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Identity can be a complex issue, and it is these complexities that has one leading health expert concerned over the mental health of younger generations.
Brooke Fryer

3 Feb 2020 - 1:22 PM  UPDATED 3 Feb 2020 - 3:50 PM

Leading researchers and mental health experts are drawing attention to the connection between identity and mental health, particularly among young people.

Nyamal woman and mental health clinician Adjunct Professor Tracy Westerman said that much of the complex trauma she responds to, specifically among the Aboriginal community, is from people who have issues with identity.

"On a daily basis, I hear of identity struggles. Particularly from those who don't know their history and cannot 'prove' connection as a direct result of assimilation policies," Professor Westerman told NITV News. 

"Robust identity formation is a complex and long term journey for Indigenous people as it is for any marginalised group.

"Our best evidence tells us that a strong sense of cultural identity moderates suicide & mental health risk."

The official criteria for defining Aboriginality in Australia comprises of three parts: self-identification; recognition within community; and documents that confirm descent.

Professor Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous studies at Macquarie University and author of The Politics of Identity, told NITV News last week the issue of Aboriginal identity is a complex one. Still, the three-step criteria is a useful starting point. 

"[The three-step criteria] is obviously not going to work for everyone, but has been largely accepted by communities since the 80s," Professor Carlson said.

Professor Carlson said that cases of identity could often become difficult, and tracing descent can be challenging, due to a range of issues - like the stolen generations. Ms Carlson said because of these issues, to community recognition becomes critical when identifying as Indigenous.

Identity struggle is real 

"Race-based trauma comes increasingly from lateral or within-group racism with around 95 per cent of Indigenous people experiencing it," Professor Westerman told NITV News. 

"The great irony is that the people pushing for a so-called 'test' of Aboriginality are hurting the people they are arguing they are trying to protect."

Adjunct Professor Westerman said this has resulted in magnifying the trauma of those who have felt the full force of assimilation policies.

Recently, Aboriginal businesswoman Josephine Cashman proposed the idea of a national Aboriginal register in an email to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. 

Sections of the emails, published in The Weekend Australian, reveal Ms Cashman asking Mr Dutton for his support to progress a national database of Indigenous heritage. 

However, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and the acting shadow minister, Bill Shorten, condemned the idea. Mr Wyatt described Ms Cashman's letter as "inappropriate". 

In March last year, the far-right political party, One Nation, also suggested a test of Aboriginality. It released a policy proposal suggesting anybody identifying as Indigenous should be made to undergo DNA testing to confirm their claims of ancestry.

The party also proposed to abolish self-identification and introduce a qualifying benchmark of 25 per cent Indigenous DNA ancestry before Aboriginality could be accepted.

Setting 'an alarming benchmark'

Last November in a letter to Mr Dutton, Ms Cashman made allegations that author and historian Bruce Pascoe was financially benefiting from incorrectly claiming to be Indigenous.

Mr Dutton referred the email to the AFP on December 24, 2019. On January 10, 2020, a preliminary investigation into the merits of the allegations commenced.

An AFP commander in the criminal assets, fraud, and anti-corruption unit said a preliminary inquiry did not identify any "Commonwealth offences" had occurred.

"Your referral provided details of a number of allegations of fraud by Professor Pascoe," said the letter. "Based on the information provided and inquiries undertaken no Commonwealth offences have been identified."

 "The AFP now considers this matter to be finalised."

Professor Westerman said it is actions like those of Ms Cashman's that set an alarming benchmark. 

"The fact that it is coming from Aboriginal people in significant leadership roles provides legitimacy to this damaging narrative, and provides a free pass for its representation as a common occurrence," she said. 

"This narrative stereotypes Indigenous people as frauds for being disconnected from culture. Stolen generations become collateral damage."

Young Indigenous people afraid to speak out 

Professor Carlson said she sees many fair-skinned students shy away from their Aboriginal identity in fear they will be criticised. 

"It is a total problem, and I see it all the time. I see it with young populations of people coming to universities, and as an educator coming into contact with people. Many tell me they have Aboriginal ancestry, but they can't prove it," she said. 

"Some of those young people have pretty strong cultural ties, but they are worried about their physical appearance. It is pretty sad for us to go down that track."

Mr Wyatt has also weighed in on the conversation during an interview with ABC Radio National on Monday, in light of allegations against Mr Pascoe. 

"So we will have Indigenous kids who don't fit the descriptors of what some people in this society see is the true Aboriginal. And yet they are true in every sense. And I know this is impacting on many people," said Mr Wyatt.

"I had people come up to me saying they were concerned at Josephine's open process in attacking Bruce Pascoe because they said they're now having people say 'Well, you can't be Aboriginal. Your skin's as fair as Bruce Pascoe's is.' And that's an outcome I did not want to see."