A sensitive area

36.6 In the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (the Royal Commission), Commissioner Elliott Johnston QC commented that:

How ‘Aboriginal’ has been defined, and the qualities attributed to Aboriginal people, have varied over time and from place to place, in ways that can only be understood in terms of the local, national and international concerns of a European colony of settlement in the South Pacific. Declaring this or that individual person Aboriginal or not Aboriginal has been a political act, prompted often enough by administrative convenience or economic advantage, such as access to land or the control of cheap labour. Correspondingly, Aboriginal people have at times denied Aboriginal identity, as a strategy for evading official harassment or popular discrimination, and at other times claimed it as a means of improving their material or political circumstances.[5]

36.7 The Inquiry acknowledges that Aboriginal communities have good reason to be particularly sensitive about attempts by non-Aboriginal institutions or organisations to define ‘Aboriginal identity’. Commissioner Johnston commented:

No area of research and commentary by non-Aboriginal people has such potential to cause offence as does that which attempts to define ‘Aboriginality’. This determination of non-Aboriginal people to categorise and divide Aboriginal people is resented for many reasons, but principally, I suspect, because the worst experiences of assimilation policies and the most long term emotional scars of those policies relate directly to non-Aboriginal efforts to define ‘Aboriginality’ and to deny to those found not to fit the definition, the nurture of family, kin and culture. To Aboriginal people there appears to be a continuing aggression evident in such practices.[6]

36.8 Submissions and consultations following DP 66 emphasised the sensitivity attaching to any attempt to define Aboriginality. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) submitted that:

The issue of Aboriginality does not warrant a separate chapter given that ‘race’ cannot be determined through genetic testing. The report will need to justify why there is a chapter devoted exclusively to questions of Aboriginal identity because it could be perceived to perpetuate unethical and unscientific references to Aboriginal people as a distinct race.[7]

36.9 AIATSIS emphasised that Indigenous people have a right to determine issues of identity and community through their own processes, but suggested that

the ALRC lend expertise to develop, through extensive consultation and negotiation with Indigenous peoples and communities, identity frameworks that are appropriate and relevant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.[8]

36.10 The Inquiry agrees that these matters should be determined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves, working through their own communities, institutions and consultation processes. The remainder of this chapter contains research and commentary intended to assist any further consideration of these issues, as well as to promote general community understanding of these matters.

[5] Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report (1991), Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra [11.12.20].

[6] Ibid [11.12.4].

[7] Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Submission G286, 16 December 2002.

[8] Ibid.