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Managing 'Aboriginal selves' in South-Western Sydney.

Cliff: (2) I don't think I have to prove my Aboriginality. When they ask where I am from, I would say I'm still looking for it. Aboriginal people are racist. If you cannot prove your Aboriginality through families, they say that you are not Aboriginal!

Yuriko: Why did you decide to be Aboriginal?

Cliff: I chose to do it because I knew I was. I was robbed of my Aboriginal culture. I don't want my children to be robbed. No one told me about Aboriginal things. But there is so much crap about being Aboriginal. Sometimes I wish that I could come back to being white.

Cliff is a resident of south-western Sydney, in his fifties, who identifies as Aboriginal. He is a member of an Aboriginal group and seemed to be on good terms with other Aboriginal members of the group. I had this conversation with Cliff seven to eight months after I started my field research in south-western Sydney. I had been talking to him about how several Aboriginal men claimed that they could distinguish Aboriginal people through their facial features, no matter how fair their skin colour was. Cliff said he did not know anything about it and that he was not brought up in 'that kind of background'. His father had Aboriginal blood, but had not told Cliff much about 'Aboriginal things'. He had not had any contact with his father's Aboriginal family and was brought up 'more like white'. If I was interested in Aboriginal customs, Cliff said, I should ask Adam, the leader of Cliff's group.

By that time, I had observed that demonstrating an Aboriginal family connection is crucial among Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney: when Aboriginal people meet each other, they first ask their family names and their places of origin in a bid to determine if they share common knowledge of (at least) some Aboriginal families in said places of origin. Failing in this practice could lead to the accusation of being a 'wannabe', i.e., someone who is not Aboriginal (often Anglo-Australian), but who for certain reasons claims Aboriginality (Yamanouchi 2007, 2010). Indeed, Cliff had been accused of being a 'wannabe' by some Aboriginal people, and was angry about it. However, it did not seem to make him search for his Aboriginal relatives. He did not seem to think that not knowing Aboriginal customs was a problem either. Rather his statement that he chose to identify as Aboriginal because 'he knew he was', together with his occasional wish that he could 'come back to being white', indicates the complexities of identity--both those chosen and those attributed by others.

Expressing Aboriginality solely through explicit self-identification contradicts the sense of being Aboriginal that I observed among many Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney, including Adam: that is, having been raised with an Aboriginal family background. To them 'being Aboriginal' was something developed and maintained through engagement with other Aboriginal people, particularly family members. For example, when an Aboriginal friend of mine said to me jokingly, 'If you join one more NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islander Day Observance Committee) march, you can be a real Koori', he was asserting that being recognised as Aboriginal requires certain visible acts. This sense of being Aboriginal involves a cultural value that emphasises actual deeds. In country towns, where many urban Aboriginal people are originally from, this cultural value is the basis of meaningful kin relationships (Macdonald 1986). In south-western Sydney, where organisations dealing with Aboriginal issues play a crucial role in Aboriginal people's socialities, people have developed an Aboriginal identity through engagement with the activities of these organisations (Yamanouchi 2007, 2010). The same cultural value of actioning identity through certain activities is working in both situations. This paper explores what has been discussed as the Aboriginal self; (3) that is, a culturally and socially shaped sense of self as it is spoken of in a suburb of Sydney. In anthropological studies the Aboriginal self is usually seen as 'social' and related, but the research basis of this stems from work in remote or rural parts of Australia (Heil 2009; Heil and Macdonald 2008; Macdonald 2000: Myers 1979, 1986; Peterson and Taylor 2003; Poirier 2005). One of the tasks of this paper is to reveal the ways in which a 'related' or 'relational' sense of self constructed in relation with Aboriginal others, is maintained in urban circumstances through the transformation of Aboriginal identity.

Ingold (2000) contrasts the genealogical and relational approaches to indigeneity. In the genealogical approach, Indigeneity is based on descent from the 'original inhabitants'. Habitation of the land before the time of colonisation can be considered as a 'property of the persons that can be transmitted, rather like a legacy or endowment, independently of their habitation of the land' (Ingold 2000: 132). Cliff's sense of Aboriginality can be associated with this genealogical approach. This approach, however, is incompatible with many indigenous peoples' experience and understanding of the world, which is relational. That is, 'both cultural knowledge and bodily substance are seen to undergo continuous generation in the context of an ongoing engagement with the land and with the beings--human and non-human--that dwell within' (Ingold 2000:133). The 'related' Aboriginal sense of self I describe can be associated with this approach.

The accepted social or relational Aboriginal sense of self is usually contrasted with the individuated, self-contained 'self' which is common to the West. The Aboriginal self and indeed the non-Western self more generally has often been conceptualised as the opposite of the Western self (e.g. Geertz 1984 [1974]). More recently, this stereotypical dichotomy has been criticised. Battaglia (1995) maintains that the 'Western folk model' with its image of an unchanging, impermeable, unitary and transcendent 'self' is part of Western dominant ideology. This ideology associates individuality with modernisation and a sociocentric personality with either traditionalism or nostalgia (see also SiSkefeld 1999). Ewing (1990:257) argues that the single, coherent self is an 'illusion', based on the assumption that 'cultures' are coherent systems, which 'has been the prevailing paradigm in cultural anthropology'. She claims that 'in all cultures people can be observed to project multiple, inconsistent self-representations that are context-dependent and may shift rapidly' (Ewing 1990:251), asserting the inconsistency within the cultures. This inconsistency has been observed aptly in the postmodern era when time-honoured, taken-for-granted relations between people and place are disrupted everywhere in the world (cf. Gupta and Ferguson 1997). Jameson (1991) maintains that due to standardisation of the environment, saturation of the consciousness by mass media, and local dislocations caused by globalisation of production, the postmodern consciousness is experienced as 'fragmented'. Although Jameson is referring here to the Western world, in this globalised era people have to deal with their multiple selves irrespective of location. Even though the culturally constructed 'related self' exists, it co-exists with other models, which requires that people manage different kinds of selves (see also Strauss 1997, Van Meijl 2006).

Aboriginal people in urban Australia share this circumstance of fragmented selves. The Aboriginal sense of self has been transformed over time and location and these transformations are now matters of dispute in urban conditions. Faced with a society where social identities appear to be a matter of individual choice, Aboriginal people have to present themselves to the public in ways that can be recognised. Ingold (2000:151) observes that Indigenous people 'are compelled to operate in a modern-day political context in which they are also citizens of nation states' where they are also restricted by the entrenched genealogical image of Indigeneity. Cowlishaw (2009, 2010, 2011) discusses the popularly imagined, reified and objectified form of Aboriginal 'culture' disseminated in Western Sydney, which she calls 'Aboriginal Culture' (4) with a capital 'C'. It is one created by an outside desire for the ancient and primordial 'Other' Aboriginality, (see also Lattas 1990), and supported and promoted by the state system. However, this 'Aboriginal Culture' is not one that stems from the everyday lives of Aboriginal people living in suburban situations. Cowlishaw (2010) observes that Aboriginal people's responses to this reified Culture were ambiguous and inconsistent: some cooperated, some rejected, and some oscillated between the geneologic and relational forms of identity and identification.

The situation in Western Sydney is similar to that in the adjacent south-western suburbs, where the state system plays a crucial role in Aboriginal people's lives in supporting and promoting 'Aboriginal Culture'. The disjuncture between the everyday cultural styles of life and cultural representation (Cowlishaw 2011; see also Van Meijl 2006) indicates the fragmented nature of Aboriginal people's sense of self. Ingold (2000: 151) claims that: 'It is in the attempt to recover a lost or threatened sense of relational identity in attributional terms that people come to define themselves, and to be defined by others as "indigenous".' Further, Strauss (1997) argues that through emotionally salient life experiences, some integration is achieved for those with fragmented selves. I ask whether Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney have fragmented selves and if so, how they achieve self-integration; what is the significance of the fragmentation itself? What does it mean to be 'Aboriginal' in this situation? In order to explore these questions I concentrate on two cases: that of Cliff, mentioned above, who identifies as Aboriginal but was not brought up within a family that identified as Aboriginal, and that of Nadine, who is from an Aboriginal family background. Both Cliff and Nadine are residents of south-western Sydney. Although the majority of the Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney have backgrounds more like Nadine's, people like Cliff are increasing in number. In a sense, their assertive presence shares its roots with the creation and promotion of 'Aboriginal Culture', as can be seen in the change of status and meaning of Aboriginality that has occurred since the 1970s. Cliff's case is important in particular for what it tells us about expressions of contemporary Aboriginality.


Within thirty years of the British arrival on the Australian coast in 1788, the area now called south-western Sydney had become the 'first white frontier', and over the next 150 years the Aboriginal population was decimated by disease and violence. When suburban development commenced post-World War II (1945), there appears to have been little evidence of Aboriginal presence. By the year 2006, the total population of this area was 658,061, with expectations of further growth (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 2006). Since the start of its suburban development, this part of Sydney has been considered a low socio-economic area (cf. Keating 1995): the cost of living here is relatively cheap compared to the eastern or inner-city suburbs of Sydney; the population is generally less well educated, suffers relatively high unemployment rates, and tends to have low income levels (ABS 2006, see also Bankstown City Council 2004; Campbelltown City Council 2004; Fairfield City Council, 2003; Liverpool City Council, 2005).

Today, only a few descendants of the Tharawal (5) people, the original inhabitants of the Campbelltown area (cf. Campbelltown City Council 2004), can be found living in the area. Other than this, no records have been kept or studies undertaken indicating the presence of descendants of the original inhabitants of the area. Most of the current Aboriginal residents have come from many different areas of settled Australia (Beasley 1970). The major influx of Aboriginal people into south-western Sydney started in the 1960s, when the government set up major public housing projects, including a special program later to become known as the Housing for Aborigines (HFA) program in 1969 (Morgan 2006). Between 1971 and 2006, the Aboriginal population of this area rose from 491 to 7,658 (ABS 1971,2006). The allocation of public housing to Aboriginal people that was scattered among non-Aboriginal residences, commonly known as a 'salt and pepper' policy, was designed to ensure that Aboriginal people did not form enclaves. The migration to the suburbs, though it often put Aboriginal people under the surveillance of the Housing Commission (Morgan 2006), gave people a chance to redefine themselves and their relationship with their Aboriginal relatives and with other Australian citizens.

There is no single comprehensive or dominant kinship group connecting all, or even most of the Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney. Their main social relations are established (1) via kin relationships; and (2) through the activities of local organisations dealing with Aboriginal issues.

The distribution patterns of Aboriginal family members in the area are diverse. Some families have local kinship networks large enough for sixty people to attend a birthday party. Many others have kin who live predominantly in Australia's rural areas and elsewhere in Sydney. The function of the kinship relationships is also diverse. Some Aboriginal people regularly and frequently visit their relatives in and outside south-western Sydney, or have their relatives visit them and provide regular social and material assistance. Others interact with their local family members frequently and provide support, but visit their relatives in the rural areas infrequently, only once a year or less. Some have not visited relatives in their country places of origin for decades.

In addition, there are considerable numbers of people who do not have kin in any of the ways described above. These include members of what is known as the 'Stolen Generation': people who were removed from their Aboriginal families in their childhood (see Read 1982). While many have established some kind of contact with their Aboriginal family members, others have found it difficult to establish close ties with family, or have failed to find them. Another group comprises those referred to as 'newly identified'. There are various reasons for this recent identification. Some respondents said that they knew about their Aboriginal descent (referred to as having 'Aboriginal blood') but kept it hidden for a long time. Others said their parents only recently told them they had Aboriginal blood. Some discovered their Aboriginality through genealogical research. As a result of the recent changes in attitudes towards Aboriginal people in the wider society (and the new advantages which Aboriginality may accrue), some have decided to re-identify as Aboriginal. And, while some have actively gone in search of their Aboriginal families, others have opted not to explore their immediate or extended family connections.

Aboriginal organisations focusing on Aboriginal social issues such as health and education have been established since the late 1960s in inner-city Sydney. In the south-western suburbs, concomitant with Aboriginal people's migration, Aboriginal people's involvement with organisation-oriented socialities was established in the 1980s. In 1983, the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Tharawal Local Aboriginal Land Council were established under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (New South Wales) 1983. Other Aboriginal activities, including mainstream projects addressing Aboriginal issues, proliferated. Currently, there are two Aboriginal organisations in Liverpool Local Government Area (LGA) and eleven in Campbelltown LGA, and others in Fairfield and Bankstown. These organisations run projects, monthly meetings and annual events for Aboriginal people. The Liverpool and Campbelltown City Councils employ Aboriginal project officers and hold monthly meetings. The South Western Sydney Area Health Service (SWSAHS) (6) has employed many Aboriginal health care workers and organises Aboriginal Elders' Groups, Aboriginal Men's and Women's Clinics in Liverpool LGA and Campbelltown LGA, and an Aboriginal women's group in Bankstown LGA. SWSAHS also funds projects for a non-government organisation that runs an Aboriginal playgroup in Fairfield. Some local schools employ Aboriginal Educational Assistants (AEA) or Aboriginal Liaison Officers and have programs for Aboriginal students and parents. These projects, which are run by Aboriginal workers, are connected through loose networks. Local Land Councils, some Aboriginal organisations, City Councils, and various community organisations either jointly or separately hold annual Aboriginal events such as the NAIDOC (The National Aboriginal Islander Day Observance Committee) Week celebration. Aboriginal Health Care Workers jointly hold an annual festival for Aboriginal women living in south-western Sydney.

Some of these groups meet two or three times a week: some meet monthly; most attract between ten to thirty people. Organisations that hold activities frequently do so for only one to three hours at a time; thus, the building of strong social relations is limited. However, in this area, many Aboriginal people do not have large family clusters around them. Organisations provide places where they can get to know other Aboriginal people and keep in contact with them. Even for Aboriginal people with kin close by, the regular meeting places provided by such organisations can be important venues affording opportunities to catch up with others and affirm their social belonging. When Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney use the term 'Aboriginal community', it is often based on their experience of the activities of these organisations.

Anthropological studies on the Aboriginal sense of being 'related' or relational have mostly been conducted in remote areas or country towns where the self is depicted as forged in relationships with others (mostly kin) (Gibson 2010; Heil, 2009; Heil and Macdonald 2008; Macdonald 2000: Myers 1979, 1986; Peterson and Taylor 2003, Poirier 2005). (7) Many Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney are originally from country towns across settled Australia and have family connections there. However, my research shows that Aboriginal social relations in south-western Sydney today are not centrally based on kinship ties. The diversity of the area's Aboriginal residents, especially those from non-Aboriginal family environments, as well as geographical dispersion, makes it difficult for Aboriginal social selves to be constituted and forged among their kin. The conditions under which social relations are reproduced in suburban environments are quite different from those that forged Aboriginal communities in country and rural NSW.

Although kin networks still exist, Aboriginal organisations dealing with Aboriginal issues play crucial roles for Aboriginal people's socialities in south-western Sydney. These organisations are funded by the state, and thus are ultimately accountable to a state-based ideology which assumes a genealogical understanding of Aboriginality. Very little research has been done on the significance and effect of these organisations on Aboriginal people's identities, consciousness, and sense of self in urban situations. Cowlishaw (2009) points out that Aboriginal people working for Aboriginal organisations are required to work in a way that can leave them at odds with other Aboriginal people (see also Gibson 2010; Pierson 1977). Not only Aboriginal workers but also Aboriginal people joining the activities of these organisations are exposed to the assumption of the genealogical image of Aboriginality. This creates a dilemma epitomised by their encounters with those who identify as Aboriginal but are not from an Aboriginal family background. The spaces for identity offered to people by these organisations can result in people experiencing severely conflicted identities as they attract both Aboriginal people with strong Aboriginal family backgrounds and those who identify as Aboriginal but do not have these strong associations (Yamanouchi 2010). In order to hold an Aboriginal-designated position, or to join an Aboriginal organisation, what is technically required is an Aboriginal certificate of identity. This certificate, which is issued by designated Aboriginal organisations, was introduced to ensure that a person of Aboriginal descent is accepted as such by the community. However, the acceptance of personal and informal processes means that there are subtle ways of using political and financial influence to acquire certificates of Aboriginality. Many Aboriginal people spoke of organisations known to issue certificates indiscriminately to 'anyone', indicating that a claim of Aboriginality based solely on a government certificate is not reliable. (8) In some cases, being familiar with the mainstream system becomes an advantage in getting jobs designated for Aboriginal workers. Aboriginal people from Aboriginal backgrounds joining these organisations encounter those who are not from Aboriginal family backgrounds and who do not seem to have a concept of Aboriginal self as 'related'. How do they experience their selves in this situation, and how do they manage their relationships with the organisations?


Nadine, a senior worker in an Aboriginal section of a government department, explained to me how she deals with those who are not from an Aboriginal family background. Nadine is in her fifties, originally from a country town in New South Wales and was brought up among her Aboriginal family. Her family moved to south-western Sydney when she was thirteen and she is now a well established Aboriginal figure in the area. Nadine has managed to create an integrated and relational sense of self although, as the following suggests, this fluctuates at times revealing the awareness of a fragmented sense of self. Nadine's own Aboriginal sense of self and her identification of others' Aboriginality can at times be at variance.

Yuriko: I was wondering about this. Some people say that some people are not actually Aboriginal.

Nadine: I think what you mean is, how can some of these people say they're Aboriginal and we feel like they're not? Is that it? Well, normally in Aboriginal communities like, if, say, if someone comes here now to see me, and the first thing I would do is ask their name. And if I'm not familiar with the name, I would say: 'Who is your mob and where are you from?' And they may say another name and a country town or a tribal area, and then I'd know straight away. And this is how we identify with each other. They may be from the same area as me. And I'd know their people, and their family networks and the kinship. But, then you get these other people who say: 'Yes, we're Aboriginal' and you ask who their mob is and they can't tell you. So we become a bit suspicious and say: 'Oh, you don't know who is your mob? You know, you must know!' And then, if they can't really tell you who their mob is, then I would say, 'Where were you born', and if they give me the name of the place, I'd mention some people, you know. But then if they can't connect to any Aboriginal families there, it becomes difficult for us to accept them. So, if we don't accept them, we'd say: 'Well, you know, you need to go back to where you're from and ask someone for a letter, you know, to say you are Aboriginal.' Yeah, and then, if they can do that, that's fine, you accept them. Some of these people don't give you anything--they just claim to be Aboriginal. It's hard to accept them--they never really get accepted'.

According to Nadine, when Aboriginal people meet each other, they first ask their family names and their places of origin in a bid to determine if they share common knowledge of (at least) some Aboriginal families in said places of origin. This is different from having some abstract knowledge of biological connection. The emphasis is on actual engagement. Even though it may be a one-time meeting only, a face-to-face exchange with their Aboriginal relatives is required. An Aboriginal contact once said that while he would not demand that members of the Stolen Generation live with their Aboriginal families, he would demand that they see their Aboriginal families at least once to verify his acceptance of them as Aboriginal. In this way, those who were not raised in Aboriginal families such as the members of the Stolen Generation, can demonstrate that they understand the significance of being 'actually related'. Failing to conduct this practice can lead to the accusation of being 'wannabes' (Yamanouchi 2010).

However, Nadine also accepts confirmation in the form of a certificate issued by an Aboriginal organisation in the rural area the person says they are from. This requirement is ambiguous: on the one hand it can be considered to prove the connection with a rural Aboriginal community, but on the other, Aboriginal people are often not convinced by the claim of Aboriginality based on the certificate alone. Nadine's acceptance of the certificate from a rural Aboriginal organisation suggests some compromise to the genealogical approach to defining Aboriginality. Nadine revealed more of the influence of the ambiguity between genealogical and relational views and understandings of Aboriginality:

Yuriko: ah, what I can think about as a background is a ... like Stolen Generation people.

Nadine: yeah, and then, you think about that. And ah ... so, then there is an organisation called Link-up [an organisation established to find out the Aboriginal families of Stolen Generations members], where they can go and find out who their people are. So, if I can find them like that too, that's a good way. But that is hard. I know it's hard to deal with people who are stolen. But the ones you seem to have problems with, who you can't connect to anybody, are the real fair ones. They are really fair, and I can't tell you who they, who their black family are. Yeah, so it's hard for those people. They might say that they were adopted as babies and they don't know who their family are. But when you've got dark skin, you can sort of ah, get talking to women and you can find out who their people are. But when they are light skin, it's very hard to find who their people are, and ... So, these people do have a lot of difficulties. But ah, you can sort of pick it within them too, like how they ... fitting with people, fitting with, with the mob, how they talk, and how, like some people, they may like to do some art or something and it will just come out naturally, they can sit there, they can draw an Aboriginal painting. You know. So that's coming from within them. Yeah, so, you can, even if they are fair skinned, you can still pick it up in a lot of people sometimes. They talk, ah, if they got any cultural values, you can pick it up. Yeah, but some people don't have any of that. And it's really hard to pick anything from them. Yeah, so those people, they are the ones you find it really difficult to be accepted. But it's hard from us, I suppose.

Nadine lists the attributes of Aboriginality: skin colour, the way they fit with people, the way they talk, and an ability to paint. Some of the qualities she lists are linked to imagined biological and geneological traits and requirements while others call on more relational definitions. While Nadine seems to move between aspects of the relational and genealogical in her understanding and acceptance, others seem to adopt a clear essentialised geneological understanding. For example, an Aboriginal friend of mine seemed clear that his child did not need to take an Aboriginal culture course, since she 'should know it' because she was Aboriginal. Another Aboriginal friend mentioned about the 'particular type of ear-the Aboriginal people's ears are flat, whereas non-Aboriginal people's ears are tilting' inherited only by 'Aboriginal descendants'.

Nadine's understanding of Aboriginality has another layer.

Yuriko: So, how do you deal with those who cannot prove their Aboriginality?

Nadine: How do I deal with them? Well ... I just try to accept them, try to accept them. And, ah ... down, down the track they show, you know, that they want to be committed and get involved.

Yuriko: So wanting to be involved is one of the important things?

Nadine: It's very important, yeah. If you want to be involved in a community and help and support projects, help out, it's very important.

Nadine was not the only respondent to make this comment. Other Aboriginal people alluded to acceptance via engagement. Here, being Aboriginal can be constituted through engagement with the activities of organisations. In south-western Sydney, where organisations play crucial social roles, the activities they run provide places where Aboriginal people can constitute and express their sense of self. Although dissimilar to the ways in which the peoples of the rural and remote areas establish their sense of self through kin networks and relations, Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney can express this sense by engaging in relationships with others. Thus, the idea of the related or relational sense of self has been adapted to the suburban situation. Nadine's ultimate claim of relational Aboriginality clearly was established during her early experience with her Aboriginal family and their own relational development of self. In this way people can recover their sense of Aboriginality (Ingold 2000).

Nadine's success as an Aboriginal worker within a government department partly relies on her capacity to adopt or at least conform to the genealogical approach held by the system in which she works. This includes her bosses and colleagues but also those who identify as Aboriginal but hold a genealogical approach to Aboriginality. When working in such a situation the capacity to adopt aspects of the relational and genealogical is valuable and even necessary in order to survive and to be successful. Not many people are as successful as Nadine in finding balance between these two models.


Even though there is no specific agreement vis-a-vis the degree of commitment or indeed the rules required to be accepted, attitudes such as Nadine's can accommodate people like Cliff, as can Adam, who accepts Cliff as both friend and member of an Aboriginal group. Cliff, for his part, commented: 'I don't think I have to prove my Aboriginality' and 'I chose to do it (identify as Aboriginal) because I knew I was'. These comments seem quite incompatible with those who emphasise a relational idea and sense of self. Cliff's genealogical sense of his Aboriginality was not forged through relationships with others, but through inheritance.

Although Cliff knew about his father's 'Aboriginal blood', he grew up 'more like white' in a country town. He identified as Aboriginal in his fifties but is not keen to see his Aboriginal relatives. People like Cliff, so-called 'newly identified' people, are not rare in south-western Sydney. The image of Aboriginal people changed between the 1960s and 70s when certain oppressive laws were repealed and Aboriginal people became legal citizens with certain freedoms including that of free movement which was hitherto often denied. These changes, along with a new housing policy, saw many people move from country towns into urban areas. Further, Aboriginal Culture became an emblem of national Australian identity. With these changes, some who had formerly concealed their Aboriginality started to re-identify as 'Aboriginal' (Tonkinson 1990). The ABS (2004, 2008) reported an 'unexplained growth' in Aboriginal population figures. Between 1991 and 1996, the Indigenous population figures showed an increase of 33 per cent, out of which 19 per cent was considered to be due to 'the changes in census procedures and an increasing propensity for persons to identify or be identified as Indigenous in the census' (ABS 2004). In the 1996 and 2001 Aboriginal population increase (16 per cent), 4 per cent is considered to be due to these factors.

Those who are not from Aboriginal family backgrounds often have painful stories of the past, including ongoing racial discrimination against Aboriginal people, which led them or their ancestors to abandon their Aboriginality, sometimes forcibly. One woman, Lisa, told me that until she found the Aboriginal side of her family, she suffered a sense of loss. Another woman told me that when she was young, she, together with her parents and siblings, moved around to hide their Aboriginal blood, always being afraid that someone would discover their Aboriginality. Aboriginal people from Aboriginal family backgrounds often show ambivalent feelings towards those who sought to 'pass'. They know that racism has been so severe that some were pushed to hide their Aboriginality, or were removed from their Aboriginal families. Some show sympathy and maintain that it must have been hard not to be able to find their Aboriginal families. However, many seem to feel at odds with them, saying things like, 'they might have lost something, but they have not gone through what I have gone through'. More recently, Aboriginality is considered by some to provide some advantage such as being able to apply for Aboriginal housing and welfare programs. Many Aboriginal people from Aboriginal family backgrounds feel that some non-Aboriginal people are trying to be 'Aboriginal' due to the perceived privileges afforded those who are seen to be Aboriginal. An Aboriginal friend of mine spoke bitterly about his Maori friend, who tried to make him sign a support document so that she could get an Aboriginal certificate.

Due to the political and social changes emerging in the 1970s, people like Cliff began to have the choice to re-identify with the identity that they and their forbears had suppressed. Attwood (1992: 307), who analyses Sally Morgan's My Place (1987), argues that the latter is more associated with 'the rational, self-conscious ego'. He notes that her first step to forge her Aboriginality was 'self-determination, of pointing to her origin as Aboriginal and proclaiming her pride in being so' (Attwood 1992: 304). The next step involved seeking government recognition. Attwood maintains that this was her tacit acknowledgement of the state power to define Aboriginality. Then, Morgan visited her Aboriginal relatives 'in order to give meaning to and thus authenticate her new sense of self' (Attwood 1992: 304-305). As with Morgan, Cliff's sense of Aboriginal identity and self is self-determined and has received official government recognition. Neither Cliff nor Morgan had the opportunity to develop relational selves through early or formative social relationships with kin or wider Aboriginal networks. For people like Cliff and Morgan the genealogical approach was the only one available and it enabled them to express themselves as Aboriginal. While Morgan searched for her Aboriginal relatives Cliff does not. However, according to Attwood (1996), Morgan's visit to her Aboriginal relatives is not to experience 'related' self but to prove her descent. Cliff is not interested in this however. He once told me that he knew where his father was from, which seems enough for him to be convinced of his legitimacy in claiming Aboriginal descent and identity.

Cliff's view of himself appears to be a coherent, deeply rooted, and self-convicted self. As the Tasmanian Aboriginal Anderson maintains, 'Our ability to manage change is contingent on being able to project ourselves as coherent entities' (1995:39). This attitude is shared by some of those who were not from Aboriginal family backgrounds or an Aboriginal community environment. One person, who found his Aboriginal blood in his twenties asserted that being Aboriginal is from 'the heart'. It is not something 'you choose'. Another respondent, who identified as Aboriginal, told me that she did not need to explain to others what being Aboriginal is, because she knew. (9) Cliff grew up 'like white' and became 'Aboriginal' in his fifties. His parents divorced when he was young and he lost contact with his natal family and since then his life was not smooth and stable before he adopted a coherent Aboriginal identity. His experience is quite different to that of Nadine. The point to be made however is that both perceive themselves to be indisputably Aboriginal. This said, the extent to which one's sense of self is coherent and at peace became clear when I had to cut short my conversation with Cliff when he became annoyed with being questioned on these matters. This might indicate that Cliff's sense of his Aboriginal self is more vulnerable than someone like Nadine.


Can a purely genealogical understanding of Aboriginality such as Cliff has, develop into a relational sense and thus provide a more secure sense of his Aboriginality? Everett depicts Darug descendants in Western Sydney, who have identified as Darug within the last thirty years, trying hard to be 'Darug', by practising 'forms of "primitive" dance, engaging in certain kinds of ceremonies and speaking a version of what is claimed to be the Darug language' (2009:54). Cliff does not try to be Aboriginal in such a way. He attends an Aboriginal group and does some 'Aboriginal crafts'. But he is not particularly keen on deploying 'Aboriginal Cultural' motifs in his craft works. What he and other Aboriginal members in the group mainly do is to yarn and gossip about their lives and problems. Although Cliff claims that his Aboriginal culture was 'robbed', he does not seem to think of learning and practising 'Aboriginal Culture' as an answer. Gibson depicts the Aboriginal artists in Wilcannia producing art works that meet 'the white desires and expectations for a traditional work' (2008: 301). She notes that while this unsettles the outsider's idea that Aboriginal people in settled Australia have 'no culture', it limits the artists' freedom of expression. Although the situation is different between the city and the country town, the presence and influence of a nationally imagined 'Aboriginal Culture' is shared. Cliff, unlike the artists described in Gibson (2008), decided not to join the 'Aboriginal Culture', at least not positively. What he gets instead could be 'freedom'. Not searching for his Aboriginal families might look odd for Aboriginal people from an Aboriginal family background. However, Cliff has not grown up and developed his Aboriginal self with them. He comes to the Aboriginal group to yarn and gossip with Aboriginal people. He claims that he and Adam give support to each other. They are the 'Aboriginal people' Cliff knows. From his Aboriginal group members' viewpoint, Cliff is engaging with community activities. Although carrying a coherent if limited genealogical understanding of Aboriginality, his deeds can lead to the development of a relational self as understood by those such as Nadine. This may occur over time and be less reflexively cognised as he develops relationships with other Aboriginal people. Ingold's (2000) statement regarding 'the attempt to recover the lost or threatened sense of relational identity' might be observed here although in Cliff's case this effort does not seem conciously directed. However, this effort may have the possibility of making him 'Indigenous', in harmony with the Indigeneity in south-western Sydney at this particular point in time.

Aboriginal people from Aboriginal family backgrounds have experienced their Aboriginal selves as primarily relational through their upbringing among their kin. With the expansion of Aboriginal organisations and the need to ascertain an individual's Aboriginality, a genealogical understanding of Aboriginality has become significant and affirmed by state officialdom. A legitimate Aboriginal identity can now be claimed entirely on the basis of descent from an Aboriginal ancestor, or 'Aboriginal blood' as it is known. Aboriginal organisations in south-western Sydney are seeing an increasing number of people who claim Aboriginality solely based on the descent and thus sometimes arouse suspicion and are rejected. This essay has outlined the tension that is aroused between these, sometimes competing, senses of the Aboriginal self. In a contemporary situation saturated by the genealogical understanding of Aboriginality, some Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney could experience their self fragmented by conflicting genealogical and relational definitions and requirements. The legitimacy accorded to the genealogical Aboriginal self, as I have illustrated in the case of Cliff, allows people with fragmented family history to take a place and be accepted, although sometimes with reluctance. While the genealogical approach to Aboriginality allows people with broken family histories to operate within the state system, new circumstances and spaces are being appropriated which can develop and maintain other kinds of related selves developing over time.


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(1.) This essay is based upon field research undertaken in south-western Sydney, an area that includes the four LGAs Liverpool, Bankstown, Campbelltown and Fairfield. In 2006, there were 7,658 Aboriginal people living there, approximately one per cent of the population (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABA] 2006). I lived there for approximately six months in 2004-2005 and commuted four to six days a week for a further five months. The Aboriginal people in south-western Sydney are not clustered into discrete neighbourhoods, but are spread throughout the suburbs. I met the participants in this research through group contacts, family members, and Aboriginal meetings and events. With a diverse and dispersed Aboriginal population, the data analysed are representative only of the people who participated in the study. I would like to thank Dr. Gaynor Macdonald for her supervision and the Aboriginal people who cooperated with my research as well as Dr. Estelle Dryland, Macquarie University, and Ms. Rosemary Whitecross for assistance with English editing. This paper also benefitted from the comment of two anonymous referees, and the volume's editors.

(2.) The names of the people in south-western Sydney in this article are pseudonyms.

(3.) There is a confusion and debate regarding the usage of the term 'self' (e.g. Quinn 2006; Sokefeld 1999; Spiro 1993). In this paper, I use the term 'self' as a culturally-shaped notion, since it is what has been most often dealt with as 'self' in anthropological studies including those dealing with Aboriginal Australians. Self is tied to an identity that must be actualised and represented in the world.

(4.) Cowlishaw uses the capitalised 'Culture' for the objectified forms, in order to distinguish it from other usages of the term (Cowlishaw 2009, 2010, 2011). I follow her usage in this article.

(5.) Alternative spellings of this word encountered in the literature are: Dharawal, Tarawal, Darawa:l, Carawal, Turawal, Thurawal, Thurrawal, Thurrawall, Turuwal, Turuwul, Turrnbul, Ta-gary.

(6.) The South Western Sydney Area Health Service was amalgamated with the Sydney South West Area Health Service in 2005. However, its function at the local grass roots level has not changed much.

(7.) Barwick [1988] and Gale and Wundersitz(1982) are exceptions, but they documented continuing kin based relationships in urban conditions.

(8.) This does not seem to concern government employers and service providers. As long as applicants have Aboriginal certificates, they can be employed as Aboriginal workers and receive services as Aboriginal people (Cowlisbaw 2009; Yamanouchi 2007).

(9.) I do not mean that all newly identified people are like Cliff. There are newly identified people who are more willing to engage the relationship with their Aboriginal relatives.

Yuriko Yamanouchi

Macquarie University
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Author:Yamanouchi, Yuriko
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Date:Mar 1, 2012
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