Matthew Knott, Sydney Morning Herald, July 3, 2022
When Jakelin Troy saw the latest census results showing a significant rise in the number of people identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander she felt delighted.
The 2021 census results, released last week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, counted 812,728 people identifying as Indigenous, a 25 per cent rise on five years earlier.
“People are engaging with the census as a way to tell our story of cultural survival,” Troy, the director of Indigenous research at The University of Sydney, said.
“It’s very encouraging to see that people are no longer feeling suppressed or afraid to identify as Aboriginal. I think what the census is reflecting now are the real demographics of the nation and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Not everyone was so delighted by the increase, however.
Nathan Moran, the chief executive of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, said the census increase demonstrated the need for an official review into Aboriginal self-identification.
Rather than the current question – which asks respondents whether they are of “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin” – he wants the ABS to ask: “Are you a verified or authenticated Aboriginal person?”
“I think the ABS question is misleading, not productive and ineffective,” he said. “This has caused a skewing in the number of Aboriginal people. It creates, for some, the illusion that we have a much larger population than practical reality.”
Moran was echoing the concerns of Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania chair Michael Mansell, who said he found it “unbelievable” that 5 per cent of Tasmanians now identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
Writing in The Mercury last week, Mansell argued the increase in Tasmania was largely due to “identity seekers” who are “poor and white” and believe they will have more cultural cachet if they identify as Aboriginal.
“Many poor whites feel devalued and look to the successes of the Aboriginal struggle,” he said. “They imitate Aborigines – badly – by copying the way we describe ourselves, trying to use traditional words and dance.”
Francis Markham, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, described the national five per cent annual growth rate as “astonishing”, noting the growth was much faster than could be accounted for by births alone.
“We have seen a dramatic and accelerating increase in the Indigenous population,” Markham said. He noted that 70 per cent of “new identifiers” came from NSW and Queensland with almost none from the Northern Territory.
Part of the increase is likely to come from the growing popularity of genealogical research, as people research their family trees and find Aboriginal relatives they did not know about.
Australian Test cricketer Scott Boland has spoken about how he only discovered he had Aboriginal heritage in his mid-20s after his uncle researched their family history and found Boland’s late grandfather was a member of the Gulidjan tribe from the Colac area.
Boland has embraced his Aboriginality, playing in the 2018 Aboriginal XI tour of the United Kingdom and taking an active role in promoting cricket in Aboriginal communities.
Bronwyn Carlson, the head of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, said there was no need for a “fury of panic” about the increase in Indigenous self-identification.
“There is no evidence of a large number of non-Indigenous ‘pretendians’ coming forward and falsely saying they are Aboriginal,” she said.
Carlson, the author of The Politics of Identity: who counts as Aboriginal today?, said she knew first-hand that identifying as Aboriginal could be a complicated process.
She said when she was growing up her family would describe themselves as being “touched by the tar brush” but because they had lighter skin did not fully identify as Aboriginal.
It was only later in life, after researching her family history, that she wholeheartedly embraced her Aboriginal identity.
Carlson said even now some members of the Stolen Generations were only just discovering that they had Aboriginal relatives.