Aboriginal identity has at least three parts to it. I write here according to Aboriginal values and perspectives, not the Commonwealth’s deeply flawed three part administrative definition, or from white obsession with defining us for their own purposes.
Firstly, one must be able to prove biological descent from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander ancestors. This has nothing to do with skin colour or other physical attributes.
Second, one must have some cultural knowledge and experience of living Black. This is not to say those without cultural knowledge or experiences of growing up Black are not Aboriginal.
The Stolen Generations for example, through no fault of their own, might not be able to say they have cultural knowledge or experience of growing up Black, but if they can prove their Aboriginality through biological descent, then of course they can claim Aboriginality.
It is important to understand that the term ‘cultural knowledge’ should not necessarily equate to 'traditional' Aboriginal ceremonies, customs and languages, although all the stronger for those who have them.
As the image below shows, culture has two parts to it – those tangible things we can see such as ceremonies and languages, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Below the water are other important things like values, beliefs and interpersonal communication styles. If one did not grow up with Aboriginal values in Aboriginal families, the things below the water might be harder to learn, but not impossible.
‘Growing up Black’ does not necessarily equate to poor, alcoholic or dysfunctional either. That is media claptrap. ‘Growing up Black’ refers to cultural values, beliefs and spirituality.
Third, having cultural knowledge is not enough, one must practice it, teach it, and pass it on. Cultural learning is a life-long journey. No one can claim to be ‘more Aboriginal’ or ‘less’ Aboriginal’ than the next. We are all learning, and we should all be humble enough to respect those who have learned more, but not judge or despise those who haven’t.
Importantly, those who do not have all three parts of Aboriginal identity above should not place themselves in positions of leadership of Aboriginal communities and organisations until they have made some attempts to learn cultural knowledges and values, and to practice what they preach. Of course they will still have important roles to play in the Aboriginal community, yet humility and respect for the deeper meanings of culture would be a more respectful way of participating.
DNA testing may be used to prove Aboriginal descent, but there are important cautions in using this technology.
First, it must be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities using this technology for their own purposes, rather than white motivations like government control, media sensationalism or academic categorisation.
Second, any use of DNA testing on Aboriginal people should be controlled by Aboriginal communities using ethical methodology, interpretation and motivations. This may be challenging, given colonisation’s gift of intergenerational lateral violence. Yet surely Aboriginal people working out processes of unity and healing, while challenging, will be ultimately more productive than allowing white people to continue to control us by deploying science for their own purposes.
Science is one knowledge system, which I have trained in and respect. Yet it is limited.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have our own knowledge systems that have enabled flourishing societies for sixty-thousand years, and are not merely mythology.
Given climate change, Aboriginal peoples must use Aboriginal knowledges balanced with science for the benefit of all, rather than white people using science to categorise and control us and our lands.
Associate Professor Gregory Phillips, Ph, is a Waanyi and Jaru medical anthropologist and CEO of ABSTARR Consulting.