I am acutely aware that I don’t fit the ‘quintessential Aboriginal’ aesthetic that Australian society has determined. Many fair skinned Aboriginals are reminded of this when they meet people or bring up their heritage. We can’t help but feel judged as not being ‘real Aboriginals’, especially when defending our culture.
I am often met with a look of bewilderment, followed by either an encouraging smile or a furrowed brow, when I tell strangers that I am Aboriginal. That is unless the person I am meeting is also Aboriginal, in which case our conversation is predicated with a question that provides the foundation for our burgeoning relationship: ‘Where are you from?’
The aim of this question is to place each other, in a geographical and familial sense, within our culture. Establishing where our Country is and who our mob are forms the basis of an empathic understanding between us. Once this ritual is observed, conversation can continue as is considered normal in Western society, but with a tangible sense of closeness. In a matter of moments fresh relationships can move from jovial to hysterical, even sorrowful, and often beyond what would be socially acceptable in typical non-Indigenous encounters. This stems from the sense that no matter where you are from or what you look like, if you are Aboriginal, and have a deep understanding of and/or connection to your culture, then you belong.
When determining if a person is Aboriginal, the Australian government has three prerequisites that are designed to weed out ‘system-abusers’. The requisites for proof of Aboriginality are: to be of Aboriginal heritage, to identify as Aboriginal, and to be accepted as such by the community in which you live, or have lived.
Unfortunately, the various attempts at cultural genocide initiated by the Australian government since European colonisation can render proof of Aboriginality unattainable – even for someone with dark skin. Many individuals who were relocated, and also the children of interracial affairs who have had their culture purposefully ripped from them, can’t prove to the government that they are Aboriginal. So, if you have a deep connection to Country; if the story lines of your people run through you; if lore resonates within you, but the law says you can’t tick the box, how can you reconcile your identity?
Fortunately, First Nation’s culture has proven resilient against the war that has been waged against it. In ‘Getting to Maybe: How the world is changed’, Patton, Westley and Zimmerman describe resilience as ‘the capacity to experience massive change and yet still maintain the integrity of the original’. I believe that this applies to Indigenous culture, post 1788. There has been a constant cycle of collapse, reorganisation, growth and conservation. This process has seen a transition from 700 individual language groups to a mere 145. Rather than destroy us, this shocking loss of culture has united us all and hardened our resolve. Resilience means having an open heart in the face of brutality.
My identity doesn’t only consist of being Aboriginal, just as non-Indigenous people aren’t only Australian, Swedish, Chinese, or singularly defined by any other form of cultural heritage. Instead, I believe that we owe the way we see the world partly to individual experience, and partly to the values inherent in our culture.
Aboriginal culture has shaped the way I have, and will continue to experience the world. It has shown me the value of the land; the song lines that connect the Yuin Nation to Gulaga and Mumbulla; the shared ecological knowledge about what to eat and when; the use of music, dance and art as means for teaching; and what it means to hold the collective above the individual.
So now, every time that look of bewilderment, or that furrowed brow challenges the validity of my Aboriginality, it serves to bolster my understanding of culture so that it sits deeper, and stronger, within my identity.