This is not written to be an academic discussion in the Australian–English sense of professional papers that will be represented by others in this Companion. For me there is no other way to discuss a matter that is most sensitive to me, and so many other Aborigines around Australia, but to tell of my experience in being Aboriginal in an amazing period of Australian history. This is a human story that cannot be told with data, or tight academic style, or formal university literature, because it isn't a story to be told in quite that way. My story is about the Tasmanian Aboriginal experience in my lifetime. This includes the Aboriginal political struggle of the 1960s through to present day, and how it played a part in what could be called the 'evolution' of Australian Aboriginal identity. My discussion on Aboriginality is simply my story in thinking about the topic, my experience and memory of 'what happened'. Other Aborigines will of course have differing memories and experiences about Indigeneity, or Aboriginality, whatever, but we are still One People.
Most Aborigines believe that we are the most researched people of the world. The Australian government has the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Islander Studies holding a central archive of knowledge and information about Aboriginal and Islander people. Although this archive is mainly used by white academics, much of the archive knowledge has been obtained from Aboriginal and Islander people. A general view held in my community is that our identity has been a plaything for white academics and social scientists for over the recent 100 years of colonial development, and a 'new nation'.
Aboriginal history records the loss of our first languages to the English language, affecting Aboriginal identity quite early during the colonising of Tasmania. With the loss of language came the loss of knowledge, changing the way we Aborigines saw the world, and ourselves. Another influence was the church, the missionaries who were a part of the spearhead of colonisation. The missionaries had the job of changing us from savages to 'civilised people', to being Christians, giving my forebears an added experience of having their identity changed. These 'missionaries' tried in many ways to 'teach' our Old People to live and think like white people, and included a practice of giving them English and European names in an attempt to change who they were.
During the 1800s Aboriginal women were used and abused by white men, producing a mixed race of children who were not wanted by anyone but their own. As time went on Aborigines who were born with mixed racial origins were labelled all sorts of derogatory names such as 'quarter-caste' and 'part-Aboriginal', and 'boong' or 'coon'. During my younger years with my parents and close extended family, I remember how they accepted these labels imposed on them, and how it was a taboo to talk of being 'black' or 'Aboriginal'. Growing up as a 'Baby-Boomer' of the 1940s I remember now just how much we were prevented from having an identity to be proud of. Being treated as third class citizens of a white-Australia was, I think, accepted by my parents and extended family as at least having a place in the dominant white society.
When I was four years old my parents packed up and left Tasmania for Victoria to get away from the low stigma of being a part of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. At that time the Tasmanian Aboriginal community was not acknowledged in any way as being Aboriginal, but rather seen as being the sad remnants of a lost people. I remember that my parents and grandparents talked often about our family-line, usually in hushed tones of voice. In 1958 my immediate family returned to Tasmania, and I met our island families I had never known. This brought it home to me that we were descended from Tasmanian Aborigines. And although I was learning more and more about being Aboriginal, or 'part-Aboriginal', it was at a time that the public pressure of being Aboriginal caused me to feel shame for being who I was.
I can remember having negative attitudes about my cousins, and others who lived on Cape Barren Island in the 1960s, and 1970s. I was ashamed to accept that I was one of them even though I accepted that I was an Aboriginal descendent. Later, my study of my Aboriginality led me to become involved in the Aboriginal Movement, which was a learning-curve for me in understanding more about my Aboriginality. It was at this time that I experienced the hell of racism. Tasmanian Aborigines were standing up and being heard through a political movement that was making demands for land and a better deal from government. We weren't popular and it showed in the shops, hotels, government agencies, and almost everywhere in Tasmanian society. However, the times were a-changing, and governments were being forced through international focus on Australia's treatment of Aborigines to address the inequalities that existed between white Australians and Aborigines. The commonwealth government finally established a 'working' definition of Aboriginality to assist government agencies in providing services that were specifically aimed at Aborigines.
The 'working' definition is still used today, and is stated as follows:
That a an Aboriginal person is descended
the person identifies as being Aboriginal; and
person is accepted as being Aboriginal by the community.
The government's Assimilation programme of the 1960s going into the 1970s and did little to change white attitudes towards Aborigines. In fact we were being treated as 'these poor unfortunate' people who will be just like white people in the lower classes of white society. 'They'll be able to get a job and pay their rent, get off welfare, and generally blend into being white.' This attitude certainly didn't prevent the bigoted attitudes from continuing in the school system, or the welfare system, or the police system, for example. On call-back radio we listened to the most racist remarks one would ever want to hear, being told that we had no rights other than what white people allowed us, and then only if they made us to be more like white people. We were caught on a see-saw: 'we want you to be like us, but we don't want you'. And in general, white people didn't want their children marrying these 'half-castes'.
This was the era when the Tasmanian Aboriginal community began developing political action to expose and challenge the treatment being handed out by both government and society. It was a time when our adversary had many heads, including the media, the police, the government in general, and a white society determined to maintain power over us. We were told that we were Tasmanian Aboriginal descendants, meaning that we were only part-Aboriginal, or mixed race, or not really anything.
So it was, Tasmanian Aborigines met racism head-on taking the political challenge right up to the governments and society alike. Through the period of twenty years, the 1970s and 1980s, the Tasmanian Aboriginal struggle made political and social change in leaps and bounds. During this remarkable period in Tasmanian history, when political and social change were underway because of Aboriginal political pressure placed on governments, Tasmanian Aborigines were still being subjected to racism over the issue of identity. The Tasmanian government of the day would spend most of our meetings to negotiate Land Rights with arguments over our Aboriginality. Notwithstanding these negative attitudes, the more we were challenged over who we were, the more this brought a reaffirmation of our community's self-respect for its Aboriginality.
In Tasmania the Aboriginal Movement's major objective was to be formally acknowledged by white Tasmania as a living Aboriginal community. Not as descendents, not as part-Aborigines, but as Aborigines. It was a fierce political struggle, with a strong Aboriginal community prepared to do anything in a peaceful struggle to end the widely held attitude of dismissal. Tasmanian Aboriginal identity had never been abandoned by the people, a fact that ensured our objective would never be given up. Tasmanian Aborigines were breaking down the official barriers of government, and gaining acknowledgement and acceptance of our Aboriginality, and our rights to our heritage. Indeed, we had forced the Tasmanian government to cremate Truganini in 1976, and return our ancestors' human remains from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1984. It was an important event in history when the Tasmanian Aboriginal community cremated its ancestors' remains at Oyster Cove, and once again demonstrated itself as a living Aboriginal people with its identity intact.
But Aboriginal identity was to take yet another turn when in 1986 Michael Mansell, a well-known Tasmanian Aboriginal activist, went to Libya to seek help from Gadaffi. This action caused a political furore back in Australia, mainly due to Mansell's outspoken views on Aboriginal sovereignty at a conference in Tripoli. In 1988 Mansell led a group of Aborigines and two Maoris to Libya. The group presented Aboriginal passports, and received acknowledgement of Aboriginal nation status by the Libyan government.
This brought the Australian government to realise that its formal title for Aborigines possibly acknowledged Aborigines as non-citizens. It took the Hawke government, and his Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Clyde Holding, less than three months to change all of the government's political propaganda to formally acknowledge us as 'Aboriginal Australians'. We were to be no longer acknowledged as being Australian Aborigines, meaning Aborigines (non-citizen) albeit from Australia, to meaning Australian (citizen) albeit Aborigine or Aboriginal.
When Bob Hawke established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 1990 it created another image of Aboriginal identity influenced by a white bureaucracy. Moreover, ATSIC is established with an electoral system whereby only those Aborigines who register on the Australian electoral roll can participate in the ATSIC elections. This is a commonwealth government strategy to have Aborigines declare citizenship and acceptance of 'Australian' identity. Yet another strategy by the Hawke government was the creation of the Aboriginal Reconciliation programme, bringing new perceptions of Aboriginality and how it could be a part of white-Australian identity. This programme was political, of course, and had parameters in terms of Aboriginal self-determination. Clyde Holding, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, dictated what could be on the agenda of the Aboriginal Reconciliation programme. He refused to allow any discussion about a treaty to be on the agenda, and he selected the Reconciliation Council members to suit the government's direction.
These two government bodies, ATSIC and the Reconciliation Council, soon had Aborigines being employed to work to government policies, believing that they could change things for the better of Aborigines from inside government. These policies put Aborigines on a track where every day gone by brought a new pressure to bear on Aboriginal identity. It was a time when Aboriginal communities right around the country, including the Aboriginal Movement network, had all gone into a downhill slide. There was no longer the Aboriginal community controlled political struggle that had its representatives actively participating as members in the national Aboriginal political network. With many of these activists taking up government jobs the Aboriginal Movement all but disappeared from view, and only now continues as a member within the government corporate process. The Aboriginal Provisional government established by Michael Mansell in the mid-1980s is an exception, maintaining the struggle for sovereignty and freedom, and maintaining an important focus on Aboriginality.
With all of these things going on at the same time, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community maintained a Movement that continued to make positive changes. The Tasmanian government and opposition had moved their negotiations with us from challenging our Aboriginal identity to discuss which areas of land could be returned to our community. In 1991 the Field Labor government attempted to legislate to return 23 'parcels' of land to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, formally acknowledging Tasmanian Aborigines as a living community with rights inherent in our identity. It was later, in 1996, that a successful return of twelve 'parcels' of land by the Groom Liberal government gave a full and formal acknowledgement of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. However, it was through the 1990s that Aboriginal communities were being slowly strangled by the changing political landscape, with the National Aboriginal movement fast disappearing because many of the Aboriginal community advocates had blended into the government system. By the year 2000 the situation for Aborigines had deteriorated to a point where there were more Aborigines in gaols, more suffering from circumstances on a par with Third World countries, including poor water, poor health, poor education, high unemployment, and little brightness for a better future. This is not to deny that there are many Aborigines who have succeeded in a whole range of careers within Australian society, and again create changes to 'images' of Aboriginal identity in the process. To see it all is in effect to see but a brief glimpse of the diversity in Aboriginality, yet not necessarily understand much about what it really is. Each Aboriginal individual has circumstances and experiences that have influenced a personal attitude to one's own Aboriginality, and how it might be expressed to others. Aborigines have lived lives of being challenged over their identity, creating a confusion in how others understand Aboriginality. Yet Aboriginality in all of its diversity is not a confusion to Aborigines, most of whom embrace diversity of Aboriginal identity as simply being the way it is.
And this drama is ongoing as the new millennium sees Australian governments bringing yet another change to Aboriginal identity in the form of indigenous. Accepted, it is bureaucratic jargon, the government language that emerges to put a different 'flavour' on target groups, using language to 'soften' images and contexts. A good (or bad) example is the change of the expression of 'genocide' to that of 'ethnic cleansing'. An Aboriginal woman talking on ABC radio in March 2004 put forward a view that the 'full-blood' Aborigines are Aboriginal, and today's mixed racial origin Aborigines are Indigenous. And so the carving knife maintains Aborigines as being classified under two identities which divides us as a whole people. White-Australia's understanding of Aboriginality is yet again moved another step away from our living Aboriginality through the use of the English language, with a new classification to bring us more closely into the white-Australian national identity. This affects younger Aborigines understanding of their Aboriginality, bringing new expressions of identity in the emerging modern world. This may not be all that bad, but it is hardly a normal evolution of Aboriginal identity.
What then is Aboriginality in the year 2004? It can be many things depending on who defines it. It can mean that Aboriginal identity, for instance, can be compared with Aboriginality in that identity is a statement that you identify as being Aboriginal, that you belong to The Family: whereas Aboriginality can be seen as being Aboriginal with an understanding of both your bloodline and your spiritual-cultural being manifested in your personal sovereignty. Aboriginality can be compared with the way that citizens of other nations know themselves in their being, in their identity. Aboriginality has a spiritual dimension which emanates from within the Aboriginal person, which is essentially a person's being. By this I mean to know oneself in being as compared to not being. Aboriginality and Aboriginal identity, Indigeneity or Native: the sense of Aboriginal being and Aboriginal spirituality are integral dimensions to each other. There is no set spiritual formula, or One Story; there simply exists a fundamental connection with the greater spirit of our Earth Mother whereby we respect all other life.
In Tasmania there is a good number of Aborigines who know very little about their culture, spirituality, or in some cases, their bloodline. These Aborigines, and they are accepted and known as such in their respective Aboriginal communities, are victims of their parents' and grandparents' experience of racism and how it made them ashamed of being Aboriginal. These Aborigines today know they are Aborigines, have a bloodline, and know something of spirituality and culture, and carry memories of fragmented stories heard when as youngens they shouldn't have been listening. The Aboriginal community has more to do to bring these people into a willing Aboriginal community embrace, for their identity is affected by social development within the well established greater Tasmanian Aboriginal community.
My life experience brings me to this point where I see before us the greatest challenge to Tasmanian Aborigines since the arrival of the English. Tasmanian Aborigines are forced to maintain a political struggle which involves arguments concerning Aboriginality and rights inherent in this identity. I see a greater struggle developing whereby Tasmanian Aborigines are yet to determine their identity in a fast-changing modern world. Tasmania's courts had adjudicated on Tasmanian Aboriginality in recent years and failed because it is not a legal concept to be settled in the regime of an alien language. Our identity has been through a history in my memory of it, of abuse and disrespect, and of being coerced in understanding our identity as a negative. We have endured because we have no choice, our dignity and self-respect maintains a community spirit to be who we are regardless of the consequences. Whatever, the future is an unknown, there will be changes in the world and in local societies that go beyond anything I can imagine. I believe that the legacy we leave is our Aboriginal being, the continuing struggle: and a future that belongs to those who live it.