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The Power of Identity: Naming Oneself, Reclaiming Community

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


The Power of Identity: Naming Oneself, Reclaiming Community

James Martineau Memorial Lecture

Mick Gooda

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Thank you Peter for your kind words of introduction and thank you Krystelle (Jordan) for your welcome to country.

Krystelle, can I begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the your people, the traditional owners of this place upon which we sit and talk here tonight. I honour your Elders that have come before us, those Elders who are here tonight and I await in optimistic anticipation of those Elders, like you, who are yet to emerge.

My people are the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland.

I stand here proud to bring a message from my Elders, first they ask me to pass on their greetings and their thanks for allowing me to come to their lands. They then say that they are aware of your continued fight for your culture and your country and even though our landscapes are vastly different, the struggles remains essentially the same.

Can I also thank Dr Natasha Cica, the Director of the Inglis Clark Centre for Civil Society at the University of Tasmania for asking me to present this lecture. Natasha, this invitation is an privilage for my people and myself because if tonight’s presentation challenges at least one persons thinking about the subject I will address, I think I will have honoured the memory of James Matineau.

Finally, can I thank you all for coming to partake in this conversation.

Introduction – the power of labeling oneself and others

This lecture draws its name from a man defined by his faith and his ongoing quest for philosophical truth.

It is certainly fitting that the University of Tasmania honor such an active intellectual life. Especially of interest to me, however, is the way the identity of figures like Martineau are so deeply founded in their convictions – building an unwavering sense of self upon them; undeterred by the views of others.

Certainly, this strong sense of identity is an attribute most of us value. In an increasingly uncertain world, our beliefs, our culture, our family history contribute to our sense of who we are and what we mean to others. They help us belong to something – to anchor us and steer our course in ever turbulent seas.

Given their importance, then, surely it is vital that every individual has the power to shape their own identity – to stand up, as James Martineau did, and to say ‘this is who I am and this is what I believe’ without that certainty being challenged?

Equally surely, many Australians would take this ability as a given – something over which they have control; and an immutable fixture in their lives, rather than something charged with conflict and someone else’s meaning.

For Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, however, this has rarely been the case.

Anyone familiar with this nation’s history will know that colonial authorities used Aboriginality – and the extent to which anybody claimed it – as a powerful mechanism of control.

In fact, from colonization onwards it was the privileged and the powerful that controlled the labels applied to this land’s first peoples.

These labels were invariably toxic – with ‘full-blood’, ‘half-caste’ and ‘quadroon’ becoming common parlance; people herded on the basis of their skin colour; children removed from their mothers – all as part of a legislated and unabashed policy to assimilate and, ultimately, to eliminate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity.

This legislation defining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity was based on abhorrent notions of blood quantum, shaped solely from the perspectives of the colonisers, rather than our own feelings of belonging. The use of blood quantum was taken to extraordinary levels, with Western Australia in 1952 using fractions as minute as 1/128th Aboriginal descent to determine welfare benefits!

Yet, because of the contrived legislative complexity, certainty was not guaranteed. In fact, an ATSIC report, As a Matter of Fact, describes one example as follows:

In 1935 a fair skinned Aboriginal man of part Indigenous descent was ejected from a Hotel for being Aboriginal. He returned to his home on the mission station to find himself refused entry because he was not an Aborigine. He tried to remove his children but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the local reserve. During World War II he tried to enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal. He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After the war he could not acquire a passport without permission because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the Aborigines Protection Act, and was told he could no longer visit relatives on the reserve because he was not Aboriginal. He was denied entry to the Returned Services Club because he was Aboriginal.[1]

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity, therefore was shaped to suit the purposes of the colonizers – self-appointed arbiters of who was Indigenous, who wasn’t and exactly how much of this identity counted.

This was not, of course, a phenomenon unique to the Australian experience...

As individuals, Canadian First Nations people are officially recognized by their Government by the terms "registered Indians" or "status Indians" only if they are listed on the Indian Register and are thus entitled to benefits under the Indian Act.

An Indian whose name was in the Indian Register established by the act was said to have Indian status or treaty status. An Indian who was not, was said to be a non-status Indian. Prior to 1985, Indians could lose status in a variety of ways including the following:

  • marrying a man who was not a status Indian
  • enfranchisement - until 1960, an Indian could vote in federal elections only by renouncing their Indian status
  • having at the age of 21 a mother and paternal grandmother who did not have status before marriage
  • being born out of wedlock to a mother with status and a father without.

These aspiring arbiters of our identity are not just a phenomenon of Australia’s past. In fact, a well-known newspaper columnist recently attracted widespread attention when his claims about nine Aboriginal Australians were challenged by those individuals in the Federal Court.

The columnist took issue with the fact that these complainants predominantly identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, despite having some diversity in their heritages and having contributed a great deal to the wider community.

The implication was that the complainants had actively ‘chosen’ an Aboriginal identity to exploit benefits that apparently flowed. Despite the Court finding that the columnist had acted unlawfully under relevant legislation, however, my interest today is not to give further oxygen to this particular case.

Rather, what resonates for me is its significance as an example of our identity again being defined by others – and non-Indigenous others in positions of considerable influence to boot.

What I want to explore is the fact that, even in 21st century Australia, our decision to shape our own identity can still confront some sensibilities. I also want to explore how constructions of race and identity are still being used – by non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians alike – in less than constructive ways.

Identity – an opportunity for inclusion or exclusion?

In May 2006 I remember being in Melbourne when Greece played Australia at the MCG as part of our lead up to the World Cup in Germany later that year.

Australia wins one nil, however the Greek heart of the city had come alive. It was a fantastic sight as Greek Australians celebrated their pride in their cultural heritage, doing so in a city to which they had made such an enormous contribution.

It was, as far as I could see, only a cause for joy – unless you happened to care what the score was! Yet a passerby was heard to mutter that, having chosen to live in Australia, these revelers had no business supporting Greece. The revelers were having it both ways, it seemed; blind to the fine print that had instructed them, or their parents, to leave their history and custom on the doorstep when they arrived in Australia.

I am fascinated by this unilateral construction of identity – the ‘one of us or one of them’ mentality. It seems curious that, despite the fact many Anglo Australians readily acknowledge different aspects of their heritage, questions of ‘race’ can sometimes be a different matter, subscription to one racial membership requiring surrender of all others.

This has been advocated by some to be a positive – the elimination of ‘race’ as a concept, with all presumably combined in a single harmonious whole.

To my ear, however, there is a disturbing echo of assimilation – the absorption of any difference into the unassailable character of the dominant power and by consequence the dominant culture. Under this model, to be ‘Australian’ comes at the exclusion, rather than inclusion, of other aspects of a person’s identity.

This preference for exclusion is just as apparent when Australians identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not fit the mold of what others think is the traditional view of Aboriginality. Certainly, as we have heard, official policy was to assimilate and ultimately eliminate Aboriginality.

Any person claiming more ‘whiteness’ than they were allocated was considered an upstart - a view that seems even more vehement in contemporary disputes over Indigenous identity.

When a person’s motives are questioned simply because they identify as Indigenous above other aspects of their heritage, this control of Aboriginality is both challenged and perplexed. After all, goes the unasked question, why would a person identify as Indigenous – and therefore nominally disadvantaged – if they did not have to?

The answer, to those without understanding of the strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, is apparently cause for suspicion.

Ironically, these same voices have long demanded that Indigenous Australians ‘better themselves’. Yet, when they do excel in or contribute to the wider community, as well as to their own, their Aboriginality is considered forfeit. A ‘successful’ Indigenous Australian seems to be a juxtaposition that does not sit comfortably with everyone. It is into this particular terrain, then - despite further discomfort - that I now want to take the discussion.

Lateral violence and identity as the sleeper

For sadly, it is not only voices in mainstream political or media circles that can succumb to these one dimensional models of Aboriginality. Some members of Indigenous communities also express suspicion of those who do not fit their model of Indigenous authenticity - questions of identity becoming a powerful mechanism to run each other down.

Forms of negative behavior like these belong to a phenomenon increasingly acknowledged within our communities. This concept is known as ‘lateral violence’ and, while I will return to the place of identity in this discussion shortly, it is important to pause briefly and reflect on what this concept means.

Lateral violence is often described as ‘internalised colonialism’ and, according to Richard Frankland, includes:

‘The organized, harmful behaviours that we do to each other collectively as part of an oppressed group; within our families; within our organisations and within our communities’. [2]

The theory behind lateral violence explains that this behavior is often the result of disadvantage, discrimination and oppression, and that it arises from working within a society that is not designed for our way of doing things.

It is controversial topic - one which I have thought long and hard about raising in an official capacity. Certainly, when I first did so, I was prepared to be accused of airing our dirty laundry in public. Given the proliferation of bad news stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the popular domain, the last thing that we needed, I would surely be told, was to add lateral violence to the litany of perceived dysfunctions.

However, I am convinced that there will be little progress in improving indicators for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples without strong, respectful relationships within our communities, as well as between them and the wider population. In coming to this view, I’ve been heartened by the responses from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. There seems to be a considerable appetite within our communities to confront and deal with this barrier to our well-being.

That is why my upcoming annual Social Justice and Native Title Reports will attempt to explore this subject, not in an endeavor to highlight weaknesses, but to move beyond them – to identify solutions and to build upon our strengths.

To do this, it is vital that we better understand what is occurring in our communities, which is why the Australian Human Rights Commission is currently leading research into this important subject. Already, however, there is substantial acknowledgment across and within communities of the problem that lateral violence presents – a problem that does not necessarily involve physical assault or conflict.

Rather, lateral violence can take the form of malicious gossip or rumour about an individual or family group; the imposition of derogatory labels; or doubts cast over a person’s right to belong or to speak for community. As one community in the Northern Territory has found, it can even take the form of cyber-bullying – a social media application called Diva Chat being used by young women to send free, anonymous messages about other members of community and, in doing so, eroding community well-being. [3]

These kinds of negative behaviours, of course, are not unique to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. But what makes lateral violence different for us is that it stems from the sense of powerlessness that comes from oppression – a powerlessness that has been acknowledged in the context of colonized and oppressed peoples around the world.

In short, lateral violence establishes new hierarchies of power that mimic those of the colonisers and it is the replication of those questions over Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity that I want to focus on tonight.

This is because identity and notions of ‘authenticity’ have become powerful weapons of choice in lateral violence, with an Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Research Discussion paper reporting a workshop participant as stating:

Lateral violence comes from identity problems. Identity is the sleeper. If you have a strong spirit all the rest of you is supported. When we don‟t know who we are, something else jumps in to take that place.[4]

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples deal with broader community ignorance and insensitivity about who is a ‘real Aboriginal person’, it is distressing in the extreme that so much of the venom about identity comes from within our communities. The same discussion paper explains:

Words that undermine Aboriginal identity are commonly used as insults and tools of social exclusion (such as “coconut‟, “textbook black‟ or “air conditioned black‟), as are accusations of supposed privilege and favouritism applied to those perceived as (or even accused of being) “real blackfellas‟. In doing so, a sense of division is created between individuals, groups, communities and even geography – thus the language/no language, remote/urban or north/south ‘divide’.[5]

In this way, Indigenous Australians are labeled yet again – labeled according to their legitimacy; according to whether their behavior and attitudes subscribe to a particular experience or view.

Identity and Native Title – Reclaiming control

Similarly, disputes over identity can manifest as a form of lateral violence even in processes that were developed to further reconciliation. Despite the undeniable benefits and good intentions in the recognition of Native Title, for example, the processes developed to establish its existence at law can often inadvertently prompt or perpetuate intra-community conflict.

This is because the non-Indigenous process imposed by government reinforces existing positions of power and reignites questions about our identity. These concepts are further aggravated by the inherent contradiction between past policies that removed our peoples from country and the current, often unachievable, requirement for us to prove continuing connection since the arrival of the First Fleet.

Richard Frankland, Muriel Bamblett, Peter Lewis and Robin Trotter describe the experience in Victoria like this:

What began with hope soon began to become a tool which fractured our tribes and communities in a way not seen before. Siblings, cousins, Uncles, Aunties – families began to be driven apart... [6]

The Native Title process, then, has again highlighted the absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander control over our own identity and, while this is a topic worthy of many memorial lectures itself, today I wish to highlight two positive examples of how this negativity is being circumvented.

Having struggled with the conflicting interests of multiple claimants in their particular Native Title claim for years, the Quandamooka Peoples of Minjerrabah or as you probably know it, Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay near Bisbane, recently took ownership of the process for themselves.

Nominating a single named applicant through which the claim was advocated, this applicant was advised by a governance structure incorporating representatives from each of the families descended from the twelve apical ancestors named in the original native title claim group. Decisions by the applicant required the mandate of this body, who agreed on issues by consensus. Any issues not resolved were taken to a Council of Elders.

In this way, the Quandamooka Peoples managed the competing interests of the families affected by the claim, and took charge of how their interests and identity as claimants was argued and defined.

Meanwhile, the Right People for Country Project in Victoria has created a new approach to resolving disputes between Aboriginal peoples over land ownership and cultural heritage.

In a partnership between the Victorian Government, the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, the Victorian Traditional Owner Land Justice Group and Native Title Services Victoria, the Project is developing an agreement-making process led by Aboriginal peoples that deals with disputes about group membership and extent of country. The framework for this agreement-making process has incorporated the principles set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration), about which I will say more shortly.

Identity as crucial to self-determination

Both the governance structure established by the Quandamooka Peoples to progress their native title claim; and the framework developed by the Right People for Country Project to manage native title and cultural heritage in Victoria demonstrate how we can maximise the benefits of the native title system and minimise the impact of lateral violence in the native title process.

In short, they demonstrate the positive ways in which Indigenous communities are taking charge - defining Indigenous identity on their own terms.

In doing so, of course, they are harnessing the power of self-identification; of working with and for community; of shedding the one-dimensional labels that arrived with the colonizers and which continue to emerge in insidious ways today.

For the ability to shape one’s own identity is a powerful act - and a powerful factor in self-determination. As we acknowledged at the outset, each of us draws strength from a sense of belonging - our history, our family, and our culture all serving as both anchor and compass; their absence setting us adrift. Meanwhile, marginalized communities all over the world have found resilience in telling and re-telling the stories of who they are.

Quite simply, identity goes to the heart of being human. Its loss - when families are separated, when heritage is negated – is a denial of our human rights. The most promising overarching response to lateral violence in my view is a human rights based framework based on the Declaration I mentioned earlier.

Applying the Declaration as a standard would require our internal relationships, and those with governments and other third parties, to contribute to creating communities where each member feels secure in their identity and role.

Creating self-determining communities could have a significant impact on the well-being of our communities. The Growing them strong, together: Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of Northern Territory’s Children report, the report of the Board of Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory argues:

The sense of having control over one’s own life as an individual is a strong correlate of personal wellbeing. The significance of a people or ethnic group having control over their own collective lives is an extrapolation of this. [7]

What’s more, the Declaration characterises culture and identity as dynamic – recognising that they can and do change over time. It also recognises that undertaking cultural activities and maintaining cultural institutions does not exclude us from also participating in mainstream society.[8]

Any understanding of culture therefore, must recognise the diversity within our communities. It is of fundamental importance that this point is grasped – that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have the right to maintain a cultural identity whilst also participating in the mainstream. The two are not mutually exclusive. We call it walking in two worlds, yet our capacity to do this often eludes the understanding of the wider population. Similarly, the point is not always understood that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ties to community, culture and country are not something an individual can opt to set aside, but are intrinsic elements of their humanity.

Our collective challenge in a pluralistic world, then, is to embrace this diversity while holding fast to those elements on which our personal foundation is built. For James Martineau, this foundation was a steadfast religious faith and a perpetual pursuit of inquiry. For Indigenous Australians, regardless of their other ancestry, it is a fundamental connection to country and to culture which cannot be eroded by the labels of another.

Despite attempts by some to continue to shape Aboriginal identity, therefore, our goal must be to celebrate those who identify as Indigenous and, with them, their respective resilience and strengths - regardless of their location, their language, kin-group, educational attainment or otherwise. Our goal must be to nurture constructive relationships within our communities.

Equally, our goal must be to encourage cultural competency from those who engage with Indigenous communities – responding to the diversity among us, creating culturally secure environments in which true collaboration can occur.

This may require a bit more work on the part of government, but it is part of the recognition that our nation is fortified when we celebrate those multiple factors which contribute to all of our identities – our Greek heritage and our Australian values; our mainstream qualifications and our connection to community and country. Similarly, our communities are bolstered when we build respectful relationships and find solutions and strength within them.

It is time, then, to shed the negative labels – those of the colonizer and those used by communities against each other. After all, we’ve been sold the negative stereotype for so long, we’ve started to believe the hype. It is time to take back control of our rich, resilient, and varied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity. For when we celebrate our strengths through our own eyes and in our own words, we enable others to do the same.

And this is my challenge to you all here tonight.

Thanks you ladies and gentlemen

[1] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, As a Matter of Fact (1998) p 60. At (viewed 21 September 2011).

[2] R Frankland and P Lewis, Presentation to Social Justice Unit staff, Australian Human Rights Commission, 14 March 2011.

[3] E Deemal-Hall, Phone communication with the Social Justice Commissioner‟s Office, 11 July 2011.

[4] S Gorringe, J Ross and C Fforde, „Will the Real Aborigine Please Stand Up‟: Strategies for breaking the stereotypes and changing the conversation, AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 28 (2011), p 8. At (viewed 21 September 2011).

[5] S Gorringe, J Ross and C Fforde, „Will the Real Aborigine Please Stand Up‟: Strategies for breaking the stereotypes and changing the conversation, AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 28 (2011), p 5. At (viewed 21 September 2011).

[6] R Frankland, M Bamblett, P Lewis and R Trotter, This is ‘Forever Business’: a framework for maintaining and restoring cultural safety in Aboriginal Victoria, (2010), p 30.

[7] M Bamblett, H Bath and R Roseby, Growing them strong, together: Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of the Northern Territory’s Children, Report of the Board of Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the North Territory (2010), p 116. At… (viewed 23 September 2011).

[8] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Resolution 61/295 (Annex), UN Doc A/RES/61/295 (2007), articles 5, 11. At (viewed 23 September 2011).

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner