Joseph Boyden, DNA testing and the tricky question of Indigineity

When I began this blog I knew I’d have to do a little promoting to actually get a readership. The “readership” still doesn’t really exist but that’s OK because I get so much out of the writing anyway as therapy. And if anyone asks what I’ve written I can just point to the blog for an understanding of what I’m interested in. And also what gets my blood boiling. Writing is a fantastic outlet for my anger. The best.

As part of the promoting I began using my Twitter account seriously. At this stage, nine months later, I have to say I am hopelessly addicted to Twitter. Not only is Twitter everything Facebook isn’t (I get to engage in topics and issues I’m interested in, instead of the latest pics of an old school friend’s new kitten) it has also opened my world up to the views of Indigenous people from around the world.

I have been privileged to discover the work of some powerful Indigenous activists from Turtle Island*, known colonially as “North America” (the word “America” for all its association with the continent is actually named for a contemporary of our old friend Christopher Columbus. Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian Invader/Explorer whose letters about the continent sparked public awareness in Europe and from this the name stuck).

It is to both Chelsea Vowel and Kim TallBear I am most drawn as their work deals with Indigenous identity in the invaded colonial/settler space. Even though the Turtle Island Indigenous cultures are largely unfamiliar to me (other than the loathsome tropes settler culture has presented to us in film and television) the fact is we share a common coloniser. We can compare invasion notes. And it is shocking how similar the outcomes of the invasion are for our occupied populations.

One of the most disturbing aspects at present is the appropriation of our identities.

It is no surprise for any Aboriginal person to learn that the rush to DNA testing by people seeking to find out if they are “Aboriginal” is going to cause trouble for our communities.

Big trouble.

Chelsea Vowel has a chapter in her book “Indigenous Writes” which deals with the issue of “blood quantum” in defining Indigenous identity. The Indigenous peoples of both North America and Australia have had to endure waves of settler policy which attempted to define exactly who and what they were based on how much “native blood” they contained.

This involved “rules” which classified Aboriginal people into neat categories such as “full blood”, “half-caste”, “quarter caste”, and “octoroon”. This was a completely arbitrary classification which had the effect, as Chelsea Vowel states, of constituting a “slow genocide”.

It is “slow genocide” because through “miscegenation” being Aboriginal becomes something other than the default. It becomes something which is easily lost. Given the way Aboriginal people live their lives, form relationships, make families and practice culture it becomes something which they almost unavoidably will lose, unless they live somewhere very remote where no other people can come and “contaminate” the gene pool. Hence the old white trope that the only “real Aborigines” live up north on the Gulf of Carpentaria or in Arnhem Land.

Us southern Kooris get judged by that standard in our cities every day.

The notion that Aboriginal people would actually change their culture (which has been around on this continent since, well, forever) to begin avoiding “outsiders” to keep their blood “pure” and not be contaminated by “miscegenation” is completely disrespectful to the struggle Aboriginal people have fought just to survive invasion.

It also places settler culture front and centre as the default. The subconscious thinking goes something like this “You don’t look Aboriginal, you look white. So you must be an Aussie”.

Yep, if you haven’t somehow historically fluked it—if your community isn’t somewhere so far away from where the invaders wanted to take your land, if your great grandmothers couldn’t avoid the “stare” of those brave frontier men so idolised in the bush ballads, then you can’t be a “real Aborigine”.

Because if you aren’t “pure” you must default back to being… an Aussie!

It is this neat assimilationist trick which is reinforced by people in mainstream Australian society every single day. They challenge your identity (“you don’t look Aboriginal”) to colonise you (by becoming “Aussies”) or eliminate you. It is a daily reproduction of the events of 26 January 1788. Namely, the taking of possession of everything on the continent in the name of the people of Great Britain.

Thankfully, Aboriginal people view things very differently. We endured the ghastly “protection” era in which many, if not most, Aboriginal families ended up being placed in the “care” of the missions. The reasoning was that Aboriginal people would “die out” soon anyway so best to make them comfortable (and get them out of the way of the commercial exploitation of the land which was taken from them) while they waited peacefully for their cultural extinction.

The history of my own family has revolved around the mission at Guriwal/La Perouse for a good part of the last century. Guriwal is located at the north head of Gamay/Botany Bay. We were the first community to endure the invasion in 1788 and have always maintained our Koori identities as distinct despite having “Sydney” build up around us. These identities, located within community are described in some wonderful books including Maria Nugent’s “Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet” and “La Perouse: the place, the people and the sea” which was written by some Guriwal community members under the guidance of Dr Nugent.

“Canada” too suffered under their own protection era and stolen generation as described in Chelsea Vowel’s book. Over the decades these genocidal government policies fragmented Indigenous identity and caused people to become disconnected from their communities and culture. And that’s not to mention everyday racism in the “mainstream” community which manifested in practices such as police brutality targeting Indigenous people. Practices which persist, ongoing colonisation and invasion.

In “Australia” as in “Canada”, over time some individuals and families faced such extremes of racism they chose to “pass” as white if they could to make life bearable for them and their families. Many of the descendants of these people have become lost to their Aboriginal communities.

In recent times however, perhaps as a result of the civil rights movements in the Western world, the assumed racial and cultural superiority of white European people has been challenged and de-legitimised. White people, the descendants of the invaders of “Australia” and Turtle Island, now (for the most part) realise that their skin colour does not automatically make them morally and culturally superior to everyone else.

(As a curious side-note, I wonder if a flow on of this is the popularity of tattooing—an Indigenous cultural practice—amongst white people today. Is it that their white skin is no longer a source of pride? or that, worse still, they are ashamed of their white skin so imprint elaborate patterns and messages upon it to de-emphasise their “race”?)

The challenge to white supremacy has finally allowed those with Indigenous ancestors to be able to share their family histories without fear of being prejudiced by the mainstream culture. It has allowed them to unlock the closet of shame imposed by invasion and colonisation.

It is into this mix of acknowledging the wrongs of invasion, genocide, racism and pride in Indigenous cultural survival that DNA testing has come galloping.

What got me thinking deeply about identity was the recent controversy in “Canada” where acclaimed author Joseph Boyden was “called out” by an in-depth investigation into his claims of Indigineity and ancestry by Aboriginal Peoples Television Network journalist Jorge Barrera.

josephboyden

Boyden is an award winning author whose claims of Indigenous belonging have shifted over time from one community to the next. His most recent claim is one of distant Indigenous ancestry not connected directly to an existing Indigenous community.

Following the Boyden controversy and what it means for Indigenous identity in “Canada” reminded me of the author Mudrooroo here in “Australia”. The parallels are similar—an author who wrote books on Indigenous culture, claiming to have identity and through that the authority to speak as an Indigenous person and who, ultimately, was called out by “their” community as not being one of them.

Which brings me to the point of claiming to be Indigenous. It usually isn’t a problem for Aboriginal people because they are part of a family which is, in turn, part of a community. You just are Aboriginal. Someone will say, as they have repeatedly to Joseph Boyden, “where are you from?” or “what’s your mob?” Then you just say where your community is. In my case I say “La Perouse”. If they know “LaPa” (not everyone does) they might ask of my family and I’ll just say “I’m Aunty Beryl Page’s son”. That is where I’m placed in the community. That’s my place and my mob.

My ancestors are from the south coast of “New South Wales” so I also have connections and relatives down there (like a lot of people from LaPa) and when people (usually white) ask what my “tribe” or “nation” is I say “Yuin”, but my mob is from LaPa.

None of this is “chosen” and none can be altered by me. I’m adopted and grew up in a white family away from both La Perouse and Yuin country. But it didn’t matter when I finally returned because I was “placed” within the communal kin structure.

That’s Indigineity. That’s my Koori identity.

I don’t know what a DNA test would show if I took one. It would most like likely show connection to Yuin country going back thousands of years but it really doesn’t matter because DNA isn’t cultural and never will be. Just like for Jewish people (as an example), it doesn’t matter skin colour or DNA. It is family, community, ceremony, country and shared history.

If I’d have turned up at La Perouse and they said “we’re sorry but we don’t know who you are” then that would mean I wasn’t a Koori from their community. I could have had all the DNA paperwork in the world. It would have been hard to accept but that is how it is in Aboriginal culture.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still be part of the community. There are heaps of “gubs” which are married to Kooris, have Koori kids and live in and with the Koori community.

But they aren’t Koori because they aren’t placed within the communal Aboriginal kinship structure.

As part of researching this piece, I listened to a recent ABC radio show on DNA sampling within two Aboriginal (former mission) communities, Cherbourg in “Queensland” and Point Pearce in “South Australia”. Whilst the elders who were questioned were generally optimistic about what the project could mean for their communities, I had some strong feelings about the science.

Specifically, what exactly is the point of the whole project to start with?

The lead testing scientist, who claims “Aboriginal heritage” himself seemed to be enthusiastic to map the timelines and geographic movement of the various peoples. He was staggered that Australians were ignorant of the vast bulk of human history on the continent.

Aside from the fact that for British and other settlers it isn’t “their” history to start with, the great problem with the scientific approach is that the research is being conducted, ultimately, for the benefit of western science. And I wouldn’t trust western science ever after their sordid history with Aboriginal people.

We already know our past, our creation and our ancestors. The scientist actually said “Aboriginal people colonised Australia” 55,000 years ago.

“Colonised”?

This is at odds with our ontology. There wasn’t “colonisation”—that’s what the white people did. There was creation. Our ancestors created everything including law and culture. That’s the same culture we live with today and want to get back to fully embracing with decolonisation.

Also, creation didn’t happen that long ago, just a few generations in our thinking. We celebrate and revere our ancestors as just passed a little back from present memory. Just far enough that creation is contemporary and everything is as it should be in the present. In my understanding calling things “ancient” only undermines our culture today by suggesting it is “past” or “finished”.

DNA is going to be big trouble because it is the same old competing European world view again trying to place us within a material, atomistic universe of parts to be tinkered with, disrupted, pulled apart and recombined. They can’t help themselves.

Aboriginal people come from the land. Literally. It doesn’t matter what science says. This is what we know. Our god isn’t somewhere in “heaven” on a different plain, our ancestors are with us sharing our lives. I can look up at Uncle Coolum Mountain here where I live. He isn’t my direct ancestor because I’m not on my country but back in the time of creation all those ancestors knew each other through songlines and shared stories and events. They were powerful and knew everything. Ancestor Uncle Coolum has actually shared some wisdom with me and I have a connection with him.

screenshot_20170124_214922
Powerful ancestor Uncle Coolum in a photo I took recently.

These creator beings are our direct recent ancestors. That’s how close the connection is for us—they are our directly physically related Uncles, Aunties, Grandparents, etc. Just out of living memory.

This is why I believe DNA is almost useless for Aboriginal culture. What can it offer beyond what we already know? It is laughably insignificant compared to the knowledge we have always held as sacred.

Finally, a further thought for those people who have descent but who are not connected to a community or those who, in the future, get DNA test results which show they have Indigenous ancestors.

Everyone has the right to decide their own identity. If their family history says that they are Aboriginal because of a distant ancestor or if a DNA test proves Indigenous ancestry then they can decide to call themselves “Aboriginal”.*I acknowledge that not all the Indigenous people of “North America” are comfortable with “Turtle Island” as a descriptor of their home.

But being within Aboriginal culture, belonging to kin and community, means that you have to have a place. You have to be accepted and you have to follow what the elders say and listen quietly. If a community doesn’t know you but you believe that is where you belong then slowly become part of it. Then maybe someone will come along who can place you, who knows? But you’ll be part of something which you’ve maybe always been looking for inside you. Something profound and connected directly to country.

The invasion called “Australia” devastated Aboriginal communities by depriving them firstly of their rightful land. Then language. Then the children were stolen. Now they want to take our identities.

But they won’t because they can’t. Our ancestors are too strong and our connection to this continent too deep.

Keep your worthless DNA results, we come from the land.

*I acknowledge that not all the Indigenous people of “North America” are comfortable with “Turtle Island” as a descriptor of their home.

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