Jedda Cost and Dana Morse, ABC, November 21, 2022
A relative of a Victorian Labor candidate who has described herself as a “proud Yorta Yorta woman” has said their family has no Indigenous ancestry and has never identified as Aboriginal.
Lauren O’Dwyer is running for election in the battleground seat of Richmond in Melbourne’s inner north at this weekend’s state election.
The ABC understands Ms O’Dwyer said her Indigenous heritage comes from her great-grandfather, Graham Berry.
However Mr Berry’s daughter, Joan Keele, has told the ABC her father was not Aboriginal and never identified as Indigenous.
“My father was not … Aboriginal. His father was born in Swan Hill and his mother was born in Richmond,” Ms Keele said.
“So he’s nowhere near Yorta Yorta country,
“We had a good relationship. We could chat about anything and everything, but [he] never, ever mentioned that.”
Yorta Yorta country is concentrated at the centre of the Victorian-NSW border, taking in towns including Echuca and Shepparton. Swan Hill lies 100 kilometres from its westernmost boundary of Cohuna.
Ms Keele said she found out Ms O’Dwyer had described herself as Indigenous after seeing campaign advertisements on Facebook.
“I was really surprised when I read that on Facebook that she was … a proud Yorta Yorta woman,” Ms Keele said.
“I can’t understand her. I really don’t.”
In a statement provided to the ABC, Ms O’Dwyer disputed the allegations.
“I know who I am and am proud of my heritage,” Ms O’Dwyer said.
When asked about the issue on Monday, Premier Daniel Andrews said cultural identity was a complex matter and Ms O’Dwyer had made her position clear.
“Lauren has made statements and I would direct you to those,” he said.
“I’m not going to speak for her, it’s not appropriate. That’s a matter of her identity and she’s been very, very clear about who she is and where she comes from.”
Corporation finds no genealogical link to Yorta Yorta community
Growing concerns and questions about Ms O’Dwyer’s heritage have continued to build in the lead-up to Saturday’s election, with the local Aboriginal corporation saying she has failed to follow cultural protocol and consult with elders.
Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation (YYNC) chief executive Monica Morgan said there was a consultation process for a reason.
“She cannot say she’s Yorta Yorta until she actually comes to the Yorta Yorta,” Ms Morgan said.
“I’m not against this woman per se, but it is very clear that she has no right to procure an identity as a Yorta Yorta without going through the proper channels and going to their elders.”
The YYNC has clear guidelines about who can identify as Yorta Yorta descendants of the 16 families who moved to the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Mission, near the Victorian-New South Wales border.
Ms Morgan said neither Ms O’Dwyer nor Mr Berry were found anywhere along the line.
“Membership to the Yorta nation is through your family group. You must, when making an application, identify the ancestry by which you want to identify with. Then it goes to the Elders Council,” she said.
“I’ve looked at her genealogy and there is nobody of the Berry family group within the Yorta Yorta genealogical line.”
According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, government and community organisations usually follow three points of criteria to confirm a person is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage.
It includes being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, identifying as an Indigenous Australian and being accepted as such by the community in which you live, or formerly lived – all must apply to be granted a confirmation of Aboriginality form.
Earlier this month, The Age reported Ms O’Dwyer held a Confirmation of Aboriginality from the Njernda Aboriginal Corporation, which is based in Echuca.
The ABC asked Ms O’Dwyer for a copy of the certificate, but was declined.
The Njernda Aboriginal Corporation was contacted for comment.
‘There are cultural protocols to follow’
Member of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and Yorta Yorta woman Ngarra Murray said many newly identifying Indigenous people felt “entitled” to speak for community.
“There are people with newly found Aboriginal ancestry in our communities who still have not tracked down family ties or learned where they come from, but feel entitled to become the next Aboriginal voice and authority on a variety of matters without first speaking with our elders and families,” she said.
Ms Murray said it was a common issue among new identifiers.
“Researching and confirming genealogical ties to Aboriginal people is only one step in establishing an identity rooted in culture, history, tradition, reciprocity and community,” she said.
“There are cultural protocols to follow and no-one is above scrutiny in our nations.
“We do have compassion because everybody’s story is different and those with a genuine and authentic connection we welcome them with open arms.”
Ms Morgan said it was concerning that someone running for parliament would not consult with the community they identified themselves as being from.
“We would have appreciated, most certainly, any politician or person who’s running for parliament and claims Yorta Yorta … to reach out to the Yorta and ask us what it is that we believe is in our future,” Ms Morgan said.
“We’ve been congregating and investing and demonstrating for generations and generations. It is a long-standing and strong lineage of people.
“You just can’t come in and commentate from the sidelines with no authority.”
Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm, who chairs the First Nations Foundation, declined to comment specifically on Ms O’Dwyer but said it was important public conversations around identity were respectful.
“There’s no single path to help people find their own story or find what their origin is, and it comes to different people in different ways,” he said.
“It’s important to be extraordinarily sensitive with this because you’re dealing with … the core of who they believe they are.”
O’Dwyer defends claim to Aboriginal heritage
In the statement provided to the ABC, which echoed that provided to The Age earlier this month, Ms O’Dwyer defended her claim of Indigenous heritage.
“I am a Yorta Yorta woman. Like many Aboriginal Australians my heritage was unknown to me until I was a teenager, and unconfirmed until I was in my early 20s,” Ms O’Dwyer said.
“Since then, I have spent many years recapturing what was lost and building connection to community,” Ms O’Dwyer said.
“The whole concept of Identity Papers is complex and contested — but I do have them.
“They were obtained by my mother on my behalf from the Njernda Aboriginal Corporation in Echuca and signed off by respected local elders with a long connection to my family.
“They verify that I am of Aboriginal descent and accepted by this Corporation as part of the Aboriginal community.”
Ms O’Dwyer and her team declined to answer specific questions regarding her understanding of her links to the Yorta Yorta community.
Ms Morgan said there was more to being part of an Aboriginal nation than “than just getting a piece of paper”.
“Your strength in your power and your passion comes from your identity,” she said.