Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aboriginal pride on rise in Oz

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BRISBANE -- Exactly who is an Aboriginal Australian? It's a question increasingly being asked as light-skinned Australians embrace the culture of black-skinned Aborigines.

Instead of hiding Aboriginal heritage, which half a century ago would have resulted in exclusion and hostility from the white world, those with an indigenous component in their DNA are now proudly proclaiming connection with Aborigine society, which has weathered more than 40,000 years on the planet, a feat that leaves Egyptians looking like new kids on the block.

Australia's indigenous population is rising rapidly, not merely because of a superior birth rate but because self-identification as Aboriginal on census forms has increased dramatically in the past two decades.

It's a cause for celebration given the toll European arrival took on indigenous people -- disease and agricultural expansion destroyed traditional lifestyles.

But Aboriginal identity has also raised worrying questions about who benefits from the government programs established to compensate for those destructive forces unleashed with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

Australian journalist Caroline Overington has ventured into the delicate world of Aboriginal identity and has raised legitimate issues.

Overington, who works for national broadsheet The Australian (which itself relentlessly addresses issues of Aboriginal disadvantage), has questioned whether those indigenous Australians living comfortable, middle-class lifestyles should be the recipients of scholarships, prizes and grants designed to assist the underprivileged.

Issues of racial and cultural identity are not new in Australia. Right up until the 1970s, an Irish Catholic heritage was frowned on by those who identified with an English Protestant ancestry, and many Irish quietly buried evidence of their past to smooth their way into the middle class. Many an "O" was quietly excised from a "Neil.''

But many more aggressively asserted their Irish antecedents -- not so much a boast of genetic superiority as a stubborn insistence their cultural ancestry would not be bullied out of them.

A modern Australia fed on a diet of Riverdance, Bono and Irish theme pubs is far removed from such prejudices.

Aboriginal Australian families whose blood lines thinned with the passing years have trod a similar but far more painful path.

In the past, many Aboriginal parents of white appearance would deny an Aborigine connection to give their children the best social and economic opportunities available.

Now such families find themselves in the sunlit uplands, where an Aborigine connection is a source of pride, and where only the most painfully ill-educated and ignorant Australian would denigrate their ancestry.

Yet many white Australians howl with indignation when they see a blue-eyed, pale-skinned person speak of their "aboriginality.''

Most Australians agree that persons with any Aboriginal DNA qualify as Aboriginal, especially the middle-aged.

These are the very people, branded well into late 20th century as "half caste" and "quarter caste,'' who suffered all the indignities an openly racist Australia subjected them to -- from a denial of drink at a pub to substandard wages to hostile exclusion from white social and sporting groups.

That such men and women now openly embrace the identity that caused them such suffering, and yet are criticized for doing so, is inflammatory in the extreme.

But for the rising generation of Aboriginal Australians, there is no such thing as institutionalized racism, even if it does linger in the national psyche.

Instead, there is a range of government benefits to encourage educational achievement. Awaiting educated young Aboriginal people is an almost anxiously warm embrace from a white middle class determined to exhibit its abhorrence of racism, now seen as the province of the ignorant.

The notion that city-bred, tertiary-educated indigenous Australians nurtured in comfortable middle-class households can put up their hands for taxpayer-funded grants is difficult to cavil with -- creating an indigenous economic apartheid at awards ceremonies where merit is the key is hardly realistic.

But as Aboriginal artist Dallas Scott says in one of Overington's most recent articles, the fact they can goes some way to camouflaging the extraordinary hardships suffered by thousands of Australian Aborigines still living amid appalling poverty and violence in remote outstations.

"Imagine in 2013 we only had disadvantaged, remote indigenous Australians eligible for every Aboriginal art award, scholarship, traineeship, loan, job positions,'' Scott said. "As a nation, we would be embarrassed when we saw how few of those roles were able to be filled.''

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 A13

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