On Aboriginality and Identity

Recently I was reading (and enjoying) the Koori Woman‘s blog when I started to think about my own identity as an Aboriginal woman.

I have complicated feelings about my Aboriginality. First, my Aboriginal background/ why I identify as Aboriginal:
– My first introduction to the knowledge of being Aboriginal was from my  mother who always told me that she  and her family, and by extension me, were of Aboriginal origin and that’s what I should tick on forms.
– My maternal grandmother was a Koori woman of the Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr nations (she was also half French).

There are a number of reasons for my complicated relationship with my identity:
– I never knew my grandmother who passed away long before I was born. (Although I believe she never spoke about culture etc with my mother or any of my aunties and uncles).
– My family is very fractured and non communicative.
– There apparently was some falling out between my grandmother and the Elders in her home community.
– I was, for lack of better terms, brought up  in a white, fairly middle class home.

My instinctive feeling, but of course is unverified, is that my grandmother felt shamed about her Aboriginality and suppressed her identity, particularly when she moved from Grafton to the City. I could understand this since she was born in 1923 and in her lifetime racism was an even bigger problem than now. In a way I feel that there has been almost an inter-generational suppression of identity from my grandmother to some of my aunties and uncles. As I mentioned earlier, my mother has never denied her Aboriginality, but has not become involved in the community or tried to reconnect with family because of Reasons.

The combination of upbringing and family have left me without a strong sense of identity. I don’t know what it means to be Aboriginal.  I identify myself as such, but what does it actually mean? And here is where my complicated feelings come in – I feel a mixture of shame and embarrassment because I feel like I should know more about my culture, my heritage and my family; but I don’t. It seems to me that I was unintentionally and subconsciously taught that  it’s something not really talked about, not celebrated, not explored, instead it Just Is. I, like most others, have been affected by negative stereotypes, media and policies to see being Aboriginal as synonymous with being disadvantaged, uneducated, separate and essentially Other. While I don’t actively believe these things, they’ve been planted in my mind from growing up in modern Australia. This has also led me to feelings of guilt. Guilt that I identify as Aboriginal but have led a privileged life, that my parents have always been able to provide for me, that I have been able to successfully live independently and succeed at school and university. Part of that guilt also ties into my studies since I have been awarded scholarships intended for students of Indigenous descent (which of course I am and identify as such) but I feel like I don’t deserve recognition or support as an Aboriginal student because I don’t feel like I’ve suffered enough; been disadvantaged enough; am not well, black enough.

I really want to know more, connect more and be more involved with my family and community. I want to participate in the indigenous student life offered at Sydney University. However, I also suffer from anxiety and depression, so I feel like I can’t. I’m terrified at the prospect of meeting so many new people, of trying to integrate into a community, of trying to work out how to communicate with people. I feel overwhelmed. How do I even begin to get involved, to meet, participate and then even belong? One of my cousins is a source of inspiration in this regard, she’s done extensive work on our family history and produced a family tree. She’s also worked at meeting and connecting with our family. She also works in an indigenous role linking families up whose members were removed from their homes. Some of my aunties and uncles have also connected with our extended family, but my mother hasn’t. My mother’s reasons are possibly similar to my own, she might be interested but uncomfortable and a little afraid.

When people speak of their familial descent it seems acceptable to say you are Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Irish etc, but if you say you are of Aboriginal descent then it seems like a big deal, or that they can’t believe it because I am rather pale skinned. It makes me feel like Aboriginality is defined by the colour of your skin. This is not suprising given ingrained racial discrimination but somehow implies that Aboriginal identity is lesser or not good enough.

A large problem is that I don’t know what it means to be Aboriginal. According to AIATSIS ( Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) there are three criteria for confirmation of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage that are usually accepted by government agencies and community organisations. They are:

  • being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
  • identifying as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
  • being accepted as such by the community in which you live, or formally lived

Further to this here are historical and current legal definitions of Aboriginality. As this interesting page here points out, we have a problem when Aboriginal identity is defined by a white bureaucracy. Indeed, my mother has recently attempted to obtain her Certificate of Aboriginality (which is an absurd notion in and of itself) but was told that she was not well known enough by the community. When she then tried to find out how to get involved or known, the answers were vague and unhelpful. I understand why such criteria and systems are in place but it’s the only time when you have to prove your identity in such a way.

In the end I think I will need to find out what being Aboriginal means to me. I feel like being Aboriginal has both shaped my life and been markedly absent from it. In the future I would like to make it a larger part of my life.

PS. This is just a reflection of my own experiences and my own understandings, identity of any kind is a complicated and heterogeneous thing. I wouldn’t think of making assumptions or generalisations about anyone else’s understanding.

PPS. I’ve been wanting to get this out for a week and by now I’m too tired to proof read it, so I apologise for any mistakes.