Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The proposed recognition of

"indigenous" or "First Australians" in the preamble to the Australian Constitution will no doubt come under discussion in the media over the coming months. The plan to hold a referendum on the issue was put forward some time ago.
The wording will be a legal minefield - even for something going into the preamble. Selling it to the voters will probably be much less difficult.
Interestingly however the main question has yet to be addressed - and it is one which must be addressed. I suspect it is being avoided because it is a very difficult question, one that would be fiercely debated if people were given the opportunity. So far "political correctness", fear of being considered "racist" and any other number of negatives have prevented any real discussion of the question, "Who is indigenous?"
Some years ago a young mother who lived in one of the small "units" across the street came over to see me at the advice of one of the neighbours. She had been approached by a relative who identified as "indigenous" and told that she should be doing the same thing. She was told she "had to do it". She was also told that she should be telling her two children "about their indigenous heritage".
What she wanted to know from me was whether she was actually required to do it. I told her there was no legal requirement. Her great-great-great-great-grandmother had been a member of one of the clans around Alice Springs. That same woman's husband was thought to be a cameleer - probably from Afghanistan.
Closer in time her grandparents on her father's side were Russian and Estonian and Finnish and Estonian. Her father had been born in Sweden during the war.
Her mother's parents had the indigenous ancestor on maternal grandmother's side and then there were Irish, English and Breton ancestors as well and on her maternal grandfather's side the family was Irish as far back as they could be traced.
But it seemed that none of this mattered to her mother's relative. He had discovered an indigenous ancestor and was demanding that the family recognise this and call themselves indigenous. He took the issue to extremes and went off to learn an indigenous language and get himself accepted into the tribe. I don't know whether he succeeded but I do know that the girl who asked me what the legal requirement was thought it was wrong. The many times great-grandmother was, as she put it, "only part of what we are".
The same will be true of many other Australians who identify as "indigenous". The greater part of their ancestry will be something else. That does not make the "indigenous" portion any less important but should it make it more important? When do we cease to recognise it - or should it always be recognised? Should it confer any special status - or should we simply acknowledge it in the way that we acknowledge other ancestry?
I wonder whether the questions will even be debated?


Helen Devries said...

I remember the exultation in legal circles when it was decided that Australia was not 'terra nulius' - land belonging to no one - that there had, necessarily, been usurpation of rights of indigenous people.
But to go from that to feeling obliged to recognise one part of your heritage over another is absurd...unless money or land is concerned.

Anonymous said...

You can't debate an issue like that. There is too much emotional baggage. Bob C-S

Judy Edmonds said...

I;ve been having some similar thoughts. I think I shall declare myself officially Viking. And would like that recognised in a constitution somewhere - or should I say, some Thing :)

Anonymous said...

I am unofficially mixed breed European, with a dash of unknown! However I am at least the third generation to be born in Australia, and I cannot choose one part of my breeding over another. I am pretty sure I wouldn't be able to choose to be Aborigine if we discovered that somewhere in the unknown part of the family there was an Aboriginal man or woman, any more than I can chose to be Irish, British or Polish. (Or any one of the others.)