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Debating Aboriginal identity: the untold health impacts

Divisive public debates about Aboriginal identity are causing harm, according to Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman, public health academic, and contributing editor at Croakey.


Summer May Finlay writes:

Aboriginal identity has hit the headlines again. Public debate about who is and is not Aboriginal is often a national pastime for non-Aboriginal people. This time, however, the debate has been reignited by an Aboriginal person.

And it’s raising some significant health concerns that merit discussion and investigation.

As has been widely reported, Aboriginal lawyer Josephine Cashman recently wrote to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton asking him to investigate Bruce Pascoe for fraud, alleging that the author of award-winning Dark Emu falsely claims to be Aboriginal.

Pascoe categorically denies this allegation.

Minister Dutton subsequently referred Pascoe to the Australian Federal Police for investigation, and news reports yesterday cited a letter from the AFP saying no Commonwealth offences had been identified and that they had closed the case.

Cashman also requested that an Aboriginal register be established to ensure that people cannot falsely claim to be Aboriginal.

Excerpt from Josephine Cashman’s letter to Minister Dutton, dated 24 December 2019

Notable Aboriginal people – including Federal Minister Ken Wyatt, Federal MP Linda Burney, senior academics Professor Marcia Langton, Professor Gracelyn Smallwood, Dr Marlene Longbottom (see her tweets on related matters), Associate Professor Chelsea Bond and Amy Thunig – have rejected the register proposal. 

Cashman also seems to support the confirmation of Aboriginality through DNA testing, a suggestion recently revived in the lead up to the NSW election by Mark Latham, a One Nation representative in the NSW Legislative Council.

Essentially, Cashman has opened a large can of worms for Aboriginal people. And while some support her calls, I do not.

I am a Yorta Yorta woman and grew up on Awabakal country (West Lake Macquarie, NSW). I have the privilege of being connected to my mob both in Lake Macquarie and nearby Newcastle and on Yorta Yorta country. My lineage is clear and indisputable. I know, however, that not all Aboriginal people have the privilege of such strong connections, due to no fault of their own.

I am disappointed, upset and angry that Cashman has used her privileged position to prosecute a cause publicly and politically. It has the potential to do little good and so much harm. If these issues are to be raised, it is a conversation that should be undertaken privately by Aboriginal people.

Firstly, a DNA test to confirm Aboriginality is absolutely not possible. An Aboriginal reference genome(s) has not been scientifically established, and there is no guarantee that there will be one.

History matters

The call for DNA testing is nothing but a divisive political tool used by the far-right, harking back to a time when the state controlled Aboriginal people during the time of the assimilation policy.

The assimilation policy aimed to destroy Aboriginal culture by integrating us into the broader Australian culture, which at the time was based on English values. This policy was multi-faceted and included the removal of children from their families as well as forcing people to deny their heritage and culture if they were to enjoy white privileges.

When children were removed, their skin colour determined their fate. Fair skinned children who could pass as white were placed with white families, never to know their Aboriginal culture. Remaining children were placed in group homes, trained for menial labour. Again, they were not allowed to maintain their connection to families and culture.

Adults were often forced to choose between their extended families and culture, and improved opportunities. For example, to be exempt from the NSW Aborigines Protection Act, under which the state controlled their lives, they were not allowed to speak in language, practise culture and associate with other Aboriginal people. They did what they felt was right for them and their families at the time.

The long-term impact today is that many of their descendants now have little to no connection to their Aboriginal community.

Credit: : Connecting with the Aboriginal History of Yarra- A Teachers resource Levels 3-10 https://aboriginalhistoryofyarra.com.au/teachersresource.pdf

Additionally, Aboriginal people historically have experienced extreme racism and discrimination. Therefore, in the past, to protect themselves and their families, some people with fairer skin denied their Aboriginality. This has also meant that many of their ancestors have become disconnected from their mob.

All of this is well known in Aboriginal communities.

Cashman, of course, has her supporters, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, including right-wing political commentator Andrew Bolt.

She posted several messages of support from Aboriginal people on her Twitter account, demonstrating that as a collective of Peoples, we have not even come close to addressing the legacy caused by the assimilation policy and racism.

By attacking Pascoe, Cashman is continuing the mission of the assimilation policy against those who are most vulnerable in our communities. 

We, as a collective of diverse Peoples, have inherited issues caused by past government policies. These policies have significantly impacted people, due to no fault of their own, by denying them their culture.

Health implications

What will this do to individuals and the collective? What will this do to our health and wellbeing?

To grasp its impact, the definition of Aboriginal health needs to be understood. Aboriginal health encompasses “not just the physical wellbeing of an individual but refers to the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole Community in which each individual is able to achieve their full potential as a human being, thereby bringing about the total wellbeing of their Community”.

This debate is hurting our communities; therefore, we as peoples are not healthy.

Aboriginal people pitted against Aboriginal people; this is all playing out in public with very little to gain.

We know that there is a clear link between past policies and health and wellbeing. We know the links between stress and health.

The Stolen Generations and their families have suffered poorer health than other Aboriginal people. 

It’s clear through epigenetics, that what happened to our mothers and grandmothers, affects us even before we are born, impacting health during childhood and beyond. And we know that a strong connection to culture has a positive impact on a person’s health and wellbeing.

I have watched the struggles of friends and colleagues, who know they are Aboriginal but know little about their lineage. They have struggled to understand their place in the world. They often feel a sense of loss, as if part of them is missing.

They worry that if they publicly identify as Aboriginal without having ALL the answers to questions thrown at them that they may be further ostracised.

Cashman has made their fears a reality. Her pursuit of Pascoe could be used as an excuse to go back to the bad old days of Aboriginal identify being controlled by the state.

The outcome for Pascoe is uncertain; however, what is certain is the damage this debate has caused Aboriginal people across the country.

Pascoe is not the only person whose identity Cashman has attacked.

Journalist Jack Latimore wrote an opinion piece on the issues raised by Cashman, “Bruce Pascoe’s identity is no business of the Commonwealth”.

In response, she questioned his Aboriginality in a tweet since deleted.

What we can learn from this sorry episode is that efforts to divide Aboriginal people and to undermine our sense of identity are damaging for people’s health and wellbeing.

• Summer May Finlay (CSCA, TAE, BSocSC and MPHA) is a PhD candidate in Aboriginal national key performance indicators at the University South Australia, works for the University of Wollongong as a lecturer in Public Health, and is a research assistant at the University of Canberra. She is currently the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Vice President for the Public Health Association of Australia and is also the Co-Vice Chair of the World Federation of Public Health Associations Indigenous Working Group.

Follow on Twitter: @SummerMayFinlay


Feature image

The book profiled in the feature image is freely available for download.

The cover artwork, Under The Milky Way is by Jonelle (Nellie) Green, a Badimaya woman from the Yamatji people of the Central Wheatbelt area of Western Australia. The description of the artwork says that spiritual and emotional wellbeing are at the heart of Indigenous cultures and that “We need to work towards protecting ourselves and each other”.

Comments 1

  1. SerenityNow says:

    Identity is a topic difficult to discuss, as the author Ms Finlay demonstrates in her article above, due to the issues of belonging and the considerable emotional attachment that goes with validation of ones ‘place’ in this world. What appears to be overlooked repeatedly is the damage done by putting the feelings of the individual before all other considerations. I do not know if Bruce Pascoe has legitimate ancestry, but I do know that he has been given a considerable number of opportunities to clarify his claims and has not. This evasiveness has not helped his cause, or the rising notion that as a whole, credibility is a major issue that is desperately in need of a solution.
    Rather than become upset, and equate discussion about a topic that has caused hurt in the past with the unfounded claim that racist practices of the past are the end goal of any person who dares to query a claim (however spurious or laughable) to heritage that is unable to be supported by the available evidence, perhaps it is time to open up discussions in communities across the country to discover and implement a new system for verification of those who are wanting to publicly claim the ability to speak, decide and yes, benefit (to pretend the perks are non-existent is to fool yourself, however small or insignificant or untouched by an individual, who seeks belonging and no profit, they may be) from a claim to be Aboriginal. What we are seeing unfold now is the inevitable ugly discussions that have fermented due to this perceived lack of credibility by the wider Australian population. Who hasn’t heard the stories of free cars? Free housing? Certificates of Aboriginality in exchange for a slab? They don’t die, in large part thanks to the inertia of those who are more worried about changing the legislation regarding land use, than ensuring laws and a system is put in place so that those discussions that are not just important, but also have impact upon an entire group, take place with legitimate spokespeople.
    Would you be happy as an Australian citizen if you were told that Pauline Hanson was currently attending an International Forum and signing declarations committing the country to, well, anything? Of course not. She is unelected to such power and standing, and is unable to provide clear, credible evidence that supports otherwise.
    I do not know about the community that Ms Finlay is connected to, but I am connected to mine and it’s an issue ‘on the ground’ that I am sick of. Sick of seeing those who are not supported by the wider community to make decisions that impact those they purport the right to speak for. Sick of this misdirected anger that is wasting energy that keeps good people downtrodden and in a perpetual victim state. Sick of seeing the suffering of family members ignored and utterly incensed and enraged when others use that trauma to benefit themselves. Whether it’s to take positions of influence or deny a voice to the culturally appropriate community members, or to use the genealogical connection alone to mob (not the same at ALL as connection of living working and following protocol on country or in community) as some sort of evidence of cultural credibility allowing them to do whatever they desire. That’s selfish, and robs the community of more than just money.

    I want to see Aboriginal culture celebrated and embraced by those with even the most distant or tenuous links genealogically. I don’t want to see it further humiliated, degraded or the growing gaps within communities to widen any further. City vs country vs remote, pale vs dark, left vs right, it’s delivered nothing good to any community I know of. I didn’t protest this year, or any other year on the 26th of January. My kids don’t benefit from that. Right now, they need their parents to use the advantages they have been given to ensure that they have it a little better than we did. I would love to see my daughter be the first one to go to University from the family line. She’s very bright, caring and kind and has probably seen more than any 12 year old should have to. We have done our utmost to talk frankly about these things, and nurture compassion and understanding wherever possible instead of encouraging resentment or anger. When confronting a problem is necessary, such as a bully, the way she has grown to handle it is commendable. Kids can be ill-informed, nasty and vocal, but she’s long been taught not to wait for some fictional man wearing leggings and a cape to swoop in and save her. We tried our best to give her all the tools to save herself, and encouraged her to help others who might not yet be as strong. Bitterness is not going to fuel you to get to a better place, and unless we begin to have some frank and open discussions where reasonable debate, rather than emotional rhetoric and insults are how we handle differences of opinion, then we will have to get used to the fractures in our collective “ Indigenous Identity” growing wider, and the trend towards fear as a default response gain further traction. Right now people are afraid to say the wrong thing. What happens when they are tired of being afraid and sick of walking on eggshells?

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