The number of those ticking the box in the Census as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has risen more than 20 per cent since 2006.
But there is debate in some Aboriginal communities over who should be able to call themselves Aboriginal, whether your appearance or postcode should have anything to do with it, and whether the current certification system is working as well as it should be.
While Australians may personally identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, not everyone has a document to prove it. This becomes problematic when Indigenous-specific services (for things like housing and education) require people to provide a 'certificate of Aboriginality’. Some claim the system is flawed because of arbitrary criteria and internal politics.
Insight brings together a studio audience of diverse Aboriginal Australians from around the country for a rare and raw discussion on the concept of Aboriginal identity.
Senior Producer: Jodie Noyce
Associate Producers: Saber Baluch and Sarah Allely
The number of those ticking the box in the Census as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has risen more than 20 per cent since 2006.
ANTON ENUS: Dallas Scott, tell us what happened when you applied to have your Aboriginality confirmed?
DALLAS SCOTT: Well, to cut a long story short, I was denied. When I went in to ask about it, no-one had given me any response or anything why I was just rejected, until I went in the second time to actually have mu Aboriginality approved and that's when they finally sat me down and said they hadn't eyeballed me enough. That's what it comes down to, that one board can turn around and say, "Right, we are all the ones sitting on the board to say, yes – you’re an Aboriginal."
And I can walk into any shopping centre and have a security guard follow me around. As everyone knows, it’s just one of those things where, when I tell my friends that 'Hey, I got knocked back from my Aboriginality", all my friends just laughed at me and said, 'No, you have got to be kidding me". So when I thought about that – I just thought this is absolutely ridiculous. And as I find out later on it was due to some personal issues that were going on. That's why I got mine knocked back - It was someone from the outside talked to someone on the inside in the co-op and I was stopped straight away.
ANTON ENUS: And so Dallas - how did it make you feel when you heard this news?
DALLAS SCOTT: I felt like it was a big joke, really. Seriously, I mean, living where I am right now, I am still in emergency accommodation, still waiting for a house, can't get any rental property. I have never used the Aboriginal purse, I have always gone off my own back, worked hard, done my own thing and then once I've come back to actually use one of these services, it's like getting spat in the face.
ANTON ENUS: You say it sounds like a bit of a joke and we can have a laugh about it that someone who looks like you can be knocked back. We have your uncle here, Wilfred Carter, what do you think when you hear that something like this happened to your nephew?
WILFRED CARTER: Well I think it's quite degrading really. You go in to organisations like this and people are hired - the white administration comes out in Aboriginal organisations - and they bring out these fellas and these are the people who are going to be saying 'prove your Aboriginality and prove who you who you are". These guys are fair skinned, why don't they prove who they are? Why do they ask a person like Dallas his aboriginality? Can't they see it? Are they blind? Why is it so?
ANTON ENUS: Let’s turn to Tarran now, your story is slightly different in that you and your brother both applied to get this confirmation but you got different outcomes. Tell us about that?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I was living in Canberra and I was only living in Canberra for about three years - I grew up in Western Sydney. And we went in there and I was handed the form to fill in and my brother, they just asked for his name and said they'd basically just give him the certificate straight away. So basically, on the spot was signed and given to him, but for me I went through that process of filling it in and came back declined.
ANTON ENUS: That sounds a bit bizarre. Did you think it was a bit strange?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I thought it was strange that my full blood brother that walked in with me at the same time could be accepted as aboriginal – same mother and father – I couldn’t be. The only basis I could base that on was the fact he has slightly more olive skin than I do.
ANTON ENUS: What happened then?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I honestly gave up for the next four or five years. I was sick of people questioning my Aboriginality because I had fair skin and needing to prove it constantly every day to people that I was Aboriginal because I had the fair skin.
ANTON ENUS: So eventually you did get the confirmation?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I did, I had some issues because I have never lived on my country, my father has never lived on country and my grandmother has never lived on country. So they moved quite early so I was in the situation that, even when I go back to where I grew up in Western Sydney, that they know my family, my grandmother and my father but don't know our family. Even when I went back here I had that issue but I did go to a corporation where I'm from who knows my family and was able to get that process that way but it was a difficult and long one.
ANTON ENUS: Corporation of course is one of the organisations that hands out these confirmations?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: Yeah.
ANTON ENUS: Land Council is another organisation. So once you got the confirmation, it then took another twist, because you then applied for a job? What can you tell us about that?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: It was back in 2010, so it was not that many years ago that I went for a job with Generation One. During that process, the lady that interviewed me said that she would have to get back to me regarding the job because what she had been told was that she needed to hire an Aboriginal person that looked Aboriginal. So I received a phone call the next day to inform me that I wasn't to get the job because they had cut their numbers. Not that I wasn't - because she went away to check about the colour issue - what had come back was they were cutting numbers – so that was a bit funny.
ANTON ENUS: Did it seem odd to you in the sense that you thought you did look Aboriginal?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: To be honest, I know I don't look Aboriginal. I look at myself and I see my mother completely - she's of Scottish heritage - I don't deny that at all so I understand when people see me face value that I don't look what they expect to see of an Aboriginal person. That in itself is an issue.
ANTON ENUS: I just want to mention that Warren Mundine is in the audience today who is the CEO of Generation One. It was outside of your tenure that this did happen and the company did apologise.
WARREN MUNDINE: On the same basis, it wasn't Generation One. We hired a company to do a service for us. That company then subcontracted to do a service for us. That company then made this horrible situation worse. So then the former CEO came out and apologised for that and it did give us an opportunity to raise the issue of the diversity of Aboriginal people.
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: At the same time though, I guess – as a corporation - if I'm hiring somebody, who is going to hire somebody, I need to take 100% responsibility for anything they may or may not say. As an Aboriginal company wanting to aim to increase Aboriginal employment, we should have been hiring PR companies that have Aboriginal focuses and not companies that have no idea about Aboriginality.
ANTON ENUS: What is your background, what is your Aboriginal ancestry?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: My dad is Aboriginal. He has an Aboriginal mother and a non-Aboriginal father. And my mum is not Aboriginal - so I have one Aboriginal grandparent.
ANTON ENUS: If I were to ask you to describe yourself, what would you say?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I'm an Aboriginal Australian. That's how I characterise myself because Australian, my mum's family has been out here right from white invasion.
ANTON ENUS: Dallas, what about you?
DALLAS SCOTT: My father who passed away just recently – Campbell Carter - he was the eldest son of Charlie Carter who was the man who got Land Titles handed back to the Aboriginal people. And my mother, she is from Wallaga Lake. That is my grandfather, so I come from a proud man like him. After hear looking the great stories that I've heard, I feel very proud of who my parents and grandparent were.
ANTON ENUS: Well another story is Brianna who was trying to get in to the Queensland Police. You've been sitting exams recently, I believe. In order to do that you wanted to get your Aboriginality confirmed. Tell us what happened in your case.
BRIANNA BILES: Well, what I’ve done is, I have applied through Queensland Police force and I've gone through the same entry as everybody else. And I've just sat that exam, waiting to hear back. But I do want to have that back-up as if I don't pass the exam, what everyone else has to do is they can't sit the exam for another 12 months, whereas I get the back-up of being able to apply for the Jep Program.
ANTON ENUS: What is the Jep Program?
BRIANNA BILES: It's for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They do an extra six months at the academy - brings them up to speed with everyone else basically, before they go in to the academy and do all their training.
ANTON ENUS: sitting right next to you is your father Leslie, what can you tell us about the process that Brianna has been through, trying to get this confirmation?
LESLIE BILES: We just approached our local Aboriginal Land Council and the same thing, you turn up and say, "I'd like to apply for it." They tell you that 'We don't know you." When you know your history, you know your tribal clan and you have other people saying, "We can't accept" or you get rejected.
ANTON ENUS: How long had you lived in the area?
LESLIE BILES: 24 years.
ANTON ENUS: A pretty long time.
LESLIE BILES: Yeah. My two girls were born in the Tweed Heads area. I can understand that they want to stop a lot of people claiming and using these services.
ANTON ENUS: Do you think Brianna needs that service or additional assistance - could she have just got through on her own merits?
LESLIE BILES: That's what she is doing, that is just there for a back-up. We just decided that we would go down and apply for that confirmation.
ANTON ENUS: Having had this experience, what's your opinion now of how the system works?
LESLIE BILES: well, I think there needs to be a better system in place. A lot of us here would feel like that you know your history and that, why do you have to really prove when you have to just look at me and tell I'm Aboriginal? Another young lady up the front, I can concur with her too. I have cousins that are fair skinned too - they're my mum's sister's auntie. Their son is white as, but they still have to go through that process also.
ANTON ENUS: Fay, you were knocked back, you and your siblings applied to the Redfern Council. What was your experience?
FAY RUTLAND: Absolutely disgusting. What went on in that meeting was horrifying. They called us liars, they abused us. I tried twice and they then voted, three sisters, my sister missed out by one vote. Me and my other sister, we just missed out altogether.
ANTON ENUS: At that point, did you identify as Aboriginal?
FAY RUTLAND: They didn't know me in the community. All my family and friends know me as an Aboriginal, always. But because I never grew up in that area at that time - my family have been in Waterloo for 120 years. My mother died two years ago - been there 90 years and we weren't good enough. The people have just come in and taken Waterloo/Redfern over – been there 20, 30 years - they don't want to know the people that were there. And the whole meeting - it was just horrific.
ANTON ENUS: What reason did they give you for knocking you back?
FAY RUTLAND: None of them knew us and all the paper work we had - could be all lies, the photographs can’t be yours.
ANTON ENUS: So, in an official sense, you were deemed not to be Aboriginal?
FAY RUTLAND: Yes.
ANTON ENUS: But in your heart, how do you feel?
FAY RUTLAND: I've always known. You only have to look at my mum - I've always known where we were. My beautiful mum denied it to her grave but she grew up in a bad time.
ANTON ENUS: Why would that have been? Why would she have denied it?
FAY RUTLAND: Well, she had a son. He was born dark and she gave him to her elder brother to rear because he was whiter than her, because they would have taken him from her. My grandfather said 'You have got to give him to your brother, because he is whiter. He will be able to keep him. You, they'll take him from you." So she gave him up.
ANTON ENUS: What do you know of your family history that traces the Aboriginality?
FAY RUTLAND: It's very hard to find out but we received a letter from the Aboriginal – I can’t think of it - it was in Canberra, and they stated that they are connecting my family to the Darik tribe. At that meeting in Redfern, one woman said she had never even heard of the Darik tribe.
ANTON ENUS: Well, we have the CEO of the Land Council that Fay applied to here with us, Paul Morris – good evening to you. Do you remember this case? What was the reason for knocking her back?
PAUL MORRIS, METROPOLITAN LOCAL ABORIGINAL LAND COUNCIL: It was a little bit before my time but it's very disappointing to hear about the treatment she got. To be considered for a member, to become a member, you have to be adult Aboriginal, reside in the local area and the other part is to be accepted in the community by an Aboriginal person.
ANTON ENUS: Was it just a judgment call? Do you need proof? How does it work?
PAUL MORRIS: Aboriginal people know each other down here in Sydney. Even though it is such a transient place, we have people coming from all over the countryside to live, work, go to school, go to university. A lot of the community that live around the place know each other and are connected to a lot of people all over the State so when someone comes here they'll know your family name or they can connect you to a family group they know. If people get knocked back or refused, we ask them to go back to their community where they're acknowledged and where they are recognised.
ANTON ENUS: But in this case there was a family living there for decades, it seems unusual that they would not be known in the community.
PAUL MORRIS: Being in Sydney, we come up against a lot because it's such a transient place and the membership changes so much sometimes.
ANTON ENUS: What do you think of that Fay?
FAY RUTLAND: A young girl came in after us, we were sitting there after we had been denied. She was from Darwin. She was there in Sydney for one week. She stood up, said that she was Aboriginal and they took her. Straight from Darwin - she had no paper work - Nothing.
ANTON ENUS: Is it a transparent process, Paul?
PAUL MORRIS: Well, I could only speak for Metro Land Council. It's one that seems to be working. It's not perfect and I don't think there is a process that is perfect.
MARK MCMILLAN: Acceptance by membership and the boards at Land Councils are a new thing and there's very prescribed things that board members have to do and acceptance and confirmation is not one of them. That's not passing the buck, but membership is for all of the members. It's horrifying to hear it goes to votes. I think explanation processes and saying where you're from is probably a much better way but I think drawing that connection so it's not just board members who are sitting in this considered judgment of other people.
PAUL MORRIS: There's a big reason for that. A lot of Aboriginal students are missing out on scholarships and a lot of Aboriginal people are missing out on jobs because there are people that do come in and say they're Aboriginal when they're not. This puts everyone in two minds about membership. That's up to that group of members to determine whether they accept this person in to that membership as a member. That's their role. There are other places they can go outside of the Land Council.
MARK MCMILLAN: It's self-determination but it’s an imposed system anyway. I sit on the board of my Land Council even though I don't live there and it’s one of the most difficult issues.
ANTON ENUS: How subjective then would the process be?
MARK MCMILLAN: I think if people take time - Subjective yes, in a way but that also underscores that there's actually complexities that Aboriginal people get involved with when they are trying to engage other Aboriginal people – where they are from, who 's your mob? It means something and if people spend the time engaging with those people, then I don't think it is a yes, no vote, here’s my paperwork. Talking face to face is the way we deal with it and it's not an inquisition, it's actually a conversation, so people actually feel comfortable that their history and their experiences, complicated as they are, are actually being listened to.
ANTON ENUS: The issues are fairly clear-cut but I assume you'd have to knock people back, does that happen very often?
MARK MCMILLAN: You also have to take it extremely seriously and the other thing I would say is, getting a confirmation is absolutely not a rejection of your Aboriginality. A confirmation does not make you Aboriginal. So I think we have to be very clear about those kinds of things. Dallas, you walk down the street, so certificate or not"¦..
PAT EATOCK: The issues we've been hearing so far have shown just how ridiculous it is to have a formal set of criteria that someone has to adhere to. Obviously, what we should be looking at is first why were those criteria established? What was the philosophy behind them? And we know those three criteria off the top of our heads, that’s ancestry, fair enough, self-recognition as an Aboriginal, self-determination, clear enough. But the third one was originally intended for the community in which you lived. It did not mean only Aboriginal communities or Aboriginal organisations. It meant that your neighbours knew that you were Aboriginal and if you were going to get some vague benefit out of declaring yourself Aboriginal, then you weren't doing it in a hidden secretive way but you were quite open and honest about your Aboriginality. And once you are public about your Aboriginality, there's no way you can ever reverse it.
ANTON ENUS: So Dallas, Mark says that a little piece of paper doesn't define whether you're Aboriginal or not but did you feel that it was a comment on your identity?
DALLAS SCOTT: Well, yeah. It was. I never used any of these services until my life went downhill real quick. That was due to things out of my control - my wife having depression, my son and my foster parents and my real brother passing away all in one year. I get hit with all this so I have to pick myself up, swallow my pride and go in to one of these places and then I've got all them people telling me that they'll tell me whether I'm Aboriginal or not.
ANTON ENUS: Mark, we haven’t heard your story yet, what's your Aboriginal ancestry?
MARK MCMILLAN: I’m Moragorie, my family for generations have been in Trangie and my great, great grandmother was born in the Lachlan Valley, my great grandmother was born on the banks of the Macquarie River the day the railway came to Dubbo, and then mum and nan were both born in Trangie and that is where I grew up, so"¦
ANTON ENUS: I saw you described once as blond, blue-eyed and fair skinned? Not so much blond anymore?
MARK MCMILLAN: I know.
ANTON ENUS: In spite of your appearance, have you always identified as Aboriginal?
MARK MCMILLAN: What I find interesting about this conversation as if you've got a choice about it. When you grow up in a small country town, we didn't have choice about identity - we were that Aboriginal family. There are a couple of other people who went through the Andrew Bolt litigation and that was probably the most offensive thing ever to happen in my life where somebody from the outside questions you, you know - I was raised by my mother and grandmother. My father was English and never featured in my life. So my experiences are just that.
ANTON ENUS: Tonight on Insight, we are talking about Aboriginal identity. Dallas, I've had a look at your blog, it is a pretty straight-talking, hard-hitting kind of forum. Tell us about it and why did you start it?
DALLAS SCOTT: Well, I was going through all of this getting rejected and I thought to myself, "Why not?" and it just snowballed from there.
ANTON ENUS: You're not shy about pointing the finger and saying 'You say that you're Aboriginal but you're really not" that is pretty daring stuff.
DALLAS SCOTT: If they want to identify as Aboriginal, that's great because the Aboriginal people are – we are open. When the people do say they're Aboriginal, stand up and be proud but don't put your hand in the till where the money goes. The money needs to be sorted out and going to the right people, there's kids out there that are still going hungry. But yet there's people going through universities who, sorry to say, they're white and still have little black kids running around without shoes on or they're still hungry. It's about time us black fellas said, "Right, the kids need the money." It should be more a 'needs based’ set up.
ANTON ENUS: Where do you draw the line between those that should qualify for assistance and those that should not?
DALLAS SCOTT: I'm mainly looking at if they need the money. They don't need the money going through university because I didn't - I didn't go to any university but I have had life experience.
WOMAN: Can I jump in here? I'm Aboriginal, I’m Moragorie. My grandfather was born in Brungle Mission an Aboriginal area. I grew up my whole life being Aboriginal and my colour is not anything about my Aboriginality. My colour is something that was imposed through colonization and I am Aboriginal. And the sort of mention of the fact that indigenous students going to university somehow don't need assistance is not right, because what we're doing is the same thing that was done to us - we're judging each other by colour. It's not right.
MAXINE CONATY: That's not the issue. We're the ones who get pointed at.
WOMAN: I'm saying we shouldn't be judging each other by colour, we judge each other by our Aboriginality and ancestry.
MAXINE CONATY: We as visually black people are discriminated against because we're black. I mean, I've had to forego that many jobs because of my skin, not because I’m Aboriginal but I’m black. I'm offensive to look at.
WOMAN: Yeah, but I get it too.
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I didn’t get my job because I didn’t look black so I understand that there is discrimination for those that look black.
MAXINE CONATY: But you don't understand what he said.
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I completely get it.
MAXINE CONATY: I have drove down the street at Redfern going to work in a car and being pulled up and my car searched. Have you ever had that done? Why haven't you had that done?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: And I can completely see that because I don’t look dark, people consider reverse racism but it is still racism. Just because I don't look black, doesn't mean I'm not Aboriginal and it doesn't mean that I have grown up that way and it doesn’t mean that I can't be proud of who I am just because I don't have skin colour makes me no different to any of you have colour. My family is my family and my community is my community, just because I’m white"¦.
ANTON ENUS: Let's get a comment from Bess Price.
BESS PRICE, CLP CANDIDATE FOR STUART NT: I just have one question, why don't you acknowledge the other heritage that you have and be proud of it? And just not go one way?
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: I agree.
BESS PRICE: I can stand up and say I'm a black fella and I’ve got one blood and that's it. But my daughter, whose father is sitting next to me, she acknowledges the father and the other heritage that she has - she doesn't just say she's a black fella. That has to happen here in Australia so we can all be honest and equal with each other and understanding because it creates the division. It creates a division. I didn't know you were black fella as well because I'm sitting here and you totally look like a white fella to me.
MARK MCMILLAN: That’s your view.
BESS PRICE: Excuse me, but sorry. We have to acknowledge that and say that for the sake of all the other people. Hang on, let me finish, let me finish, because out there, my people are on the ground - got nothing else.
WOMAN 2: All this is sounding an awful lot like the Darwinian stuff that came in when colonization happened where colour could be bred out with every single generation.
GRAHAM ATKINSON: Look, I think as the conversation is getting out of control here a bit and you have to ask yourself why Aboriginal people have to conform and comply to a definition of their being? Hang on, hang on. Look, it's something that's been imposed on Aboriginal people right from the time of European occupation and Mark hit it on the head before - people in powerful positions, such as shock jocks and people in media, they tend to have a field day trying to divide and rule Aboriginal people. That is, on the one hand, people that are what they regard as the real Aboriginal people and people on the other side of the coin that are not dark, not noticeably Aboriginal. This is what we've got to stop. We cannot afford to get sucked in to this fighting amongst ourselves.
ANTHONY DILLON, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY: Simple solution, let anyone identify any way they want. What I do question is how benefits are handed out? You can say, "I know in my heart I'm Aboriginal." etc etc. But when it comes to handing out benefits and services, it should be done on need.
WOMAN: Benefits are too small.
ANTHONY DILLON: Let me finish, please? People ask me this question all the time"¦."Why is it that some people who claim Aboriginality, they focus on 1/16th of their ancestry and forget the rest?" I am a part Aboriginal person. I'm part European, part Aboriginal, very proud of both ancestries. I have an Aboriginal father and mother. My life does not begin and end with my Aboriginality.
ANTON ENUS: Let’s get a comment from Greg, you have actually been attacked because of your identity? What do you think about how your experience in terms of what you look like has affected your response to other people?
GREG LEHMAN: No. But I'll say something else. The reason I won't answer your question is because this isn't a safe space and I'm not going to disrespect my parents who have passed away, my grandparents who have passed away by mentioning their names or having their photos put up when there's not a safe respectful cultural environment here. The reason I say that and Mick Gooder has been putting this out there for people to start thinking about recently and I think we've seen a very good example of it tonight - the issue is lateral violence.
We have learned some very, very bad habits from the coloniser. The weapons of the oppressor become the weapon of the oppressed and we rip each other to shreds. Money is part of it, one of the elders in Launceston who has passed away now said to me, the first job I got out of university was an Aboriginal liaison officer and she said to me when I was talking to her one day, "Greg, the money changed everything."
ANTON ENUS: It seems to be this idea of skin colour and what you look like seems to be pretty divisive?
MARK MCMILLAN: And I think it's deliberately set up that's the way it is. Who gets to determine who is Aboriginal? And I think once you actually start to speak to people whatever the way or however they look, it's how they've lived their life. I have seen my family be spat at, I've been, when I grew up, I was the albino boong. There is absolutely a lived experience that comes with Aboriginality and that is not predicated on skin colour and yet we are all out here saying, "But you, looking whiter than me, have had a more privileged existence than me." And I rally against that understanding because we are Aboriginal by definition because of what's been imposed but it is also because of the way other people have treated us and our families.
MAN: that is a very convenient definition for some too.
MARK MCMILLAN: For who?
ANTON ENUS: Can we just hear from Dave Price?
DAVE PRICE: I am white, I look white and I am white and I'm quite proud of it. I am married to a Moberi woman and we have kept this marriage together for over 30 years and it is better than most white fellers and black fellers these days and I have three grandsons. Two of my grandsons are blue eyed, fair hair. The middle one is brown skin and brown eyed. They have four grandparents. One of them is Aboriginal. My youngest grandson, the fairest one of the lot came home from school one day and very upset because he said the white kids told him, that he's too white to be a black fella. My Moberi wife got very upset on his behalf and wanted to go down the school and sort them out black fella way - I talked her out of that.
BESS PRICE: I was going to show them my face, that's all Anton, to confirm it.
DAVE PRICE: I said, "Look at me, I'm your grandfather. I love you. You have my blood too. I want you to be just as proud of me and I also want you to be proud of your other white grandfather and other black grandmother who is not Aboriginal – you are not just Aboriginal but be really proud of that heritage.
BESS PRICE: That’s right. Be proud of all the heritages.
DAVE PRICE: Now, a very clear majority of Australians who call themselves indigenous have children with people who aren’t and 80% of their kids identify fully as indigenous. What about the rest of us? They're our families too?
MAXINE CONATY: I'm Aboriginal. Indigenous is a Government word. The issue is Aboriginal identity. The problem I have with it and I'm not saying you're not black, but there are non-Aboriginal people claiming to be Aboriginal, taking our jobs, making our jobs hard for us, live in my shoes and work where I work and you'll notice what the difference is between being white Aboriginal and black Aboriginal, I can tell ya. It's about who you are. My mum is Kamilaroi and my dad is Wonarooa – which is Coonabarabran – the Hunter Valley, that is my ancestry and I can go back a long way.
ANTON ENUS: Can I get some comments from people who haven't had a chance yet?
MEL POUVALU: It’s a hard topic and if we can't get it right here, nowhere else can. If we don't stop fighting amongst ourselves, looking"¦oh well your not black enough or your too white or something like that - our generations and the kids who fall between the gaps of every services, whether they can get an Aboriginal confirmation or not, will fall by the wayside for another six, seven generations. We have to get it right tonight. We can't keep fighting amongst ourselves anymore. Aboriginality is a cultural construct. We make it and we define it.
GABRIELLE WIDDERS: I think the things that we're most frustrated about is the fact that people can claim Aboriginality and not do anything with the power if they get a job. I think every Aboriginal person who goes for these jobs feels they have an obligation to do good for their people. I think that's the thing we have to concentrate on is not the fact that your skin colour or it doesn't matter where you come from, I'm lucky to say I grew up on country, but I think the thing is we need to see the issue as people who can, who are claiming 1/16ths or whatever of their Aboriginality to get money.
ANTON ENUS: Warren Mundine, you work for an organisation that's trying to move the communities forward. What do you think when you hear these stories?
WARREN MUNDINE: To be quite honest, I'm feeling pretty sad at the moment. This is pretty depressing. One of the things I fine quite interesting is this discussion about Aboriginality and about skin colour and about this and that, but it doesn't recognise the wide range of experiences of Aboriginal people. There are people who were taken away, and were forced in to the white system. So they lost their country. They lost their land. They didn't do it by choice, it was forced upon them. Then they had children and they had children so two or three generations away they discovered that they had Aboriginality in them. Now because they discovered that they had Aboriginality, it's about the pride in it but some people have it forced upon them and had no choice in the whole matter. Two or three generations later they've discovered they have Aboriginal ancestry and they're proud of it.
We should engage with those people and welcome them back to our country. We should not beat 'em up and flog 'em and chase 'em away and treat 'em like some sort of bad disease or something. This is all I'm hearing today. It's not about skin colour and that. If things have to be based about helping people out of poverty or houses or helping people with jobs, then that should be on a needs basis. I'm very proud of my Aboriginality. It is not a burden on me. It is not a problem for me. I love it. I'm proud of it. This is what we've got to start talking about. Rather than having these silly arguments about your blacker than me or your whiter than me and you can't speak language. That's because you were beaten up 100 years ago and were forced not to speak it. You don’t do dance anymore because white man beat you up and forced you not to dance anymore.
It's about time we started recognising all these different experiences of our community and start pulling together as people, rather than saying, "We don't like you." Or having stupid things like the Aboriginality form where you go to a meeting and have who sit in front of 10 or 5 or 6 people who actually judge your aboriginality, that is bazaar to me.
ANTON ENUS: One thing we have noticed in the recent 2011 Census, here was a 20% rise in people who identify as Aboriginal, Anthony Dillon, what do you make of that?
ANTHONY DILLON: The definition being the way it is, it's quite elastic. You can find out that your great-great grandmother was Aboriginal and therefore under than definition you can identify. It's that person's right to identify so I think that's what explains the large increase.
ANTON ENUS: Do you have any concerns about that rise?
ANTHONY DILLON: One of the problems and we've discussed this in this forum here, it comes back to need again. Because there's such a diverse range in terms of need within that group who identify as being indigenous, you'll have those who are very poor, poor socio economic status and those who are quite well off and you get this averaging effect so you have pockets of extreme disadvantage that can be masked and I think that's a problem when you lump everyone into the category of Aboriginal. People from Bess’s area and she can describe the horror stories she sees and you have people in the city like me, all ticking that box Aboriginal and you lose the depth.
WOMAN: Not the same.
ANTON ENUS: We haven't heard from Matilda, you've come all the way from Broome, why do you think more people are identifying as Aboriginal?
MATILDA PASCOE: I'm really upset and annoyed because the way people are sort of talking to Bess, I mean, I live up north in one of the Bronxes in Broome and I've been up in the Kimberley for over 30 yours and Bess is the closest we have to a full blood Aboriginal here in all of us. So we need to respect as much as we respect each other that she has got her language. She has got her culture. She has got her skin group. She has got her bush name. And everybody is born in different places, OK. I cannot believe, like Dallas has had to get forms to say he's Aboriginal. I look at him and can say, "How are you going, my son?" You can talk to them and you have that feeling, it's an Aboriginal feeling that's hard to describe inside you. We look for people outside. Straight away we walked up and I found my mate there. Maybe met him years ago but can't remember at a taxi. All of a sudden we had that connection and 'Hey, we're going to the same place, let’s jump in the same taxi." Being Aboriginal is respecting that we all have something in common and we need to share our journey from our grandparents, our friends, our family.
ANTON ENUS: Let's get a quick comment from some of our younger people in the audience here – Todd and Maydina, how important is that link to land to your traditional conventions and practices?
TODD FERNANDO: Well I think we have to remember that there was a time if you identify as Aboriginal, you would have been bashed and discriminated against. You would have been taunted. There was a time when you suppressed your Aboriginality because that's the time you grew up with. That's the only thing they knew to do was to protect themselves and protect their families and protect their kids. Now as Aboriginality in today's society is being seen as something to be proud of, especially to Aboriginal people being proud to be Aboriginal, a lot of families are coming out and saying, "I'm black and I'm proud to be Aboriginal." In a time where Aboriginal people can be proud to be Aboriginal, they want to identify, we have Aboriginal people who use lateral violence to do exactly what the white fella has done to us when they came over.
ANTON ENUS: Dallas, let me get a comment from you, your listening to this.
DALLAS SCOTT: I've heard all the speaking that's been going on and as I said, I grew up as a black man. Now, I had foster white parents. I grew up in a white area. As you said, when you were growing up, you had those problems. I do understand. But then you can walk out there tonight and get a cab, whereas I can't. Alright? I'm not denying your Aboriginality or your heritage, all I'm saying is everyone says, "We have to close the gap for the young kids." What's happening with these poor kids?
ANTON ENUS: Well, the Corporation and the Land Council are two of the organisations you can go to, to get your Aboriginality confirmed. Warren Mundine, what do you think of the way the system works?
WARREN MUNDINE: I think there's too much subjective put on people. We heard the stories tonight. We heard Dallas - a community said he's not Aboriginal. We heard other people say the same thing. I think there is better ways of doing it as I said, I work for an organisation prior to this one which I'm working for now which deals with native titles, people's connection to their heritage and to their descent and identity as Aboriginal people and through that process we have built this tremendous database. What we found was that each stolen generation, Aboriginal people that were taken away, people who have lived on country, people who have moved on and off country. We have been able to track them. We can find out who they are and where they families are from, we have that all on digital data base.
ANTON ENUS: Does the system work fairly in your opinion?
WARREN MUNDINE: I think the system works quite fairly because it doesn't make the decision about do you identify as an Aboriginal person? It says by descent and your connection to that country. And it's got no politics involved in it at all. No subjective behaviour involved in it at all. It is just a clear here is your decent and where you have come from.
ANTON ENUS: We haven’t heard from Des Williams yet, what do you think of this council system?
DES WILLIAMS, TWEED BYRON LAND COUNCIL: I chair the Tweed Byron Local aboriginal Land Council. We have a system in place that allows us to hand out confirmation of Aboriginality. When a submission comes in from a person, that's first looked at by the board of the Land Council and if the people on the board of the Land Council can't agree with this person's right to be given an Aboriginality form, then it goes to the members and the members decide.
The initial advice given to the applicant is that if you don't come from this area, if your people don't come from here, Tweed Heads or Tweed Byron in this instance, then you have to go back to where your people come from, where your family comes from.
ANTON ENUS: What do you think of that Leslie?
LESLIE BILES: You shouldn't have to. My proof is from my great-great grandfather, first taken from traditional way of living. I've got it from the University of NSW. It shows my tribe, my totem, my tribal name which is Yularoi and it's all documented through the university. And you look at me, I'm Aboriginal, I'm proud Aboriginal, I have all this documented so all I need to do is present that to them instead of going back to Brewarrina, where I'm from, there should be some process in place where they can ring up the Brewarrina Land Council.
ANTON ENUS: One of the points of the Land Council and Co-op system is that they confirm people's Aboriginality which allows them to access financial help. Anthony Dillon, is there a better way of moving forward then? Can we just listen to Anthony please.
ANTHONY DILLON: It has been said by a few people, if we focus on needs first, then I think there would be less people wanting to claim Aboriginality. If they want to, that's fine. They can claim and get together and tell each other stories, that's fine but let us focus on need.
TARRAN BETTERRIDGE: You can’t claim Aboriginality, you are Aboriginal or you're not. You don't have a choice. When I was born, I was born Aboriginal. When I die, I will die Aboriginal. Everything in between is Aboriginal, yes I have another part to me but I don't claim anything.
MATILDA PASCOE: The jobs in high positions you're in, it's not because you're Aboriginal, because of your education and the criteria you fit, being Aboriginal is only one part of that.
MARK MCMILLAN: But auntie, part of the point is too, when these identified people come up, whether we do it by need or whatever, it's what you do with it is I think the young lady up the back said it, it's the concept of cultural responsibility and how you put that back in – just role modelling alone. It is still vitally important you have indigenous identified positions at university because that obviously then, every Aboriginal person I have known that has gone to university works in Aboriginal affairs in a professional capacity in their communities. So this assumption that as soon as you get educated you lose your Aboriginality or you only engage with it"¦.
MATILDA PASCOE: If you're putting it back into the community, yes, that’s accepted but not if you are just there to get higher and higher and use your Aboriginality and your people.
DEBRA HOCKING: Thank you. Look, I've listened to this discussion tonight and I came here tonight as a stolen generation survivor from Tasmania and I've listened to all the issues around identity and I really appreciate what you're saying about knowing each side of you, your mother's and father's side. Some of us don't know that. We don't have that appreciation and we talk about access to services and you have to go back to your own country. Some stolen generations don't know what their country is. What I say to the services is, are you putting things in place to address these needs of the stolen generation?
MICHELINE FABIA: I'd just like to say that, going back to what Warren was saying earlier, that I am a decedent, of a member of the stolen generation. My great grandmother was removed from her mother in Broome, Western Australia. And from there she became a missionary herself and travelled from Australia to the Torres Strait to Papua New Guinea which is where I was born, where my mother was born and where my grandmother was born. For me, identifying as an Aboriginal person is not so much a need for me, it's a right that I have because my great grandmother was from this country.
JEANIE BARTLEY: I'm also a stolen generation. Last year I got my certificate of Aboriginality and I honestly felt by receiving that I belonged somewhere. And I think that most stolen generation would probably feel like that. I love the fact I was in contact with my Aboriginality as a traditional completely dark Aboriginal knowing country land and whatever but I wasn't born that way. But to identify as Aboriginal, when I got my Aboriginality certificate, I actually was elated - it was like receiving my birth certificate. So that's really, at the end of the day, it's what we're about. It's about identifying and knowing where you're from and people that were meant to be your family and reconnecting.
ANTON ENUS: Maydina, you haven't had a chance to speak.
MAYDINA PENRITH: I wanted to acknowledge that we're a very passionate people. We're just touching on surface issues. We have come from a really disadvantaged past. As indigenous people we need a lot of self- healing, we need to focus on solutions now, moving forward and healing and for our younger generations.
ANTON ENUS: Let's get a comment now from Shane Houston.
PROFESSOR SHANE HOUSTON, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY: There are three issues. The first is about identity. The second one is about heritage. And the third one is about needs. Let's go to the first one about identity. I've been working in Aboriginal affairs for almost 40 years. I have seen Aboriginal people of all sorts of colours but who are incredibly proud of their identity - that is a construct of self not of anybody else, it’s yourself. Your identity is a spirit, a set of values, a force which informs your decisions which is a product of story and of journey immersed in our identity. That is something the Government can never give you. No organisation can give you that. Your family, your community, yourself gives you that identity.
The second question is about heritage. Now I have had people have conversations with me and say, 'Shane, I am not Aboriginal but I grew up in West Wylong and I think if I go back far enough, I'm sure I'd be able to find. Why aren't I Aboriginal?" and my response to them was, "That might be part of your heritage and you should be very proud of it just as I am very proud of my mother’s English heritage." They can be very proud of their Aboriginal heritage. But it is not their identity. It is not that story and journey which informs their decisions.
The third thing that's collided in to this conversation is the question of need. We've criticised in some ways, the definitions that we use in Australia but at least ours is consistent, it has survived nearly 40 years and it's a lot better than definitions that exist in other parts of the world. If you're Apache in the US for example, one group you have to be half cast. Another group you have to be quarter cast. The next group of Apache, you have to be 1/8th of blood and they have a DNA test, so it is incredibly complex.
So the question of services which all the people have raised here, access to services is something that should be based on need. I earn a good wage my kids shouldn't have to access those services. I look after my kids. There are Aboriginal people at the university I work at who without scholarships would never get an opportunity. Absolutely the case and let's not say just because we went to and they have Aboriginal kids in Scott's or Andrew's or any of the big schools around Sydney that they don't have needs. They all come from families and I have met most of these kids. They're single parent families or out bush and they've decided to give their kids something better. Let's not judge them on the fact that they go to those schools. Let's judge them on what their needs are, we have to reconcile those three issues.
ANTON ENUS: We will take one final comment on what this discussion is saying about your sense of identity?
MARK MCMILLAN: I think what excites me is that there is absolutely a direction forward. What excites me the most is that young people are using the expression of rights and how our own cultural rights will affect our future. That we actually have such a large youth population, the engagement with that is the way forward in a complicated complex way, while acknowledging the history.
ANTON ENUS: Robust, energetic and passionate. Thank you all for taking part. We have to wrap tup. You can keep talking online. Go to our website, Twitter or Insight's Facebook page.