Picking an Aboriginal today can be a difficult task.
Last week I was introduced to a high profile footballer who had played first grade for two multiple premiership-winning NRL clubs. During our conversation I asked him where he was born and who his people were. His friend who knows me said, ”Stephen, he isn’t a Murri”.
Uncomfortably, the footballer joining in on the conversation inquired, “Who me … an Aborigine?”
Trying to break the tension, I tried to turn an innocent question about his mob, into a joke by using a regular throwaway line. “You better check the name of the milkman mate because you certainly look like an Aborigine.” Then, out of the blue he said, “Mum told me a long time ago that she thought her grandmother might have a bit of Aborigine in her”, in a flippant attempt to dismiss any possible connection to his matrilineal bloodline.
By this stage, my usually pleasant 24C office had become noticeably chillier and I changed the conversation onto a less threatening topic of the recent NRL grand final.
After my visitors had left, I thought of two former international rugby league captains whom I once assumed were Indigenous, Mal Meninga and Gordon Tallis, but got terribly wrong.
Meninga said in his book, Meninga from Superstar to Super League - The Life and Turmoil of Mal Meninga:
At school I was aware of racists. There were plenty of times I got into fights because of my colour. People thought of me as an Aborigine but I am not an Aborigine, I am a South Sea Islander.
Gordon Tallis, in his book, Raging Bull, says:
People ask me about my ethnic background. Newspapers pick me in their “fantasy” Indigenous and Aboriginal sides. To tell the honest truth, I haven’t worried too much about it. An auntie of mine did some research and she found that my great-grandfather came from North Western Ambrym in Vanuatu and my great-grandmother was from Loh Island in the Torres Strait. All we were ever told in my family was that we were Australians. My dad was born in Townsville and his dad was born in Bowen, so that makes us Australian and we’re proud of it. I have played in one Indigenous side though, the Redfern All Blacks, who won the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tournament in 1992. That was some side. We had Choc Mundine who was about 17, Tricky Trindall who was 25, and Wes Patten who was 19. People might have read a bit into me playing in that tournament but to me it was just a chance to play some footy with my mate.
From a different identity standpoint, Samantha Riley, Olympic swimming champion, discovered her Aboriginal ancestry towards the end of her illustrious career.
Lin Riley speaks of her daughter in The Life of Riley:
The suited driver in the white Mercedes is heading to the domestic airport with time to spare. His passenger requests, “Drive me to Redfern, I have the street address here”.
Arriving at the destination, the driver remarks, “This isn’t the best part of town, Sam. I’ll come with you”.
Sam, reassuring him, replies, “It’s all right, I’ll be okay. Wait here, I’ll be back soon”.
It’s cold and the apartment dweller, dressed in her pink dressing gown, layers of jumpers underneath, grey hair bound in rollers, opens the door, shocked and surprised to see standing before her the swimmer, Sam Riley. A momentary awkwardness as they both reach for their voices. Smiling, Pat asks, “Hello, aren’t you Sam?”
Sam smiles and nods and without hesitation in one breath fires off the beginning. ”My mother was adopted and I’m Ronnie’s granddaughter. We’ve just found out that Ronnie was my mum’s mother, that’s why I’m here. Can you tell me anything about Ronnie?
Long before Samantha’s mother sought an explanation about her heritage, many Aboriginal people silently claimed Sam, during her distinguished career, as one of theirs, because she had all the attractive physical features and idiosyncrasies of an Aboriginal.
Diplomat Gordon Matthews adds yet another dimension to this complex debate about identity. Gordon, a former colleague of mine at the Department of Foreign Affairs in the 1980s, thought he was Aboriginal until he met his father in Iowa, United States, as he recounts in Gordon Matthews, An Australian Son:
I thought about what it meant to know that my father was Sri Lankan. Having believed that I was Aboriginal, it felt disappointing and anti-climatic to acquire a racial background that I had never anticipated. There was no sense of excitement or completion. Before arriving at the belief I was Aboriginal, of the nationalities I had considered I could be, Sri Lankan had figured but only marginally and suggested by others on a mere handful of occasions.
Emotionally part of me was still definitely Aboriginal. Although I was now Gordon Matthews, Sri Lankan adoptee, my connection with Aboriginal Australia continued and wouldn’t suddenly wither and die. Aboriginality was something of which I had been aware virtually as far back as my memory stretched. I had experienced first-hand what it felt like to grow up Aboriginal in mainstream Australia, albeit on distinct and unusual terms. I had suffered that. Like any fundamental experience, you don’t unlearn that.
The ABS statistics reveal that between 1996 and 2001 the total Australian population increased 6 per cent while the number of people counted as Indigenous in the census (460,140) increased by 16 per cent. Of the 16 per cent rise in the Indigenous population, 12 per cent was due to natural increase (i.e. births and deaths) and a further 4 per cent due to other factors, primarily an increasing propensity to identify as Indigenous.
This new 4 per cent that now identify as Indigenous are, in some quarters, unfavourably referred to as “Johnny Come Latelys” (JCLs). The objectors say the JCLs are taking over Indigenous-specific scholarships at universities as well as jobs in the public and private sector. These objectors add that many JCLs are gaining preference over them in interviews, as they present a more pleasing and conservative look to biased interviewers, because they have more refined European features.
Their central argument is that the JCLs didn’t want anything to do with their local Indigenous communities when they were growing up. On the flipside, many fair-skinned Aborigines who have always identified with their communities continue to have problems being accepted by some of their own people.
Picking an Aboriginal today can indeed be a difficult task.