The Science of being Aboriginal

1 March 2016

In this enlightened age of genetic research there have been some amazing revelations about our Australian Aboriginal ancestry using DNA testing. Research from Copenhagen University has revealed that the results of genetic tests performed on a one hundred year old piece of hair from an Aboriginal man shows that Aboriginal people were the first to migrate out of Africa approximately 70,000 years ago.

Yes, our Australian Aboriginal culture is not only very, very old, but it also descends from the first people to leave Africa. That is ground breaking news. Why aren't we screaming this from the rooftops? Why are we hearing about Jacquie Lambie's ridiculous claim to prove her aboriginality through a DNA test but not about this? This news is amazing and a far cry from what I have been hearing all of my life. You see, throughout most of my formal education I heard little or nothing about Aboriginal culture. The most I can remember from anyone outside my family was that Aboriginal "blood" (genes) didn't throw back. And later, that Aboriginal genes were recessive and once they're gone, they're gone. And that's why I had white skin. It failed to explain though, my sister and my brother with their olive skin, thick wild curls and looks that were Aboriginal enough to attract racist insults, while I was told I was "lucky not to look like one". Yes, that's right, apparently I was lucky not to look how I feel or like the family I belong to. Apparently it's "unlucky" to look Aboriginal?

Defining who is Aboriginal and who isn't is a fraught topic and there was a time when the Australian Government (and most of society) defined Aboriginality in terms of percentages. This was done in order to determine which Aboriginal children should be taken from their families, which children had a good chance of assimilation into white society and which children should go to orphanages. So there was full blood, half caste and quadroon. By those definitions I would be considered a quadroon. That is: easily assimilated into a white family for the purposes of housekeeping or child rearing. I was white enough to not be considered black. I often wonder where would my brother and sister have ended up? And that is why I patiently explain my D'harawal family in great length and don't just say "I'm a quarter Aboriginal".

So after a lifetime of painstakingly justifying my Aboriginality and convincing people that I am not just a "real aborigine" I am an "un" real aborigine (by the way, the word "aborigine" is a massive no no; "Aboriginal people/person" is far more acceptable and speaks of Aboriginal people as a race, not just a person native to any particular piece of land), you can imagine my delight when I saw that one of the online family tree sites was advertising a DNA test to prove your racial heritage. Hold the phone! Can you imagine? A piece of paper that said I was Aboriginal?! I could get the piece of paper printed on a t shirt! That'd silence the haters. What if it said I was more than 25% Aboriginal? Could it be why I "felt" so Aboriginal despite looking so much like the white side of my family? The only problem is no one can prove you are Aboriginal. There are no DNA tests that can be performed, despite what some of the family tree sites out there may tell you. They may be able to tell you which part of the world you'll find the most people who share your DNA, but that's about it, and I have no idea where that leaves all of us here in multicultural Australia?

So now the Australian Government has consulted with Indigenous communities and has come up with a set of defining parameters which go some way to understanding the complexity of identity according to Indigenous peoples. The government now says that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be defined as:

  • a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent,
  • who identifies as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin and
  • who is accepted as such by the community with which the person associates.

By those definitions I am 100% Aboriginal.