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Aborigines row over racial identity (Read 250 times)

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Aborigines row over racial identity
Sep 8th, 2002 at 8:25pm
By Kathy Marks in Sydney, Independent UK, 09 September 2002

A poisonous dispute over who has the right to call themselves Aboriginal is tearing apart Tasmania's indigenous community and threatening to spread to mainland Australia.

The conflict, which has split families in the island state and set community leaders at each other's throats, has been provoked by looming elections to jobs in a powerful indigenous organisation with A$6.5m (2.3m) of funds to distribute among local groups.

In an attempt to end the wrangling, the government took the controversial step of setting up an indigenous electoral roll and appointing an independent committee to adjudicate on challenges to would-be voters. Thousands of objections have been lodged and passions are running so high that even the Aboriginality of committee members has been questioned.

The root of the problem lies in Tasmanian history and the bloody frontier battles waged in the early 19th century between white colonists and indigenous tribes.

The Aboriginal population was almost exterminated. The few survivors were exiled to an offshore island in the Bass Strait, where the women intermarried with European sealers and whalers. Eight generations on, descendants of those unions most of whom have white skins claim to be the only true Tasmanian Aborigines. They say thousands of Tasmanians are masquerading as Aborigines to gain access to benefits.

Those accused of fabricating indigenous heritage say they are related to Aborigines who avoided relocation to the Bass Strait. They claim they are being disenfranchised as part of a power struggle.

Among those whose ancestry is being disputed are prominent members of the community such as John Clark, chairman of the state branch of the influential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Mr Clark said he had elderly aunts, in their 80s, who were "totally shattered that their identity has been thrown out the door". He said: "This is purely a political issue. It's not about flushing out whitefellas. It's about power."

The arguments have been fuelled by a steep jump in the number of people describing themselves as Aborigines. Nearly 16,000 Tasmanians ticked that box in a census last year, which translates into a 135 per cent rise in the indigenous population since 1986. Opinion is divided on whether the increase is the result of an indigenous baby boom and a growing trend for Aborigines to wear their identity as a badge of pride after decades of hiding it to avoid discrimination.

Descendants of the Bass Strait Aborigines are convinced people are inventing indigenous bloodlines for fraudulent reasons. Jay McDonald, secretary of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, a hardline group, said: "These people are not Aborigines and have not lived as Aborigines. They are imposing themselves on the Aboriginal community for benefit to themselves."

Similar problems are expected to arise in other parts of Australia, which experienced the same startling rise in the number of people calling themselves Aborigines in the census.

In Tasmania, those who say that their identity is being stolen have resorted to DNA testing to back up their claims. Thirty people gave DNA samples to a forensic scientist on the island, who sent them to the University of Arizona for analysis.

That avenue was closed this week when the university withdrew from the project after being warned that such work could attract adverse publicity and opposition from its own ethics committee.

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