot be any doubts about his aboriginality.

Similarly, if one looks white and cannot prove to have any Aboriginal ancestry, there is a good chance that he is not an Aborigine.

But most cases are not so “black and white” (pun intended!)

Some people only have an Aboriginal grandparent and look completely white, even with blue eyes and blond hair. And yet, having grown up in a family that was known in their neighbourhood to be Aboriginal, they consider themselves Aborigines.

Others were taken away from their Aboriginal mother and forcibly adopted by a white couple when they were babies. They might look dark enough (whatever that means), but have sometimes no idea where they were born, and might only know something of what it means being an Aborigine from what they have learned as adults.

As far as I know, in the USA, belonging to a tribe of Indian Americans is determined on the basis of a DNA test. Having a heritage and belonging to a culture has not much to do with DNA, does it? Is then a DNA test what is needed? If not, would it be fair to exclude people who know nothing about Aboriginal culture only because they were forcibly removed from their families?

I believe that we should define clear and measurable criteria and require that at least one of them is satisfied. Obviously, together with the desire of being recognised as an Aborigine, because the last thing we want is to force people into drawers. The first possible criteria that come to mind are:
  1. Traceability of ancestry to an Aboriginal person.
  2. Presence of any Aboriginal DNA detected with a set probability, similarly to what is done in court to determine paternity.
  3. Being recognised as a member by an Aboriginal clan.
Satisfying any one of them should suffice. I certainly left out something, but the point I want to make here is that the decision cannot be left to subjective opinion of people who have no association with the person who’s applying to be recognised. The applicant shouldn’t feel that his Aboriginality is arbitrarily questioned.

Like every law and regulation, also what I propose would be subject to abuse. For example, a single corrupt elder of a recognised Clan (there can be crooks anywhere) could be bribed into signing illegitimate certificates of Aboriginality. And any analysis, including aDNA test, can be faked.

But a clear set of rules would at least be verifiable. I’m convinced that the number of abuses would be reduced.

All this says nothing about who should get support in preference to others, because “greater need” is a fishy concept. But (just for the pleasure of throwing in a cliché) Rome wasn’t built in a day...

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