• Bronwyn Carlson has just released 'The Politics of Identity: Who Counts As Aboriginal Today?' (Adam Orvad UOW)Source: Adam Orvad UOW
COMMENT | Contemporary struggles around Indigenous identity have emerged in the shadow of colonialism and occur primarily around questions of ‘who’ is Indigenous and ‘what’ are the characteristics that support and confirm any legitimate claim to ‘be’ an Indigenous person, writes author Bronwyn Carlson.
Bronwyn Carlson

21 Mar 2016 - 1:08 PM  UPDATED 21 Mar 2016 - 6:32 PM

More often than not the topic of Indigenous identity is linked to the allocation of resources and ‘benefits’ (perceived or otherwise). This was clear in the Andrew Bolt saga. Andrew Bolt was objecting to successful ‘light-skinned’ Indigenous people ‘choosing’ to be Indigenous when they could, according to him, have chosen any one of a number of non-Indigenous heritages.

At the heart of his allegations was his logic that such ‘choices’ were either motivated by, or at least conveniently embraced, because of an ensuing public or professional elevation that would not otherwise have been accorded and private rewards that would not otherwise have been achieved on talent and hard work alone.

Such characterisation of Indigenous Australians who are seen to be motivated to rort the national resources for their own purposes has its roots in an ignorance of Indigenous experiences of dispossession, colonisation, discrimination and shifting governmental policies. The flow on of this type of media coverage can be seen in the ideas that everyday Australians hold about Indigenous peoples.

I teach at university and students who study Indigenous Studies often reveal their belief that Indigenous Australians get all sorts of benefits merely for being Indigenous.

I have been asked, for example, if it is true that Indigenous people get free wedding dresses, free dogs, free Toyotas and my favourite oxymoron, free home loans! Non-Indigenous students are often amazed to hear that Indigenous students pay university fees just like them.

They are conditioned, unfortunately primarily due to false media coverage, to believe that Indigenous people get a ‘free ride’ at their expense. The arguments generally turn to the issue of identity and who counts as Indigenous in contemporary Australia.

It seems to me that almost every day some mainstream media outlet is running a headline about identity fraud and the number of non-Indigenous people claiming to be Indigenous for the purposes of ‘benefits’.  A recent front page headline in The Australian, for example captures the reader’s attention in order to keep this issue at the forefront and to sensationalise what is an extremely sensitive and political area of discussion between and among Indigenous people themselves. 

This kind of media reporting by mainstream media tends to perpetuate false notions of ‘free’ access to services, benefits, and so on, that are obtained by people deemed to be rorting the system through false claims to Indigenous identity, or alternatively by those who can produce an institutionally authorized Confirmation of Aboriginality document.  

Many Indigenous people see this kind of reportage as a deliberate act intended to create hostility towards us, particularly those of mixed heritage, and to position us as a group who is reliant on government ‘benefits’ even though we have already been scripted as ‘undeserving’ of those perceived, illusive benefits.

The Confirmation of Aboriginality is a piece of documentary evidence that verifies Indigenous identity through the authorization of an accredited Indigenous  individual or organisation. 

This document is used by many Indigenous and government bodies as evidence of one’s Aboriginality.  The document states clearly that making a false declaration is a criminal offence. So on the rare occasion someone does make a false claim to Indigenous identity, our organisations have a legal framework to deal with it.

The issue of Indigenous identity is a complex one fraught by the continuing brutality of colonial policy and domination. While writing my book, my appreciation of both the meaning of the diversity of Indigenous experiences and my knowledge of the history of Indigenous experiences grew immeasurably.

Questions of Indigenous identity are serious ones in the wake of the colonial era and challenging ones in the global era where arguably more opportunities exist for global Indigenous solidarity in the face of shared issues such as identity politics and decolonial goals.

The point of writing the book was not to solve the ‘problem’ but to understand the basis of our current thinking and how it shapes the practices around Indigenous identity confirmation. I think it is important for all Australians to have a deeper understanding of the ways in which the colonial era has impacted on contemporary ideas of Indigenous identity.

I also believe that if this were the case, we would be less subjected to media hype surrounding who ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’ Indigenous because there would be some understanding of the role colonial governments have played – and continue to play - in the orchestrating and prescribing of Indigenous identity.

As an Aboriginal person, I have also had to learn just how deeply these historical contingencies are implicated in the current struggle over questions of ‘who is’ and ‘what counts’ as Indigenous.

In all these debates and surveillance about who counts as Indigenous 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.


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.