Project investigates Indigenous self-identification

Mar 19, 2014, 04:36 AM

What factors come into play when people are deciding whether to self-identify as Indigenous?

By Peggy Giakoumelos

Source World News Radio UPDATED 28 MINS AGO

(Transcript from World News Radio)

Do you identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?

It's a question that appears on many government forms across the country but for some indigenous Australians, it's a question loaded with confusion, fear and sometimes shame.

The Bureau of Statistics has been asking Australians whether they identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders only since the 1971 Census.

More than 40 years on, Indigenous people are now encouraged to identify themselves when applying for government services as well as when applying for employment.

NSW Koori artist Darren Bloomfield is proud of his heritage.

But whenever he's asked, he prefers not to tick the box, taking issue with the word Aboriginal itself.

"I've been bothered by that for years because again you have to look at the word Aboriginal. Aboriginal means native to land. I find it quite derogatory in the sense of an identification that we stand under. I don't like to be called an Aboriginal. If someone says what country do you come from, I say I come from Australia and I am an Australian Aboriginal, so they know about my identification of what I am to this country, if I am outside this country, yeah, because that's all people know. But I try to convince them after, I tell them that I'm Aboriginal, I prefer to be looked at or identified as a Koori because that's what we identify and put ourselves into. It's our word."

The New South Wales government is concerned that not enough people are identifying themselves as Indigenous when accessing government services, and is looking at the reasons why.

The Aboriginal Affairs unit within the Office of Communities is conducting the project, saying higher rates of identification would mean more Indigenous people would use the programs and services available to them.

An online description of the project, acknowledges Aboriginal identity as complex.

Dr Victoria Grieves is the Australian Research Council's Indigenous Research Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney.

She says since European settlement, any traditional sense of what it means to be an Indigenous person in Australia has changed dramatically.

She also says past policies of removing indigenous children from families have also left a legacy of fear.

"A lot of our institutional structures have been knocked out from under us and we're in a process still I think of re-grouping and re-forming. Something that goes along with that is confusion, sometimes about identity, confusion about what it means. For example it's very concerning if people think that if I identify myself as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person, that means that I'm likely to be discriminated against. But I do believe that there are people who feel that way and they might have good reason to feel that way as well"

SBS asked members of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Facebook group for their views about self-identification.

These were some of the responses.

" About 60 years ago, Aboriginal people were forced to carry exemption certificates.. Remember FORCED if they wanted to go any where, work other places.... Now The Australian government has tricked us again, NOW you have to have certificate to prove you are Aboriginal.... Oh yes I know the argument of non aboriginals trying to be Aboriginals.... But isn't it funny, how after all the marches and fight to free the Aboriginal, so they would be treated as Humans and have same rights as white fella.... we're back to having to carry a paper.... boy oh boy who got done .. sorry if I offend but I find it ironic."

"...Why would people want to identify in a system that abuses them for statistical gain?..."

"If only we had a group who could help teach the culture to those who are disconnected from their culture ancestry.... Wow, we could help so many.... I grew up in children's homes, didn't get culture except a little that I remembered before my dad died...Had to learn as an adult. My heart bleeds for those lost descendents who have lost their culture... Gee the Government wins with the old integration policy.. breed the black out.... I often wonder how large our Aboriginal population would be if "those lost could be found".

"The stolen generation created a gap to prove relational history. Families also chose to hide their history because circumstances of the time made life easier."

Tania, who responded to the Facebook post, is of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry.

She told SBS she used to identify as Indigenous when accessing government services but no longer does so.

"I've had people say to me 'you Aboriginal people get everything'. And I looked at them and said 'what do you mean?' You get cars houses and whatever. And I say, well no we don't. We have to apply for them like anyone else would. Since my son's been in primary school, that's one of the first questions people ask, because my understanding is that they got extra funding for you. But it doesn't mean that they provide extra support for you, they just wanted the money. And I'm not saying that every school is like that, but he's primary schools were. You want to be known just for you. You don't want to be known because you're an Aboriginal person. Because at the end of the day, it shouldn't matter what culture you are as a person, you are just you."

Tania says she instils an awareness and a sense of quiet pride in her children about their Aboriginal and their European ancestry.

But she says for herself it has been difficult to ignore what she says is the shame and stigma associated with being an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in Australia.

"I know this sounds terrible, but when you've got and you see the media, what they portray the Indigenous people why would you declare yourself being proud of them? They all portray the negative side of it. You don't really see a lot of positives come out of the media. A lot of people have this perception that indigenous people are nothing but alcoholics and druggos, abusers, violent. I've even had people say that to me and I've gone, hold on their not all like that. I had someone one day and they were, you know 'I hate Aboriginals' because they didn't know that I was Indigenous. And I let them finish what they were saying, and I said, you know their not all like that, and he said yes they are. And I said, how long have you and I been friends for? And he just looked at me and said, well a few years. And I said, did you know I was indigenous, and he said, hey? I don't advertise the fact, because that's why."

Documentation may be required for Indigenous people who want to apply for indigenous specific programs and projects.

Darren Bloomfield, who was part of the Stolen Generations, says while he doesn't tick the box identifying as Aboriginal when accessing government services.

But he did decide a few years ago to go through a confirmation process.

"I was taken away as a kid. And then I had to go through that identification process, you have to go and get an Aboriginality identification certificate. The most difficult part of that was that you try to get identified. Sure I look like a Koori but they couldn't identify me. And they said 'mate we don't know you. You have to go back to where you were born, to your land council.' And I'm thinking I don't even know them either, and they don't know me. I'm proud to be identified as a Koori man of the Wiradjuri nation, but just to get that was even more difficult than anything. I feel a little bit stupid that I have to do that too."

Professor Peter Buckskin is the Dean of Indigenous Scholarship and Engagement and Research at the University of South Australia.

He finds it sad that some people won't identify as having indigenous ancestry.

He believes the benefits of identifying far outweigh the negatives.

"Personally I think the benefits are more around your own psyche, how you feel about yourself and about your heritage. If you're a proud person in terms of your family heritage, I think you're better positioned to deal with the wider world. And I think governments are looking for more people to identify on forms so the can actually work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to ensure that they can be more culturally responsive and part of our responsibility is to educate. So I think it's a very good thing to identify, because we've got to speak back to the ignorance."

The New South Wales government is due to release its report on Aboriginal Self-Identification by mid 2014.