Aboriginal Identity: Who is 'Aboriginal'?

People who identify themselves as 'Aboriginal' range from dark-skinned, broad-nosed to blonde-haired, blue-eyed people. Aboriginal people define Aboriginality not by skin colour but by relationships. Light-skinned Aboriginal people often face challenges on their Aboriginal identity because of stereotyping.

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The power to define: Who is 'Aboriginal'?

Ever since white people mixed with Aboriginal people, they have struggled to define who is 'Aboriginal'.

Racist definitions of Aboriginal identity

Aboriginal caste definitions in an old form.
Caste categories in an identity card used in the 1940s .

From 1910 to the 1940s white people classified Indigenous people into castes. They defined

  • a 'full-blood' as a person who had no white blood,
  • a 'half-caste' as someone with one white parent,
  • a 'quadroon' or 'quarter-caste' as someone with an Aboriginal grandfather or grandmother,
  • a 'octoroon' as someone whose great-grandfather or great-grandmother was Aboriginal.

These "one-dimensional models of Aboriginality" pervaded literature of that time and were used in an effort to categorise Aboriginal people to determine if they were allowed or denied certain benefits. Today these words are considered offensive and racist. In fact, racism lies just beneath the surface and it "bubbles out" when Aboriginal identity is discussed.

Use of these terms stopped in the 1960s. Instead, authorities tried to find alternate definitions of Aboriginal identity, which, however, were still influenced by colonial thinking. Since legislation for Indigenous people was a state matter, each state found its own definition for 'Aboriginal'. Examples:

  • Western Australia: a person with more than a quarter of Aboriginal blood.
  • Victoria: any person of Aboriginal descent.

The Commonwealth Parliament defined an Aboriginal person as "a person who is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia", a definition which was still in use in the early 1990s.

Stop insulting Aboriginal people or we may have to consider calling white Australians half-caste convicts.

— Uncle Chicka Dixon, Aboriginal activist

Three-part definition of Aboriginal identity

It took a 'Report on a Review of the Administration of the Working Definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' in 1981 to propose a new definition (my emphasis):

Definition: Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander

"An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person

  • of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
  • who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and
  • is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives."

This is called the 'three-part' definition of Aboriginal identity and was soon adopted by all Commonwealth departments. The definition is also known as the tripartite test and was used in the High Court's Mabo decision in 1992.

If you were to define your Aboriginality you could answer these three questions as follows :

  • Descent: "I am a descendant of the Ngunnawal Nation from the South Slopes and Southern Tablelands of NSW".
  • Identification: "I am an Aboriginal person and a proud descendent of the Biripi people of Taree and I proudly identify as an Aboriginal person".
  • Community: "I am known as an Aboriginal person within the Aboriginal community of Yass, where my father was born and in the Chippendale/Redfern areas of Sydney where I grew up and in Earlwood where I now live".

Variations of this definition were used later by legislative and government bodies. Many Aboriginal persons carry 'certificates' from Indigenous organisations which state their Aboriginality.

However, the fact remains that a white authority defines who is an Aboriginal person rather than Aboriginal people (see further below how Aboriginal people define their identity).

Without our voices, Aboriginality will continue to be a creation for privileged opportunists and will always be about us rather than by us.

— Julie Tommy Walker, Innawonga woman and Aboriginal leader

Until 1 July 2016, the Tasmanian government had a much stricter "test" of Aboriginality than the Commonwealth, which resulted in the Commonwealth counting 18,000 Aboriginal Tasmanians, while the Tasmanian government counted only 6,000.

Identity is choice

As you might have gathered from the previous section, non-Aboriginal people have long tried to define what 'Aboriginal' is. But do they have licence to do that?

Imagine your mother has an Aboriginal mother and Indian father, your father's parents are Scottish and Italian. Who are you? What is your identity?

You alone can choose your identity. You might feel strongly about one of the four heritages your parents gave you. Maybe its culture, customs and history resonates with you in a particular way. Maybe its country is calling you.

This is no different for Aboriginal people of mixed descent. Some choose to identify as Aboriginal because they feel strongly connected to that part, often because they are living in the country and on the land that connects them with their Aboriginal heritage. Others choose not to. We need to respect either decision and not question why they made it.

Stan Grant is a broadcaster and journalist whose mother is of mixed descent. He feels as if "the very essence of belonging has been ruptured and the certainty of heritage blurred". Stan chose to identify as a Wiradjuri man, but it's a choice that, for him, is not done and dusted.

"I am an Australian – yet my history tells me that my sense of citizenship and belonging is fragile and fraught," he says. "I belong to a nation; I belong to family and a people and yet I am an individual free to determine for myself who and what I wish to be. But how do I do that?"

It's a question many Aboriginal people ask themselves.

What it is to be Indigenous has become a puzzle not easily explained, nor simple to comprehend.

— Stan Grant, broadcaster and journalist

Remember that "identity" starts with the letter "i" — because I define it.

Story: "But I'm indigenous too!"

When people discuss identity publicly you inevitably get comments by non-Aboriginal people who claim that they, too, are "indigenous" because they were "born on this land".

The dictionary defines "indigenous" as "originating or occurring naturally in a particular place", and one could argue that this is true for everyone who was born on a particular land.

But to use this definition for indigenous peoples would be stereotypical and too narrow.

The United Nations recommend the following definition:

"Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems."

The keywords here are "historical continuity with pre-invasion" and "distinct from other sectors of the societies".

Clearly, any non-Aboriginal Australian born in Australia has no history with pre-invasion and is not distinct from the prevailing society.

Video: A discussion about Aboriginal identity

Watch a 5-minute extract of the SBS programme Insight: Aboriginal Or Not?

This was episode 19 of the 2012 season, broadcast on 7 August 2012.

Having to confirm Aboriginality is a major hurdle and offends

Even 30 years after the three-part definition Aboriginal people are still asked to "confirm" their Aboriginality to services and bureaucrats.

A confirmation of Aboriginality is usually required when applying for grants, university courses, unemployment and housing assistance, school programs or when applying for jobs which require an Aboriginal applicant.

But Aboriginal people still encounter major hurdles during the application process.

Rosie Gillman, from NSW, has always identified as Aboriginal, has paperwork signed by a government department that she is Aboriginal and a researched family tree that proves she is Aboriginal.

Yet in 2010 "two major organisations" she approached did not confirm her Aboriginality. Another woman she knows successfully applied, but her brother's application was also rejected.

Jack Charles is one of Australia's most renowned Aboriginal actors and was born to a Bunnerong woman and a Wiradjuri man. He was involved in setting up Australia's first Aboriginal theatre group, Nindethana, in Melbourne in 1971, performed in the 2012 Sydney Festival production I am Eora, about Sydney's Aboriginal community, and starred in the feature film Bastardy.

Yet that was not enough for the federal government's arts funding body, the Australia Council, which strictly followed protocol and demanded Charles prove his Aboriginality before it considered his application for a grant to write a book about his life.

Deeply offended, Charles rejected to continue rehearsals for productions at the Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir St Theatre.

The Council changed its protocol following the incident, and Aboriginal people are no longer forced to prove their identity when applying for grants.

Problem: No standard for recognising Aboriginality

Several problems impede recognition of Aboriginality:

  • Organisations do not recognise each other's paperwork.
  • There appears to be a lack of consistency between agencies (some have accepted statutory declarations).
  • There is no governing body regarding Aboriginality. It is left up to the individual organisations to interpret government rules.
  • No national register or directory of Aboriginal people exists.

Services insist on confirming Aboriginality to avoid abuse. Like any system of services that aims to provide a benefit to a minority of society, Aboriginal services are subject to abuse by a small number of dishonest people. Some have therefore called for a national database of Aboriginal people to resolve "once and for all" the controversial issue of proving Aboriginality.

Sometimes non-Aboriginal people identify as a First Nations person for various reasons - some perceive benefits in doing so, others might see it as a "fashionable" thing to do or because they claim links to First Nations people. It is not respectful, however, and such people are often called race shifters, a term that emerged from North America.

If we can't work out who our own people are, how can we expect non-Aboriginal people to understand?

— Ray Gates, Mentoring Program Coordinator, National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Physiotherapists

Is there genetic proof of Aboriginality?

Proposals of genetic testing as a means of proving one's Aboriginality have sometimes been dismissed on the grounds that 'race' and 'ethnicity' are social, cultural and political constructs which cannot be tested objectively.

However, genome sequencing of a comprehensive study of Aboriginal Australians showed that Aboriginal people adapted biologically to the environment due to their long occupation of the continent, changing their genetic structure. The evidence suggested desert groups were able to withstand sub-zero night temperatures without showing the increase in metabolic rates observed in Europeans under the same conditions.

"People have changed and adapted over deep time as the country has ... we just don't see that in any other Homo sapiens populations," explains the co-author of the study, Dr Michael Westaway, of Griffith University.

Genetics and migration

Another study suggests that Aboriginal people from the Eurasian population before Asian and European populations split from each other, probably 62,000 to 75,000 years ago, which matches the current accepted span of Aboriginal occupation (around 65,000 years).

As mankind expanded eastwards, Australian Aboriginal people left an early Asian expansion wave and migrated south. This explains the close genetic relationship to Munda speakers of India, the Aeta from the Philippines and Bougainville Papuans. Aboriginal people are also genetically closer to Asians (Cambodian, Japanese, Han, and Dai) than Europeans (French).

These findings suggest that before invasion Aboriginal people and Papua New Guinean Highlands people were genetically isolated from other populations, but not necessarily from each other.

The study confirmed that Australian Aboriginal people are "one of the oldest continuous population histories outside sub-Saharan Africa today".


You can have your DNA tested by companies such as Ancestry. Presently, the closest indicator for Aboriginal genes is Melanesian which includes Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Papuan ancestors. Upload your raw DNA file (e.g. from Ancestry) to Gedmatch and do a Melanesian scan on "MDLP K16 Modern Admixture Proportions" to break down the distinct Aboriginal components. (Thanks to my subscriber Michael F for this tip.)

Video: Australia's genetic history

Watch Professor Eske Willerslev discuss the genetic history of Aboriginal Australians (Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen).

I never declared my ancestry. I didn't have to. White Australia pointed, sometimes even shouted it, out to me.

— Lillian Holt, academic and writer

Aboriginal children of the desert regions are born with naturally blonde hair. It turns naturally to black around the time they are nine to ten years old.

Portrait of Raymond in his bathtub.
Aboriginal man Raymond shares his views on identity in the About Face Project by Keo Lin .

Story: "You can't be ten per cent pregnant"

Aboriginal man Raymond tells us about his experiences of identity .

"I'm Aboriginal Afghan on my dad's side, and Scottish on my mom's side. And it is very much… all through school, we were half casts, or people would ask "what percentage of you is Aboriginal?"

But for me, I'm Aboriginal. It's all or nothing, you can't choose a part of it. I guess it's like being pregnant, it's either you're pregnant or not. You can't be ten per cent pregnant.

When someone from the Aboriginal community knows that you're Aboriginal, it's accepted. We've got the connection, we've got the similarities.

But for non-Aboriginals, often, it's "but you don't look Aboriginal" or "You're only part Aboriginal so that doesn't count".

People have an image in their minds of what an Aboriginal looks like, which is often black black, very traditional, maybe standing with a spear, one leg up. If somebody doesn't fit into that narrow frameset, then they think they can't be Aboriginal or at least not 100% Aboriginal."

Story: "Just another white guy"

Dan discovered his Aboriginal ancestry very late in life. Read how he distinguishes between Aboriginal "descent" and "identity" .

"My maternal great grandmother was a traditional Aboriginal woman who gave birth to my grandfather through a liaison with a white pastoralist in Central Queensland. My grandfather was either removed or given up for adoption (can't get the definitive facts on this) and his siblings (all Aboriginal) were removed and sent to places like Yarrabah and Palm Island.

Through family fractures, I never met my mother until I was in my early 40s (I am now in my 50s). Only after a lot of painstaking genealogical research after meeting mum (who looked Aboriginal, and confirmed that she was), that I know where that side of the family came from.

I was actually brought up by my paternal grandparents (Irish and Jewish ancestry) and for a period, the State of Victoria as a State Ward. I am proud of my mixed ancestry and although I am very well accepted by my Aboriginal friends and colleagues as being Aboriginal, I have always stopped short of identifying myself as Aboriginal.

I always say that I am of Aboriginal descent, and justify the difference on the basis that I was not brought up in an Aboriginal cultural context. I reckon that there must be thousands of white skinned people like me out there that face the same issues every day.

The oddest part of the whole thing is that my youngest child is very dark and is often thought of as an adopted black kid!

For the record, I am very interested in learning as much as I can about all of my cultural origins... Also for the record, I do have a problem with a person like me accessing any benefits etc through Aboriginality. Clearly, these benefits are designed for people who have suffered from intrinsic disadvantage associated with their ethnic or racial backgrounds.

I cannot honestly say that my progress in the world has been inhibited at all--I think it would have been different however, if I did not appear just as another white guy."

Aboriginal people defining their Aboriginality

Prior to colonisation the First People of Australia identified themselves by their nation. They would say "I'm a Dharawal man" or "I'm an Eora woman". Some country names around the greater Sydney area include Gundungurra (near Goulburn, south-west of Sydney), Dharawal (Woolongong), Eora (Sydney).

Many Aboriginal people identify themselves as belonging to several nations for example as "Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay". This is because

  • their parents or grandparents come from these nations. Traditionally they would've come from the same nation, but contemporary relationships often involve partners from different Aboriginal nations;
  • they have lived in two places and identify themselves with each.

When people ask me where I am from, I say, "I am from here, I am Kabi Kabi, Teribalang Bunda, Goreng Goreng and I have connection to South Sea Island heritage".

— Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian, Coordinator Nulloo Yumbah Learning Spirituality and Research Centre at CQ University

Another way Aboriginal people identify is by their boundary or state name.

Aboriginal boundary (state) names
New South WalesKoori, Goorie, Koorie, Coorie, Murri
South AustraliaNunga
Western AustraliaNoongar
Northern TerritoryYolngu (top end); Anangu (central)
TasmaniaPalawa, Koori

Stories of Aboriginal identity

Aboriginal people see their Aboriginality as much more than DNA alone – there is a mental component as well, an understanding of what it is to be Aboriginal that has been passed down, not brought in or learned academically.

Artist and teacher Yalmay Gurrwun (Marika) Yunupingu addressed a crowd during the Human Rights and Social Justice Award 2014 keynote as follows. How do you think this introduction compares to that of a non-Aboriginal person?

"I’d like to introduce myself first 'Yol ŋarra? Who am I'? and where I’m from. My name is Gurruwuṉ Yunupingu also known as Yalmay which means special sand on a Dhuwa land and Gurruwuṉ means a special walking stick that two ancestral beings used when they started their journey from East to West. Marika is my maiden name before I was married into the Yunupingu family. Marika means ‘thunder and lightning’. My skin-name is Gamanydjan.

"My clan and Bäpurru [tribe] is Rirratjiŋu which is the language I speak, my father’s language. I am Dhuwa moiety which I inherited through my father’s side. My ḻikan [ancestral connection] is Gunitjpirr Guṉuwaŋa these are the special names identifying who I am just like your identification card on your driver’s licence. But we don’t carry our identification like a card, we live who we are."

Let's be clear, Aboriginal identity is defined by us, no one else. We are a diverse peoples reflecting the contemporary Australia we all inhabit.

— Jody Broun, Co-Chair National Congress of Australia's First Peoples

Identity was a magazine of the Aboriginal Publications Foundation and produced quarterly from 1971 to 1982 (38 issues in total).

The content ranged from debate about political issues to community profiles featuring local football teams. Stories celebrated the achievements of the less-known and the well-known, while others held a critical lens to issues of national importance. See AIATSIS website for details.


Did you know that some First Nations family names have Muslim origins? Some of the names trace to the first Afghan cameleers who came to Australia in 1838 as part of expeditions to explore the interior of Australia. The cameleers stayed on and developed relationships with First Nations communities, often marrying into them.

Video: "I am not the problem"

Aboriginal activist and former actor Rosalie Kunoth-Monks gave probably one of the most powerful statements of her identity. She replied to criticism of John Pilger's film Utopia in a Q&A broadcast on 9 June 2014 (transcript below).



"You know, I have a culture. I am a cultured person. [Speaking Arrernte] I’m talking another language. And my language is alive. I am not something that fell out of the sky for the pleasure of somebody putting another culture into this cultured being.

"John [Pilger] shows [in Utopia] what is an ongoing denial of me. I am not an Aboriginal or, indeed, Indigenous. I am Arrernte, Alyawarre, First Nations person, a sovereign person from this country. [Speaking Arrernte]

"This is the country I came out from. I didn’t come from overseas. I came from here. My language, in spite of whiteness trying to penetrate into my brain by assimilationists – I am alive, I am here and now – and I speak my language. I practise my cultural essence of me.

"Don’t try and suppress me and don’t call me a problem. I am not the problem. I have never left my country nor have I ceded any part of it. Nobody has entered into a treaty or talked to me about who I am.

"I am Arrernte Alyawarre female elder from this country. Please remember that. I am not the problem."

Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian says Aboriginal people accept those into their communities who claim to be of Aboriginal descent, regardless of their appearance.

"And if someone, coloured green, with scales instead of skin, a big bulging eye in the middle of what we call our forehead, and breaths blue smoke from what we call nostrils, comes to me and tells me that they are Aboriginal, I will say, 'Welcome home, you have just added one more number to our peoples population.'"

University of Adelaide student Nathan Kauschke offers a more real-life experience when he reflects on the moment he first faced coming into an Aboriginal community.

"Being fair skinned, I was scared shitless of how the Indigenous community would receive me. I felt out of place until a gentlemen approached me, welcomed me and said 'it's been a long time brother'. I felt like a star as that man was Charles Perkins and his acceptance of me was the proudest day of my life. He knew who I was, he knew my soul."

However, not all experiences are that positive. Bruce Pascoe, author of the acclaimed book Dark Emu, was deeply hurt when in late 2019 an Aboriginal woman accused him of not being Aboriginal and filed a complaint with the Home Affairs Minister who forwarded the matter to the Australian Federal Police (AFP). A few weeks later the AFP closed the case because it could not identify an offence.

While Pascoe acknowledges that his Aboriginal roots are "distant relationships" they are nonetheless important to him, a choice he has made which should be respected.

Judging Aboriginal people by their skin colour is a mistake that you should avoid. "In Indigenous communities, that’s a very dangerous point," explains Nathan McGuire, a man from the Whadjuk Noongar people (Western Australia) and business man. "It’s deeply layered, and tied into the history of invasion and colonisation. While skin tone is an important conversation in some communities, for Aboriginal people like me it’s a traumatic thing for someone to hear, and triggers deep emotions that surround our treatment in the past and today."

Poem: Who Am I?

Nowhere to run and hide
Its suicide
People drunk
Nowhere to bunk
People fight
I run and stay out of sight
Boys in blue
I don’t know what to do
I’m poor
But I won’t knock on a door
My life is sad
But I’m not bad
I’m on my own
All alone
No one there
So why would you care?
I stay alive
To survive
I don’t know my ABC, 123
So what does that mean to me?
Who am I?
All I want to do is cry
You may know me
I don’t know my family

Thank you for sharing your poem, Sharon. Read more Aboriginal poetry

We, as First Nations peoples are not Australians. We are who we are. If individual Aboriginal people choose to be assimilated and seek to be part of the invader society, then good on them! But they must not pretend to talk for those of us who seek to be known by our own national identity of belonging to an Aboriginal nation state.

— Michael Anderson, Aboriginal rights activist and leader of the Euahlayi tribe

Although quite a few Aboriginal people would agree with Anderson and not consider themselves Australians, the High Court in 2020 found that "you can be an Australian and not an Aboriginal person, but you can't be an Aboriginal person and not an Australian".

Late discovery

It is not uncommon that some Australians discover later in life that they have Aboriginal ancestors.

It might be because their parents hid this aspect from them, that family records don't exist or were destroyed, or that they have an incomplete family tree (e.g. due to the Stolen Generations).

Suddenly the pressure is on to redefine one's identity, and possibly to also do a crash course in the culture you now identify with, as Aboriginal singer Casey Donovan knows only too well.

She new very little about her Aboriginal background. But when she shot to fame after winning Australian Idol in 2004 she had to catch up fast. "After Idol, all of a sudden the media was asking me about my culture and I didn't know the answers. It was a shock for me. As soon as I could drive, I went up to Nambucca to an Indigenous learning centre to get to know my family and my heritage."

Of coconuts, eggs and bananas


If Aboriginal people think highly of you, for example because you showed respect and have a deep understanding of their culture, you are an inverted coconut because you are white on the outside yet black on the inside.

Similarly, people who blend into Chinese culture are called an egg (which is a compliment) because they are white on the outside yet yellow on the inside.

Flash blacks are those Aboriginal people who either well-educated or have high-flying jobs.

However, if Aboriginal people call one of their kind a coconut they want to express that they became white on the inside and are no longer considered to be 'one of them'.

Similarly, Jacky Jacky is used to denote an Aboriginal person who's a collaborator, complicit in his own people's problems. Mission manager is another derogative term in that sense.

If you are of Asian descent and have a Caucasian attitude you are called a banana—yellow on the outside but white on the inside.

Story: Tim's struggle for identity

When Tim Eckersley was one week old he was adopted out to a white family. But all his younger years were a struggle to find his Aboriginal identity .

It led him to life on the streets when he was 13, and then in and out of boys' homes until 17.

"I was 17 when I went to jail and it was a long journey. I spent all of my 20s inside and I wasn't in the right frame of mind to be in society," Tim says.

"My [foster] family have always been supportive, they never gave up on me, but it was hard. I found it hard at school because I was alone and I didn't know who I was."

It was in jail where he reconnected with his culture, finding a brotherhood with other Indigenous prisoners. "In jail I experienced knowing about my culture, I learned to paint and dance, and a lot about cultural issues. It was there that I really developed who I was, belonging to my culture and identifying who I was and where I fit into it, I felt proud."

In 2002, 31-year-old Tim finally got the chance to reunite with his Aboriginal family from Western Australia, but, sadly, his mother had already passed away.

"For me, reconnecting with your family is almost like revisiting your pain. It's not just painful for me, but for them also, so it is an ongoing journey that I will eventually get to reconnect with more of my family as I get a bit stronger."

Identity Intact

No matter how much you dilute
Mix, match and try to pollute
Our identity remains intact
Something you can't change, that's a fact
Our spirit is not measured by the shade of our skin
But by something stronger found within
A place you can not touch or take away
It will remain shining out till our dying day
We all connect with it again
No matter how far we've been.

This poem was written by Deidre Currie, Tweed Heads, NSW . Read more Aboriginal poetry.

The very fabric of what it means to be Aboriginal [is] that being, living and breathing the journey, walking the land as proud Aboriginal people, knowing the importance of being respectful within our community and wanting with all your heart and ability to make positive change.

— Paul Ralph, CEO KARI Aboriginal Resources Inc

Story: "I never chose that identity"

Nicole Watson is an Aboriginal solicitor, author and research fellow at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Sydney . This is the story of her search for her identity.

"I belong to the Birri Gubba People of central Queensland, even though I live in Sydney. I have blonde hair and blue eyes; characteristics that are irrelevant to my identity as an Aboriginal person. I never chose that identity. Rather, it was a bequest from the people who reared me—my strong-willed European Australian mother and my fiery Aboriginal father.

My parents met in high school. They could not have picked a worse setting for their budding romance—Brisbane during the height of the Bjelke-Petersen Government. This was a time when black activists were regularly beaten by police, while their relatives on reserves endured the stifling and all encompassing control of the dreaded superintendent.

My much cherished maternal grandfather was a farmer from Kingaroy and an avowed Bjelke-Petersen supporter. I can only imagine Pop's horror when he realised that his beautiful daughter had fallen in love with a cocky Aboriginal youth, who even had long hair. Over the years however, Pop grew to love his son-in-law.

By the time that I came into the world, Dad was a prominent leader in the flowering Aboriginal rights movement. He was constantly at the front-line, which often took him to the Tent Embassy in Canberra. Even when he was home, Dad was preoccupied with the fledgling community organisations that would go on to deliver legal aid, housing and health care to our people.

Like my father, many of his contemporaries in the Movement were married to non-Indigenous partners. Invariably, it was the non-Indigenous partner who cared for the children and kept the home fires stoked, while the activists were away, fighting the struggle that had to be fought. The stories of those selfless, loving parents are yet to be told.

From the beginning, my mother was determined that my brother and I would be raised to be proud of our Aboriginal heritage. Perhaps, Mum sacrificed some of her own heritage for us, but her life also became entwined in the rich tapestry of Aboriginal kinship.

Throughout my teens, more than one observer casually raised the apparent clash between my light features and my Aboriginal identity. Such comments always drew a flash of pain on my father's face. As an adult, I can only imagine how horrible it must have been for Dad to hear the paternity of his child being questioned so audaciously. I still marvel at the incredible privilege that lurked behind those obtuse comments.

When strangers question my identity, they question the adults who grew me. They question the choices that were made for me and perhaps, even the love that my family gave to me, and continue to give. As painful as such interrogations have been, they will never shake my identity. I know who I am. But I do wonder what motivates the likes of Andrew Bolt. What dark insecurities fester in his psyche that he has a desperate need to assault the humanity of strangers?

The greater tragedy however, is the Australian public that seems to have developed a fetish for watching Aboriginal identity under the microscope, while seemingly indifferent to the desperate circumstances of so many Aboriginal communities."

Homework: Identity and pride

Aboriginal director and film writer Ivan Sen is the son of an Aboriginal mother and a Croatian father. About his Aboriginal identity he says:

"I don't think I'm proud of it now. I guess I own it now. I have a problem with pride as an emotion; it's a concept I don't quite get. But my work has become an expression that showed everyone who I was and that allowed me to own it."


  • What is the difference between being proud of and "owning" one's identity?
  • List a few things Ivan must have thought about to be able to own his identity.
  • Find another Aboriginal person of mixed descent and explore their sense of identity.
  • Could you say you "own" your identity? What can you do to be able to say it?

What does it mean to be 'Aboriginal'?

In this section Aboriginal people define for themselves what it means to be Aboriginal.

A friend of mine put it this way: "To be Aboriginal is many things and different to all. But at this moment, to me, it includes to follow a path to those who journeyed before you, similar but different, to hear the secret and loving stories of the land with understanding, to be independent, to hear and see with feeling that which can not be seen with open eyes, be part of a group, be as natural as the land, and to be hospitable and enjoy hospitality."

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, said: "For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples it is our beliefs, our culture, and our family histories that contribute to our sense of who we are and what we mean to others. They are our source of belonging – and they anchor us and steer our course through our lives."

Poet and Bayili woman Zelda Quakawoot says that Aboriginal people have "a long and deep connection to land, the sea, and this is reflected and proven through the continued practises of tradition. This includes ceremonial activities relating to manhood, womanhood and nature, taboos about marriage and other customs within groups of people, division of labour according to hunting and gathering groups, and the special ways we identify and caretake land and sea areas. These are the things which identify the First Nation of a country."

You can only be a proud Aboriginal person if you carry your own learning and cultural lifestyle with you.

— Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Chairman Yothu Yindi Foundation

To me, Aboriginality is about that shared experience, that shared culture and that shared pride.

— Amy McQuire, Aboriginal journalist

In-between black and white

Bruce Pascoe, an Aboriginal writer and language researcher, from the Bunurong clan of the Kulin nation, reflects on missed opportunities to learn more about his culture:

"My insight into Aboriginal Australia is as abbreviated as my heritage has allowed. It is as if I have been led at night to a hill overlooking country I have never seen. I am blindfolded but at dawn the cloth is removed and I am asked to open my eyes for one second, any longer and I will be killed, and then asked to describe that country."

I haven't felt like I fitted into the binary of black and white. Often in our lives we inhabit the in-between world, the different spaces that come up between the extremes.

— Peter Waples-Crowe, Koori artist

I tell my grandchildren you might not want to go to an Aboriginal dance and you might not want to talk our language, but the whitefella still calls you Aboriginal, I don't care how you act like the whitefella. You are still Aboriginal, you can't change that.

— Joyce Injie, Aboriginal woman, Yinhawangka tribe

Patrick Dodson, a respected Aboriginal elder and leader, received the 2008 Sydney Peace Prize. In his thank you speech he described what peace means to him, revealing his notion of Aboriginal identity at the same time, in an almost poetic manner .

"Peace from the drunks, the alcohol abuse, the violence, and the molestation that takes place... Peace from the harassment from police, peace from discrimination and racism, that people experience when they try to get a flat or a house or seek to get a job. Peace from the gazing eyes of the public as you enter a room because of the colour of your skin. Peace because of the unsettled nature of our relationship with this country, which was once ours and has since been taken over... And a peace that comes from knowing that you have to justify who you are every day of the week just because you are an Aboriginal person."

Being Aboriginal is about relationships

Being Aboriginal is a lot about relationships. Here's an extract from a Welcome to Country given by Rob Welsh, Chairman of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council in Sydney, which illustrates in a humorous way what this means in practice .

"This is a bit of wisdom that comes from one of my elders in Redfern. I was walking along Redfern Street, and an elder came up to me. And he said to me: 'Rob, as a leader in this community, there's something you gotta know. And what I'm going to tell ya affects the Aboriginal people in Redfern and right around Australia. But it also affects the people from right around the world, every culture.' He looked at me and said: 'Rob, where there's a will, there's a relative!'"

Security to aisle three' can generally be translated as 'identifiable Aboriginal of any age shopping in aisle three'.

— Sharon Livermore, Aboriginal poet

Lateral violence—when Aboriginal people go against Aboriginal people

Some Aboriginal people are very suspicious of their kind getting too close to whitefellas.

Aboriginal lawyer and elder Noel Pearson from Queensland, ALP powerbroker Warren Mundine, and Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton were all met with suspicions by their own people because they engaged with people from all sides .

Some members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities express suspicion of those who do not fit their model of Aboriginal authenticity--questions of identity becoming a powerful mechanism to run each other down . Negative behaviour like this is known as "lateral violence".

Twitter responses

After One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson said there was no definition of Aboriginal in an interview in November 2016, Aboriginal people took to Twitter to express what being Aboriginal meant for them.

Here are a few selected responses . Can you find a common thread?

  • "Having to get an Uber because a Taxi wont pick you up."
  • "Being called racist for calling out racists."
  • "Walking in the shops with mates but you're the only one followed around."
  • "When your success is met with 'Yeah, but you're one of the good ones' and your failure is met with 'Told you so!'"
  • "Being told you speak well for an Aboriginal."
  • "Going to more funerals than weddings."
  • "Being told by a school mate at my reunion that the day I was born was the darkest in my town's history."
  • "Being told you're too pretty & smart to be Aboriginal."
  • "Teacher tells you the Stolen Generation[s] [were] conceived from a good genuine place and [were] meant to help Aboriginal people."
  • "Having to work twice as hard for a fraction of the success."
  • "Being 10 years old & watching your dad get locked up for skateboarding on a footpath & [jay]walking."
  • "Identifying as Aboriginal only to be told 'Don't worry, I couldn't even tell'."
  • "Having to put up with people who talk really slow at you, often in tiny patronising voices."
  • "As a[n] 8 year old, you and your cousin having to empty your pockets after paying for your items."
  • "Being strong & proud, connection to my home country, caring for others, family & community, having respect for Elders."

How do I prove I am Aboriginal?

Sometimes you discover an Aboriginal ancestor in your family and you start asking yourself: Am I Aboriginal too? How much 'Aboriginality' does it require to be Aboriginal? Who can 'prove' that I am Aboriginal?

In other cases, you know you are Aboriginal, but you have to prove it to an employer or organisation.

Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage is voluntary and very personal. You don't need paperwork to identify as an Aboriginal person. However, you may be asked to provide confirmation when applying for Aboriginal-specific jobs, services or programs (for example grants).

Step 1: Prepare yourself for the process

The process to prove your Aboriginality can be stressful, as Nyikina academic Emily Poelina-Hunter experienced first-hand when she applied for her job at RMIT University.

"Collating family history evidence can be difficult and emotionally distressing; there is a fear of community rejection; and a fear that your potential employers may be thinking that you’re 'faking it' while you’re waiting for the confirmation document to arrive," she explains.

The difficulties arise because getting evidence of Aboriginal descent and community acceptance depend on how invasion and the time since impacted your family, something that's out of your control.

Gather as much information about your family history and heritage as possible. This can be, for example,

  • birth, death and marriage certificates,
  • oral history (stories), or
  • photographs.

Step 2: Prepare the paperwork

What you need is a confirmation letter from an Aboriginal incorporated organisation. To get it, you need paperwork that satisfies the three-part definition of Aboriginality (You are of Aboriginal descent, identify as Aboriginal and are accepted as such by your community).

You'll need two statutory declarations: one asserting that you self-identify as Aboriginal; a second asserting your community connections. Then send both to an Aboriginal incorporated organisation, ideally one in your community.

That organisation then sends your confirmation letter to your employer (or the organisation requesting it).

Prepare yourself mentally for potential disappointment. "The three-part test for Aboriginality is an 'all or nothing' test," says Emily, and blames colonisation for some Aboriginal people's failure to fulfill all three parts of the definition. The confirmation letters remind her of the old certificates of exemption issued during Australia’s White Australia policy era.

Organisations to contact are, for example:

Story: Don't give up searching – Eddie's journey

It took Eddie a lot of energy and persistence to find his Aboriginality . Read how he overcame his obstacles and found his mob.

"To anyone who is seeking their biological identity and is suspicious of an Aboriginal heritage that has been 'covered-up' please continue to do so, no matter who many blind alleys, dead ends or misleading suggestions you may encounter," Eddie writes.

"This was me a few years back and I have since found a wonderful family (mob) of blackfellas that I never knew existed. Your forebears, like mine, probably had very good reasons to cover up their identity."

Eddie's grandfather was one of them. During World War I he discovered that African-American soldiers shared his surname--and decided to use this to change his life.

"On his return to Australia he moved to Sydney from country New South Wales and re-invented himself, taking an Irish immigrant wife and parenting a large family. His new non-Aboriginal identity allowed him to gain employment for Australia Post where he was able to forge new lives for his family.

"This has led to a state of complete denial through his family line for almost 100 years."

Fortunately for Eddie, his grandfather's brothers and sisters accepted their Aboriginal identity. They all married according to proper Aboriginal tribal protocol.

"So I was eventually, and with much diligence, able to uncover [my Aboriginal heritage]," writes Eddie.

Despite legal threats by some of his family members, Eddie persisted. "With great pride I declared my own Aboriginality, and if you too intend to do this with real sincerity and not for self-gain I strongly urge your participation."

Teaching resources

Review the lyrics of Cher's song Half-breed and listen to the song on YouTube (see video below).

  • How do you think a "half-breed" feels in society?
  • Why do people call her that name?
  • List all the parallels you can find between this song and experiences of Australian Aboriginal people. Use their poetry if you get stuck.
  • Think of two ways how the last line of the song could apply to Aboriginal people.


My father married a pure Cherokee
My mother's people were ashamed of me
The Indians said I was white by law
The White Man always called me "Indian Squaw"

Half-breed, that's all I ever heard
Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word
Half-breed, she's no good they warned
Both sides were against me since the day I was born

We never settled, went from town to town
When you're not welcome you don't hang around
The other children always laughed at me
"Give her a feather, she's a Cherokee"

[Repeat chorus]

We weren't accepted and I felt ashamed
Nineteen I left them, tell me who's to blame
My life since then has been from man to man
But I can't run away from what I am

[Repeat chorus]


View article sources (50)

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[2] [2a] [2b] 'One's identity is for the individual to determine', SMH 25/11/2011
[3] [3a] 'Bolt link to racist reviews of book', SMH 12/4/2012
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[5] [5a] [5b] 'Who has defined us since 1967?', NIT, 31/5/2007 p.27
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[50] Personal email, 30/6/2013

Cite this page

Korff, J 2023, Aboriginal Identity: Who is 'Aboriginal'?, <>, retrieved 19 June 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

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