Just when Blackfullas thought all we had to contend with this January were the catastrophic fires razing Country, climate and environmental collapse, the recurring trauma of Australia Day and yet another celebratory tall-ship re-enactment, up jumped the gleeful self-appointed identity police.
Yesterday, soon after the Australian public learned our federal Minister for Home Affairs had on Friday referred an allegation disputing Bruce Pascoe’s Aboriginal identity to the Australian Federal Police (AFP), a colleague sent me a succinct parable that highlights the bureaucratic, cruel absurdity of the situation.
The yarn originated in an unpublished conference paper delivered at The Australian National University almost 25 years ago by the historian Peter Read to illustrate inconsistencies in regards to ‘Indigeneity’:
In 1935 a fair-skinned Australian of part-indigenous descent was ejected from a hotel for being an Aboriginal. He returned to his home on the mission station to find himself refused entry because he was not an Aboriginal. He tried to remove his children but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the local reserve. During the Second World War he tried to enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal. He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After the war he could not acquire a passport without permission because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the Aborigines Protection Act— and was told that he could no longer visit his relations on the reserve because he was not an Aboriginal. He was denied permission to enter the Returned Servicemen's Club because he was.
Such bureaucratic farce was commonly experienced by Aboriginal people across the middle decades of last century when Protection and then Assimilation policies were in vogue. It’s confronting to realise such views continue to remain fashionable with Australian institutions and individuals in the first summer of the 2020s.
Yet, here we are – and that isn’t even the most chilling aspect revealed in Paige Taylor's story published in the Weekend Australian yesterday.
Taylor’s article revealed sections of an email to the Home Affairs minister written by Indigenous businesswoman Josephine Cashman which sought support from him and other principle offices of the Commonwealth for a proposal to develop an "efficient" national register for Aboriginal people.
“I also seek your support on the question of government reforms concerning Aboriginal identity,” Ms Cashman wrote.
“I invite you to assist me in collaboration with the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister to develop a national strategy for establishing a register for Aboriginal people. I suggest a panel composed of traditional owners, on-the-ground elders, government experts and others to examine the most efficient manner to achieve identifying Aboriginal people.
“Once the procedure has been designed and agreed upon, it should be easy to register an Aboriginal birth because it could be linked to existing Australian birth registration and native title genealogical records. It is doable.” [sic]
Justifiably, social media users immediately drew direct comparisons with similar instruments utilised on marginalised and undesirable peoples by totalitarian regimes throughout history. It is dismaying that Ms Cashman appeared to have not considered the same ramifications of her “doable” idea. Particularly in light of the fact that she currently sits as a Government appointee on the minister for Indigenous Australians’ Senior Advisory Group for a Co-Designed ‘Voice’ to Government.
However, there may now be a question mark over Ms Cashman's continuation in that role, after a spokesperson for Ken Wyatt on Saturday night told The Age newspaper the minister did not consider the letter to Mr Dutton “appropriate”.
There is also the concern of Mr Dutton’s demonstrable enthusiasm to refer the matter on to the AFP. Many people were left wondering if their own concerned emails about the “dishonesty offences” (a term used by Ms Cashman in her letter to Mr Dutton) of certain elected representatives would receive the same easy passage to relevant investigators.
Another significant concern is how the AFP will determine Bruce Pascoe’s Indigeneity should it ultimately decide to go down that warren.
To be frank, all the available evidence suggests the result of its investigation could just as easily go one way as it could the other.
Presently, two out of three of the First Nations Bruce Pascoe says he descends from have gone public with written statements rejecting his claims. Beyond these letters from the representative organisations of those communities, individuals from these First Nations have revealed to me how angry they are with Mr Pascoe. They say they have attempted to correct Mr Pascoe's mistaken identity for years.
Then in late November, in several interviews with NITV News, it emerged that a key ancestral line that Mr Pascoe relied on for his Indigenous link was not, in fact, of Aboriginal descent.
The AFP – like the political commentators and shock-jocks who repeatedly reignite the issue of who is and who isn’t a recognisable ‘aborigine’ – could misinterpret this situation and conclude that there is substance to Ms Cashman’s allegations that Mr Pascoe has benefitted financially from fraudulently identifying as Indigenous: but this direction again plays out the perilous inconsistencies illuminated in Peter Read’s parable.
Because as it presently stands, Bruce Pascoe is undeniably Aboriginal: he identifies as Indigenous; maintains that he has in his possession documents that confirm he is of Aboriginal descent; and he is acknowledged and vouched for by senior Yuin lore men. By that measure, Bruce Pascoe satisfies the criteria of the official three-part definition of Aboriginality.
The question of whether this measure remains satisfactory to First Nations communities has been a matter of consideration and debate in Blak circles for years and decades, and is perhaps a discussion that has only become more urgent with the availability of affordable commercial ancestry tests. And until an agreed upon solution is arrived at, that is precisely where it needs to stay.
There are legitimate issues and questions regarding Indigenous identity, but these concerns are the responsibility and jurisdiction of relevant First Nations communities, Elders and respected leaders exclusively. These are not matters that should enable the colonial obsession of inscribing definition and category on First Nations bodies.