If you wish to claim Aboriginal identity, bureaucratic and public services require official documentation and proof of heritage. This requirement created a need to define who qualifies as an Aboriginal, as well as what qualifications must be met before such documentation can be obtained.
Displacement, aboriginal history and the complexities of discovering family origins complicate this process. However, Commonwealth departments do agree on certain qualifications to determine who is Aboriginal.
Before Europeans came to Australia, Aboriginal people would identify themselves by the regional nation where they originated, such as Eora in the Southeast or Gundungurra in the New South Wales area. It was possible for a person to identify with multiple nations if their parents or grandparents heralded from different tribes, or if they moved to a different geographic area in their lifetime.
Colonialism brought dispossession, and comingling between different clans occurred as a result. This complicated the case of Aboriginal identity. At first, “blood-quotum” classifications were adopted by government institutions, which looked at the percentage of Aboriginal blood in an individual’s ancestral background.
The problem with this type of classification is that it was one-dimensional and often came to perceptions of race based on skin colour. Cases arose where light-skinned individuals with Aboriginal descent were rejected from some programs for not being Aboriginal, but accepted by others.
The “Three-Part” Definition
In 1981, a definition for Aboriginal identity was proposed by the Constitutional Section of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ in the ‘”Report on a Review of the Administration of the Working Definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.” This definition is split into three different qualifications:
- An individual must prove Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
- Identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
- Be accepted as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander by the specific community to which you claim heritage.
This tri-fold definition was adopted by departments of the Federal Government and the Federal Court for official purposes. On a less official level, this three-part definition acknowledges that identity is developed over time and is not limited to one single factor.
Beyond Official Definitions – Cultural Identity
There are many who are not satisfied by the three-part definition of Aboriginal identity. In the end, this definition still involves white, state-based institutions defining what it means to be “Aboriginal.” In many cases, identity is subjective and linked to culture down through family, involving experiences which can have little tangible evidence.
Stories concerning our genealogy and connections are passed down through kin, and the cultural values and beliefs connected with Aboriginal identity can be passed down this way as well. Different values and practices that are transferred from kin to youth can influence an individual’s cultural identity as they grow up. This means there is much more to Aboriginal identity than can be proven in an official government document.
While the three-part definition does address kinship and familial connections, it’s important to acknowledge that identity forms around culture and much of identity and culture are subjective.