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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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 [4].

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” [41] pervaded literature of that time. 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 [40].

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 [1]:

  • 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 [2].

Stop insulting Aboriginal people or we may have to consider calling white Australians half-caste convicts.—Uncle Chicka Dixon, Aboriginal activist [42]

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):

“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 [2].

If you were to define your Aboriginality you could answer these three questions as follows [39]:

  • 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.

Fact 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. [60]

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 [35]

Video: A discussion about Aboriginal identity

Watch a 5.5 minute extract of the SBS programme Insight: Aboriginal Or Not?

This was episode 19 of the 2012 season, broadcast on 7 August 2012. You can watch the full episode here.

Confirming Aboriginality a major hurdle, 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 [31].

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 [46].

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 [50].

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 [57].

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 [48]

Is there genetic proof of Aboriginality?

Proposals of genetic testing as a means of proving one’s Aboriginality have been dismissed on the grounds that ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are social, cultural and political constructs [2] which cannot be tested objectively.

Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian has a story to tell about genetic proof [48]: “I have a brother (by association, and my own recognition), who has sought ‘recognition’ of his Torres Strait/Aboriginal heritage for the last five years. “This dear man comes and sits with me to tell me of the joys of his discoveries and the sorrows of hearing, ‘This is not enough.’

“His last attempt [was] back to an Aboriginal organisation in the town of his birth was met with, ‘You might have to get DNA proof’ DNA proof! I rang the Chairperson, and asked what this DNA stuff was about. I heard the phone being placed back and the line go dead.

“This man lived in this town all of his life, is known by the Chairperson, and the organisation… and only moved later in life. He is in his fifties now, and he, his wife and I have been trawling through historical documents, court documents, government documents for this ‘proof’.”

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 [32]

“You can’t be ten per cent pregnant”

Aboriginal man Raymond tells us about his experiences of identity [45].

Portrait of Raymond in his bathtub. Aboriginal man Raymond shares his views on identity in the About Face Project by Keo Lin [45].

“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.”

“Just another white guy”

Dan discovered his Aboriginal ancestry very late in life. Read how he distinguishes between Aboriginal “descent” and “identity” [48].

“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 [48]

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, Nyungar, Nyoongah
Western AustraliaNyungar, Nyoongar
Northern TerritoryYolngu (top end); Anangu (central)
TasmaniaPalawa, Koori

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 [48].

Artist and teacher Yalmay Gurrwun (Marika) Yunupingu addressed a crowd during the Human Rights and Social Justice Award 2014 keynote as follows [55]. 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 [40]

Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian says Aboriginal people accept those into their communities who claim to be of Aboriginal descent, regardless of their appearance [48].

“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 [48].

“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.”

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 [47]

Coconuts, eggs and bananas

Fact 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.

FactHowever, 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.

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 [24].

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 [36]. 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 [38]

“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 [34]. 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 realized 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.”


Aboriginal director and film writer Ivan Sen is the son of an Aboriginal mother and a Croatian father. About his Aboriginal identity he says [51]:

“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?

Deconstructing myths about Aboriginal identity

Take the following identity test to see if you can find out which face belongs to a person who identifies as Aboriginal and which does not.

Which face belongs to an Aboriginal woman?

Jess Peris   

Shannon McGuire

Rikki McAdam 

Tahan Lew-fatt 

Ashleigh Peachey

Candace Williams

Sasha Greenoff 

Cindy Treweek 

Monisha Lew-fatt

Shana Barney 

Janine Mieni 

Jessica Risk 

Shilo Monkland 

Tell me!

These women were posing for a calendar. All of them are proud Aboriginal women.
It is a common mistake by non-Indigenous people to judge a person’s Aboriginality by their skin colour. Skin colour does not define an Aboriginal person, descent does.

Myth: All Aboriginal people have black skin colour

This is the most common misconception of them all. Many people expect Aboriginal people to always have black skin.

Why have Aboriginal people all shades of black skin?

Les Ridgeway Snr, an Aboriginal Family Historian, explains why we see many people identifying as Aboriginal who have fair skin [27].

“I guess it would be fair to say that many Aborigines could trace ancestry back to Irish, British and – if we go to Broome in WA – Japanese or some other Asian nationality.

For the record, if we trace one’s ancestry, one possibly would find many folk are related to our Aboriginal race, due to the fact that in 1788 when Governor Phillip was appointed controller on behalf of the British Government, there were not enough white women to all those convicts and free settler white men.

So, naturally, a young ‘full-blood’ was their only choice and many became legally married, some by choice and others by force.

So our women folk and our tribal communities had no say in this matter back in those early days, so why do our folk worry about having to explain their Aboriginality?

When I was growing up, I was gifted with a very nice tan and jet black wavy hair, but you know, when I spoke to a number of people in my lectures, I was constantly told ‘you don’t talk like an Aborigine’. My reply was ‘how do Aboriginal folk talk?’”

Aboriginal man Warren Mundine says: “I’m from the Bundjalung nation and also a descendant of the Gumbaynggirr and Yuin peoples.

“On my desk there’s a photo of me with my children and my grandchildren. The people in this photo have a range of different skin tones, eye and hair colours. They are all my descendants and therefore they are all Bundjalung. To say that any of them are not Bundjalung would be like saying they are not part of my family.” [52]

Following is an extract from the poem The First Australians by Troy Hopkins from Oxley, Queensland. It tells us about an Aboriginal girl yearning for her dad’s darker skin colour and his own experiences [33].

My daughter wished she was my skin colour, I told her you don't want this.
This country hates me 'cause I'm black, I'm glad I can't grant this wish.
Too Black Too Strong is a way of life, my daughter has much pride.
Those blacks could learn a lot from her, her colour is inside.

Bindi Cole: Aboriginal identity does not mean a black face. Aboriginal identity is not a black face. Bindi Cole (front) and light-skinned members of her family pose with black faces to challenge the stereotypical notion of what black identity should look like. The red headbands were traditionally worn by Indigenous elders. Photo: ‘Wathaurung Mob’, Bindi Cole

In a 2008 exhibition, Not Really Aboriginal, Aboriginal artist Bindi Cole explored what non-Indigenous people thought what an “Aboriginal identity” should look like [6].

She photographed members of her light-skinned family who had blackened their faces, an allusion to early movies where white actors had blackened their skin to play Aboriginal people.

Given her background you could imagine the hurt she must have felt when people, seeing her blonde hair and blue eyes, asked “What are you? But you’re not really Aboriginal…!”.

With such remarks people try to define Bindi’s identity for her, but they are utterly racist. And the fact remains that these remarks are still ‘rampant throughout Australian society’ [6].

Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian had a similar experience: “I apparently don’t fit the ‘look’ of who is supposed to be an Aboriginal. When I ask, ‘Well what does an Aboriginal look like?’ I get this silly cringy look because the person asking is maybe for the first time confronted with their own internal racism.’ [48]

It should be emphasised that Aboriginal identity no longer has anything to do with the colour of the skin.

What is Aboriginal? According to most white experts and the media, it's a black person who lives in a remote community, has social issues and claims benefits that are way above what they deserve. So being Aboriginal but white, fairly socially adjusted and living in an urban area, where do I fit in?—Bindi Cole, Aboriginal artist

Aboriginal people are not a skin colour, we are a community and people by history, spirituality, locations, country, thinking, politics, treatment, laws, cultures and most importantly, our stories.—David Towney, readers letter, Koori Mail [18]

If you are like me with paler skin, because of an Irish mother and my later father was Aboriginal, I find myself having to explain my Aboriginality over and over [again].—Najella Green, readers letter, Koori Mail [26]

“I was a ‘white’ black man.”

Mark McMillan belongs to the group of fair-skinned Aboriginal people. In this extract [17] he tells you his perspective on Indigenous identity.

Marc McMillan Marc McMillan, from the Wiradjuri people from Trangie, central NSW.
“I was a ‘white’ black man.”

“I am a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Aboriginal Australian. Every time I look in the mirror, that’s what I see… As a child, I grew up expecting everyone to be like me, to look like me - with the blonde hair and blue eyes.

Clearly, my naive ideas about how Aboriginal people were ‘supposed’ to look were wrong. But being Aboriginal and fair and blonde was normal to me and I grew up in a world where I was treated ‘normally’. Along the way however, I noticed that not everyone was receiving the same brand of treatment and that made me angry. It has taken a while to let go of that anger…

It has taken me a long time to realise that I am Aboriginal because of my family, my community and who I am in general. I know now that no one has the power to take that from me…

In our household, Aboriginality was never discussed as being something special or anything less than ordinary. It was just who we were, both as individuals and as a family. I never looked at my family members and thought, ‘Wow, you look really Aboriginal.’ Or, ‘Gee, you look really white!’...

Impeding my growth from that young person into the adult I wanted to become was the profound issue of identity. I was a ‘white’ black man…

I grew up in a place where everyone knew I was Aboriginal and part of an Aboriginal family, but the moment I moved outside that environment, I found I had to constantly explain away that aspect of my identity…

How do you begin to explain to someone that you have started to question everything you ever believed about yourself because you are required to defend it so often?...

Over the years education has continued to unlock me for me. I am Mark McMillan and I am a lot more than just a ‘white’, black man. Although being Indigenous - or more importantly, a proud Wiradjuri man - is fundamental to my own sense of humanity, I am much more than that dimension.”

Lost Identity

Where Do I come from, Where do I begin
Is he my brother, is she my sister, My next of kin?

Being not accepted by either race
This is what each day I have to face
Maybe this is my problem
But I donʼt really see how

Why were my parents taken away
And made to deny
Being of a fairer skin
And not brown like my brothers

I miss My Identity, My Culture, and My Mother

Poem by Margaret Armstrong, Ipswitch QLD [7].

Aboriginal people of mixed descent feel the double sword with which Australian society judges them. When they blend in or are successful it is their ‘white identity’, but they are Aboriginal if they go to jail, die early or suffer from alcoholism. It is a constant battle with Aboriginal stereotypes.

Finding out which culture you want to belong to is not an easy road. “I have been too black for the white community and too white for the black community,” says Ian who is of Scottish and Wadi Wadi descent. “Due to this conflict only two of the six kids in my family are prepared to stand up and be identified as Aboriginal.” [62]

If you are fair-skinned or have European features, you can find yourself explaining your Aboriginality to absolutely everybody.—Sharon Livermore, Aboriginal poet [25]

Definitely Indian

Following is a conversation between an Aboriginal woman who visited India [37].

[Indian person inquiring:] “We are thinking you are one of us?”
“Sorry no, I am from Australia.”
“Yes but you are looking, Punjabi?”
“Are you from Mumbai?”
“Yes, but your parents are Indian, yes?”
“No, sorry.”
“Your grandparents?”
“Argh yes, your great grandparents!”
“No, sorry, I am Aboriginal.”
“Where is that?”
“No, I am native, original, ummm from Australia.”
“Oh yes, but someone in your family migrated to Australia from India, yes?”

“It’s hip to be black”

To add injury to insult, some non-Indigenous Australians suggest that people who identify as Aboriginal do so out of self-obsession and “driven more by politics than by any racial reality” [20].

Andrew Bolt, journalist and blogger for the Sun Herald, lists at length Aboriginal people of mixed descent who he claims have “a racial identity you could not guess from [their] features”. When he proposes to “go beyond racial pride, beyond black and white” he implies that these people not claim they are Aboriginal. But he fails to suggest what they should do instead.

Bolt’s article reflects an attitude felt by some Australians that mixed-descent Aboriginal people identify so to claim benefits they would otherwise not be entitled to, taking away jobs from other ‘more black’ or – worse – white people.

Despite popular opinion over the last several generations, no-one really in their right mind would declare Aboriginality unless it were true. The myth of the extra money and extra benefits is really a piece of crap. And the backlash far outweighs the benefits.—Sharon Livermore, Aboriginal poet [25]

What do we get out of being Indigenous? Not money, not hand-outs--but plenty of racist remarks.—Najella Green, readers letter, Koori Mail [26]

Australians like Andrew Bolt seem to forget that we have a choice. Who but prejudiced people can stop you from identifying with one part of your heritage stronger than with another? I’m sure there are people out there who have also Aboriginal blood in their veins but don’t mention it with a word.

We should also not forget that the first mixed-descent Australians came into existence not by choice but through crimes by white people. Just ask any member of the Stolen Generations.

Once we we were too black and now we are too white. We reject that. Black or white, we are and always will be Aboriginal because of our unique cultural experience and identity.—Abigail Burchill, President Tarwirri Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria [21]

For people who still judge Aboriginality after skin colour Abigail has these words:

Aboriginality is not a question of skin colour--it is about our cultural connection to our communities and our history, a history that is alive and thriving.—Abigail Burchill [21]

Newspaper clipping Discovering Aboriginal heritage. Mark Naley, an Australian Football League player, discovered his Aboriginal heritage in 2011 when he was 50 years old. What did this mean for his identity?

Myth: Aboriginal people live in remote communities

Prof. Larissa Behrendt Prof. Larissa Behrendt thinks that Aboriginal communities in urban areas are invisible to non-Indigenous people.

Young urban Aboriginal people complain about being told they are not ‘real Aborigines’ because they don’t live in a remote community [9].

And many urban non-Indigenous people have no idea how many Aboriginal people live in the big cities.

I am often asked, 'How often do you visit Aboriginal communities?' And I reply, 'Every day, when I go home'.—Prof. Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal lawyer [11]

Most people still believe that Aboriginal people are poor, uneducated and live in the desert. But only 25% of Aboriginal people live in remote areas.

While the vibrant life of urban Aboriginal communities goes mostly unnoticed, the national eyes turn willingly to reports of violence, criminal activities or antisocial behaviour (such as drinking) which then shape the perception of urban Aboriginal identity.

Aboriginal writer Anita Heiss, author of “Am I Black Enough For You?”, describes herself as “a concrete Koori with Westfield dreaming” [43]. She is urban, educated, glamorous and cheeky, hates camping and cannot tell the time by the sun [44].

Too many Australian government policies are about Aboriginal people who live in remote areas, almost as though if that's not where you live you can't be a real Aboriginal person.—Nyoongar Prof Colleen Hayward, Edith Cowan University, Perth [19]

Tip Think: When Western societies evolve it is called “modernisation”, when Aboriginal societies evolve it’s called “cultural loss”. Western societies become “cosmopolitan” whereas Aboriginal societies are being “urbanised” and “lose touch with their roots”. Which stereotypes can you find in such vocabulary?

Myth: Aboriginal people are beautiful and healthy

A brochure for Aboriginal Tourism in Victoria showing a close-up image of an Aboriginal boy. A stereotypical image to promote Australian tourism. The Victorian Aboriginal Tourism brochure shows an image of a young Aboriginal boy painted with ochre. Hundreds of images like these are used to promote Australia’s tourism industry.

You don’t need to venture out far to find images of beautiful young Aboriginal children or adolescents promoting Australia, mainly for tourism.

But the stories behind these images can be surprisingly different. When Qantas published a similar picture of a young 18-year-old Aboriginal girl under its ‘The Spirit of Australia’ slogan it forgot to mention that the girl actually lived in a mission dormitory which she shared with more than a dozen in-laws, family and dogs. Her community suffered from diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and had poor access to essential services [11].

These beautiful and glamorous images about Indigenous Australia often belie the reality of these people.—Linda Burney, chairwoman NSW State Reconciliation Committee [11]

Myth: You can pick Aboriginal people by their name

Many people try to tell if a person is of Aboriginal identity by reading their names. This technique can fail easily. Take the following test:

Which name belongs to an Aboriginal person?

David Wang
Sir Douglas Nicholls
Elsie Gertrude Hill
Emily Kngwarreye
Jimmy Pike

Peter Yu
Shannon McGuire
William Ferguson
Vernon Ah Kee
Sermsah Bin Saad

Tell me!

People whose identity is Aboriginal are bold, non-Indigenous people are italicised.

  • David Wang (1920-78) was an Australian-Chinese businessman and community leader and the first Chinese-born Melbourne City councillor.
  • Sir Douglas Nicholls (1906-1988) was born in Cumeroogunga, near the Murray River in New South Wales, and was Australia’s first Aboriginal state governor [15].
  • Elsie Gertrude Hill is the Kamilaroi mother of Aboriginal singer LJ Hill [12].
  • Emily Kngwarreye is a famous Aboriginal painter (1910 - 1996) from the Utopia community, near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
  • Jimmy Pike (1940 - 2002) is a Walmajarri Aboriginal painter from the remote Great Sandy Desert area in north Western Australia.
  • Peter Yu is a Yawuru man from Broome who headed the review of the Howard government’s controversial intervention into Northern Territory Indigenous communities. He’s also chair of the Halls Creek Project Management Committee and a former director of the Kimberley Land Council [13].
  • Shannon McGuire is an Indigenous model and girlfriend of West Coast Eagles star David Wirrpanda [16]. Her picture is the second image in the test above.
  • William Ferguson (1882-1950) was a trade unionist and Aboriginal politician of the Australian Labor Party [14].
  • Vernon Ah Kee hails from Innisfail, Queensland and is an Aboriginal photographer.
  • Sermsah Bin Saad, a Nyoongar man from Western Australia, was awarded Dancer of the Year in 2008 for his performances on So You Think You Can Dance. “I’m black and I’m beautiful!” he says.

Myth: Aboriginal people cannot be successful

Another white misconception is about success of Aboriginal people. Malcolm Tulloch, former Holroyd City Council Mayor, says white people “see you as a ‘blackfella’ first, and whatever I have achieved, it is perceived that someone has given it to me because of my black background.” [10] Hence he finds himself not making his Indigenous identity known as much as he might want to.

Challenge yourself: Do you know of someone who identifies as ‘Australian’ but actually has migrated to Australia? Like Melbourne’s Lord Mayor John So who was born in Hong Kong. We have to be careful when we define identity because our first definition might be utterly wrong.

Apparently we're disadvantaged by being born Aboriginal. I don't accept that.—Alison Page, Aboriginal designer and TV personality [22]

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.” [3]

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.” [41]

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.” [56]

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 [29]

To me, Aboriginality is about that shared experience, that shared culture and that shared pride.—Amy McQuire, Aboriginal journalist [6]

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.” [58]

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 [54]

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 [23]

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 [8].

“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 [5].

“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 [25]

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 [30].

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 [41]. 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 [61]. 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. [59]

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. [59]

Organisations to contact are, for example:

Don’t give up searching – Eddie’s journey

It took Eddie a lot of energy and persistence to find his Aboriginality [49]. 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]


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Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - People - Aboriginal Identity: Who is ‘Aboriginal’?, retrieved 19 November 2018