Rights campaigner Rodney Dillon says he's concerned governments could use genetic science to ‘divide and conquer' Indigenous people 'until no one's left'.
Andrea Booth

18 May 2016 - 5:51 PM  UPDATED 18 May 2016 - 5:51 PM

Mr Dillon says governments may use DNA tests to define people as not Indigenous enough in order to "deny" them basic rights and further assimilate them into Australia’s majority European culture.

"Dividing and conquering, dividing and conquering, that's what they're doing, until you've got no one left," Mr Dillon told NITV.

Mr Dillon's comments come as the Indigenous-governed National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG) consults with communities over if and how to use more than 7,000 Indigenous DNA samples in its care. The samples were collected by the Australian National University through the 1960s and 1990s. But Indigenous communities protested against testing and they were placed into storage.

Dr Misty Jenkins, a medical science researcher on the board of the centre, says the communities decide what will happen to them.

"The whole point of the centre is that it exists under Indigenous governance, led by Indigenous governance, and the Indigenous community are driving how the centre operates," she told NITV.

Could genetic tests be used in Native Title claims?

Rodney Dillon asks if governments would assess someone as "not Aboriginal enough" to deny them their land under the Commonwealth’s 1993 Native Title Act, which mandates that Indigenous people prove their connection to their land to reclaim it.

Colonial policies have made it difficult to prove land connection, he says. Through the 20th Century, government forcibly removed Indigenous children with one non-Indigenous or mixed heritage parent to European foster families to assimilate them to the Anglo-Saxon way of life. This severed connections with land and culture.

"We're not to the stage where we've built trust with science and until we get to that stage we can't go to the next step." 

But Mr Dillon says "there's concern both ways".

“You're Aboriginal but you've got to prove your link [to the land] back ten generations, knowing full well that the government has made it hard to show proof," he says.

“For some of the people that's all they’ve got to rely on, perhaps - DNA…science - to try and prove who they are."

In 2015, the Australian Law Reform Commission published a report that recommended reforming Section 223(1) of the Native Title Act from requiring claimants to prove their traditional laws and customs have continued "substantially uninterrupted" by each generation since pre-sovereignty.

"Evidencing the survival of those rights over 200 years presents significant challenges of evidence," the commission said, referencing the 2002 Yorta Yorta Native Title case.

Native Title: What does it mean and why do we have it?
The Native Title Act was first created 30 years ago and marks a historic moment in Australian law that changed the face of our land rights system.

In that case, the High Court upheld the decision of the Full Court of the Federal Court by five two. The federal court ruled the Yorta Yorta people ceased to occupy their traditional lands in accordance with their traditional laws and customs before the end of the 19th Century. It reasoned "the tide of history has indeed washed away any real acknowledgement of their traditional laws and any real observance of their traditional customs".

When NITV asked the Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion if he believed Mr Dillon's fears were founded, a spokesperson said the minister was not aware about changes to the current government definition of Aboriginality.

"This three-part definition is widely accepted by Commonwealth and other government agencies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and community organisations," they said.

In Australia, Indigenous-specific services or programs, including university and welfare assistance, may require a person to prove their Aboriginality, by satisfying three criterion:

  • being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
  • identifying as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person
  • being accepted as such by the community in which you live, or formerly lived.

'Indigenous identity is beyond government definitions'

Indigenous people with mixed heritages have been criticised in recent times. In 2009, conservative News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt suggested light-skinned Aboriginal people identified as such for personal benefit, which led to a judge ruling he had breached Australia's 1975 Racial Discrimination Act in 2011 after a class action was brought against him.

Associate Professor Bronwyn Carlson Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong told NITV in March that "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." 

Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman and politician contesting for the seat of Barton for Labor in the 2016 elections, told on an NITV Awaken panel about identity that Indigenous identity cannot be defined by appearance.

“This notion somehow or other it’s other people determine our identity just doesn’t wash anymore,” she says.

“It’s the way you feel, it’s how you connect with country it’s the way we treat each other as Aboriginal people and protect our history, our strength and our pride – and that’s what identity is about.”

'Genetic testing can't prove Aboriginality'

Professor Emma Kowal, an anthropologist and former medical doctor from the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics, says genetic testing "can never tell someone they're not Aboriginal."

It can only show how similar one person is to another group of DNA sequences, she says.

"There is no genetic test for Aboriginality, all that [genetic] testing ever does is compare your genes sequences with a sample, with someone else's gene sequences or a group of gene sequences."

NITV and SBS celebrate 'Identity Month' in the lead up to DNA Nation -starring Ernie Dingo

Starts Sunday 22 May, 8:30pm on SBS. #DNANation