With some 67 legislative definitions of Aboriginality and a 20 per cent jump in those who selected Indigenous in the census, what does it take to be considered Indigenous?

The number of Australians who have selected Indigenous status has leapt 20 per cent, according to the latest census figures.

With the assistance available to those who qualify, such as health, education and employment services, the question over how Aboriginality is verified is now hotly debated.

The government is no clearer on definition: one parliamentary study of legislation found over 700 articles containing about 67 definitions Aboriginality.

Some people question the motives of others who elect Indigenous status as a manipulation of the system, and say that explains the huge statistical uptrend.

Others say the methods used to define Indigenous status need to be readdressed and a national register needs to be established to correct inconsistencies between government agencies.

Some cases, as featured in tonight’s Insight on SBS ONE, prove the failure of these procedures to address identity and the problematic nature of assigning status to type.


Up until the 1940s, and especially during stolen generation practices, Indigenous certificates were categorised by “full-blood”, “half-caste”, "quarter-caste” or “octoroon”.

Since legislative concepts were state-based, the 1960s saw the states finding their own definitions.

Afterwards, a rather more enigmatic definition, “Aboriginal person means a person of the Aboriginal race of Australia”, became foundational in legislative status.

Today’s more broadly accepted three-part definition is:

- being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.
- identifying as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
- being accepted as such by the community in which you live, or formally lived.


Early legislation of inclusion or exclusion focused on skin colour, which may have been more distinctly identifiable before white settlement.

But such definitions have become dubious since then, with those from mixed backgrounds sometimes not accepted by either community.

In 2010, Tarran Betterridge applied for a job handing out brochures for Andrew Forrest’s Generation One initiative.

She was told that she met all the requirements of the position but that she 'didn’t look Indigenous enough' despite always identifying as Indigenous Wiradjuri woman.

“Just because I don’t look black, doesn’t mean I’m not Aboriginal,” Tarran says on tonight’s Insight.

“It doesn’t mean that I’ve grown up that way and it doesn’t mean that I can’t be proud of who I am and just because I don’t have skin colour doesn’t make me any different from those of you that have colour,” she said.

Closing the gap on indigenous children's education and health is being hampered by definitions and exploitations of Aboriginality, critics say.


Critics say any legislative definition is a white bureaucratic definition.

Dallas Scott was initially rejected for a certificate of Aboriginality when he applied last year, despite identifying as Aboriginal his entire life.

Dallas is also critical of people who identify as Aboriginal but who, in his view, don’t have any idea about what it’s like to be black.

“Now as soon as we start divvying out the money properly for all these kids who really need it, instead of going to all these other art worlds and places like that. If we can go right, these kids need this, they need it right now, they need food on the table, they need a sturdy home environment”

Mark McMillan, also on tonight’s Insight show, says he has always strongly identified as being Indigenous.

“What I find interesting about this conversation is; as if you have a choice in it,” Mark said.

“When you grow up in a small country town, I was, we didn’t have choice about identity – we were that Aboriginal family.

“So when I grew up and even when you leave, these questions are not about whether you have a choice to say yes you are or you aren’t. You are, because that’s all you know.” He said.

Dallas says even what community you were brought up in is problematic.

“I grew up as a black man. I had foster white parents, I grew up in a white area. Like you said, when I grew up I had problems, yep I know, I do understand. But then you can walk out there tonight and get a cab and I can’t.” he said.


An Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry, in consultation with forensic experts, found no “pure point” for establishing genetic identity.

Some of the relative problems are:

- There is no such thing as a genetically differentiated race.

- mtDNA and Y chromosome analysis only charts one family branch, in fact current testing that goes back 14 generations may still not identify more than 16,000 people that an individual is equality related too.

- An inability to trace legally established linage amongst Indigenous communities. READ MORE

Responses to "Aboriginality: Who is and who isn't?"

Write a comment