1. First Australians

Identity is tied to the cultures that a person is raised in and how they identify with that culture.

Everyone has a cultural identity and understanding the diverse cultural identities in Australia is an essential element of achieving reconciliation.

This chapter will introduce the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in Australia and consider how these cultural identities make Australia a unique country.

One of the biggest myths about Aboriginality is that if you have fair skin you can’t be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

You’ve got to be black to be ‘a real’ Aboriginal – or that Aboriginality is attributed to the degree of ancestry, such as ‘she is 1/8th Aboriginal’.

These perceptions are highly offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and must be understood as products of colonial thinking. Ideas of genetics and culture are often mistakenly collapsed together so that if someone’s skin is lighter, they are thought to have lost that equivalent of Aboriginal culture.

Who is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?

You might meet a person who says they’re Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander but you’re doubtful because they don’t look the way you think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should look.

Perhaps their skin is not as dark as Aboriginal or Torres Islander people you see on television, perhaps they’re dressed differently to how you imagine we should be, perhaps they live in the city and you thought ‘real’ Aboriginal people live in the desert.

In Australia today, there are three legal ‘tests’ that determine whether a person is Indigenous. They must:

  • Be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
  • Identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.
  • Be recognised as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander by other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

Skin colour has nothing to do with defining whether a person is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Terms like ‘half-caste’, ‘part Aboriginal’ or ‘mixed blood’ are meaningless and can be deeply offensive. Such terms have been used to control and divide Indigenous Australians. They are words that belong to the past because they are words that are divisive, damaging and meaningless.

There are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today who have pale skin and live in cities. The reasons for this are varied. For a long time, governments deliberately tried to ‘breed out’ Aboriginality by dictating who we could and could not marry. Many also began relationships with non-Indigenous people by choice.

All Indigenous people take pride in their ancestry that goes back tens of thousands of years. Indigenous cultures have evolved over time, just like all cultures, such as through contact with other people, new technologies and new ideas. Whilst Indigenous Australians move between two cultures they are still incorporating traditional practices and beliefs in their everyday life.

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Source: Carbon Media

Video – First Australians

Learn more about First Australians and their connection to country.

Pride in Australia’s Indigenous history and culture has not always been the case.

At Federation in 1901, the rights of citizenship were not extended to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Australian Constitution, section 51 clause 26 reads: “The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.”

Clause 127 reads: “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.”

Early Australian law classified Aboriginal people by the place in which they lived and gave local authorities the power to dictate every aspect of our lives. In the 1840s, the classification system became based on the extent of a person’s Aboriginal ancestry, essentially a person’s skin colour.

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Mutual recognition

Through the 1960s and ’70s ‘blood’ definitions such as those in the constitution were finally abandoned and today, a person is legally Aboriginal if they are a member of the Aboriginal race. Torres Strait Islanders are the Indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands which are part of Queensland. Their identity and culture is distinct from Aboriginal peoples on the mainland.

“Membership of the Indigenous people depends on biological descent from the Indigenous people and on mutual recognition of a particular person’s membership by that person and by the elders or other persons enjoying traditional authority among those people.”
Justice Gerard Brennan Mabo and Others v Queensland (No. 2), (1992) 175 CLR 1, [1992] HCA 23

Source: News Limited

Welcome to Country

Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder Matilda House Williams delivers the first ever “Welcome to Country” to federal Parliament, ahead of the government’s formal apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.

Acknowledging country

Local people may have a preference for how they are described, for example at a function or event. If you’re not sure of a person’s particular language group and can’t find out, it’s usually okay to simply acknowledge them as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The easiest way to find out is to ask the person themselves – they will see this as showing respect and they’ll appreciate it.

Connection with country is crucial to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  For millennia, when Indigenous people visited the country of others, there would be rituals of welcoming to country. Today, these rituals have a legacy in formal ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ protocols.

Usually a ‘Welcome to Country’ will occur at the beginning of any major public meeting. It will always be done by an appropriate Elder—someone widely recognised as having ancestral connection with the country where the meeting is taking place.  She or he may welcome in their own language, or in English.

An ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ can be done by any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians that are not traditional owners of the country you are meeting on, or by non-Indigenous Australians.

Acknowledgements can be done at the beginning of any meeting. Some organisations, for example, begin staff meetings with an Acknowledgement. There is no set wording for an Acknowledgement and you may wish to establish your own wording. An Acknowledgement will often:

  • Acknowledge the traditional owners/custodians.
  • Pay respect to their Elders past and present.

An Acknowledgment might be, for example “I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we’re meeting on today, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present. I also acknowledge my gratitude that we share this land today, my sorrow for some of the costs of that sharing, and my hope and belief that we can move to place of equity, justice and partnership together”.

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