defining my Aboriginality

December 24, 2013


I went to a school that was pretty much white Australian. There were a few children of Greek heritage, and maybe some that were Maltese. But even those kids had light-coloured skin. And for much of the year I fit in too. However, when it came to Summer, I would turn a dark brown. The other kids would ask why I was so brown, and I would tell them that I was Aboriginal. They said “you look Aboriginal”. I knew I was Aboriginal long before my parents told me about our heritage.

My paternal grandfather, who looked like a white Australian most of the time too, turned dark brown in Summer. He frequently spoke of Aboriginal people and their culture, not in a derogatory way, as most Australians of the time would (calling them ‘boongs’ or ‘abos’), but in a respectful way. He never talked about his Aboriginal heritage. Neither did my other grandfather. They had grown up in times when Aboriginal children were removed from their families and being Aboriginal was something to be ashamed of in this country, Aboriginal people gained the right to be counted as Australians in 1967. In some States, Aboriginal affairs came under the wildlife or national parks portfolios. My paternal grandfather was openly critical of churches that sent missionaries to impoverished countries to replace the local culture and beliefs with Christianity.

As a child I would disappear into the bush to sit on a rock amongst the trees. I called it my “sitting place”. When things got too much for me, it made so much sense to me to go into nature. I would observe the birds, lizards, and insects, and watch how the wind moved through the trees and grasses. As children, we were fed a regular diet of documentaries about the environment and other cultures. We grew our own food, were taught to respect all living things, and celebrated nature. We did lots of  rain dances, running wild through the bush, revelling in thunder storms, and spending vast amounts of time looking at the night sky. We were always playing the Indians, never the cowboys.

When I was 12, I read a book titled “Pastures of the Blue Crane” by H.F. Brinsmead. The book was about a girl my age whose father died, and she had to leave Melbourne to live with her paternal grandfather in northern New South Wales. Her skin turned brown in the Summer, and she slowly uncovered her Aboriginal heritage. Oh how I could relate to that book. Her name was “Ryl”, which was so close to the name my family called me – “Rel”.

The years rolled by and my Aboriginal heritage wasn’t something that I focused on. I was busy riding motorcycles so I could get out of the city on the weekend to go camping and get into the bush. I was busy exploring other religions, philosophies, and cultures. I was also involved in environmental activism.

It wasn’t until I started working in the community, about 20 years ago, that my Aboriginal heritage was repeatedly held up as a mirror to me.  My first job in the community was working in a group home with five young adults with congenital rubella syndrome, and all were Aboriginal.  When I went to work in out-of-home care I was given all of the Aboriginal cases. I now work in a community organisation where half of the staff are Aboriginal.

What this did was give me access to other Aboriginal people, Aboriginal Elders, and the culture. Something I didn’t have growing up. I attended Aboriginal events and slowly learnt bits and pieces from Aboriginal mentors. I was self-conscious initially, it’s difficult being a “fair-skinned blackfella”. I wanted to be accepted by the Aboriginal community but I was too white and I didn’t “have culture”. We all want to feel like we belong to a group of people somewhere. I was open to learning about the culture but you can’t do that without being accepted by the community, and for many good reasons sometimes the Aboriginal community has not been the healthiest place to be. Dislocation and trauma has created a culture of disadvantage in some parts.

I was speaking about this with an Aboriginal colleague a while ago. I was telling her that I don’t like the raucous, smoking, and drinking culture that is prevalent these days. She said that when she and a group of Aboriginal workers went to the Northern Territory for a conference, the Aboriginal people there called them “the lost people”. She said “they saw right through us”. One of my Aboriginal colleagues said to me last year “I know you are black, but you are so white”, and I replied “Yes, but I know who I am”.

I have had the good fortune to be mentored by and have associated with very spiritual Aboriginal people, the quiet ones. When they speak they are worth listening to. Some of them are not involved in Aboriginal culture. They know who they are, don’t seek others’ approval, quietly go about raising their children and loving their families, and live with humility and grace. Some say you can’t have the spirituality without the culture, but I think the two can be quite separate. Culture is defined by a group, but spirituality is personal.

In Australia, thankfully, we don’t talk about percentages or castes anymore. If someone identifies as having Italian heritage or Scottish heritage, we don’t ask them what percentage they are, we just accept that they can define who they are. It is offensive to ask an Aboriginal person what percentage of Aboriginality they have. If you have heritage you are able to identify as having Aboriginal heritage. and not have to justify how much. Allocating percentages or quotas goes back to the days when children were removed from their families and communities based on how white they were. To identify as an Aboriginal person you must have strong links to the Aboriginal community, demonstrate that you are living the culture, and be accepted by one of the Lands Councils.

The concept of ‘reconciliation’ is seeping into politics and policies these days. Years ago, when I heard the Elders speak there was a lot of anger and grief in what they said. Rightly so. But when you are speaking to a crowd of whitefellas (not a derogatory term here) it’s hard for them to hear those stories of pain and loss when it is not their fault, and they become defensive. Nowadays, I hear the Elders being much more inclusive, speaking of reconciliation as the way forward, and the sharing of culture…

Good afternoon everyone, I am very happy to be speaking to you all today of Dharug language , on Dharug country. Budyari gumari ngyini dah booyere naalabiyu yaguna, Ngai butbut booyere booyere byallada Dharug dalang, Darugwa bembul.
We should all honour the old spirits and their custodianship of this country, from before us all, from the dreamtimes, the creation times, the Law of this country, Dharug country, Dharawul country, on which we may gather today. Ngyina baraya, gumbala ganunigang Nye, yuu mudung bembul, Darugwa Ngurra, Dharawul ngurra, biranga ngyina guwuwi bembul. Ngyina barayada, gumbalada ganunigang Nye yaguna.
It is their spirits that welcome you even now. Dah ngaralingi Nye warami ngyini diem yaguna.
We must all travel together upon this land now, into the future, blackfellas and whitefellas, honouring this country, Dharug country. we are all living this Dreaming together, with all of the other living beings of this world, with all the spirits of the land and everything that we know is alive, we are brothers and sisters, we are each of us in every other beings Dreaming, right now, as you are a part of my own Dreaming and I am also a part of yours. Yenmalibyila bembulwa nunga, butumulla, tullamulla, ngabay. Nye bembul nangami, ngurra mudang. Ngyina bobbina, wiyanga, ngaya nangami,ngyini nangami, libyila, ngai nangami ngyinu.
Can you hear? Can you hear this country singing? Can you see her dancing? In every leaf, and every bird, in every living thing you can see and hear around you, every living thing…and in every breath you take…this country, we are each in every other beings Dreaming, right now.
Guri?? Guribiyu ngurra baraya, naalabiyu gorobra,garriberri, djiranga, ngyina mudang diya nangami libyila, binyang, bunmurra, buru, magura,nangai naaladiyu,mudangi bembul diya.
May Baaime care for you all, thankyou very much, goodbye. Baaiame bangalada ngyini, didjuirigora wagal bain. Yanu.


My children have grown up going to Aboriginal events. They are more aware of the culture than I was as a child. I take them into the bush and teach them about bush tucker and medicines and traditional ways, as much as I know. I have taken them to my “sitting place”. When I’m in the bush I receive the knowledge of the spirits there. When travelling into other clans’ Country, I call to the spirits to ask permission to enter.

My eldest boy hasn’t shown much interest. My middle boy when he was little used to make yidaki’s out of postal tubes, he would sing and clap sticks together, and draw patterns and lines in the sand. He still has an interest and comes along to Aboriginal cultural events when they are offered. My youngest boy embraces it. He listens keenly to the Elders, and remembers everything they tell him. He proudly tells anyone that he has Aboriginal heritage and tells them which clans he is from (Kamillaroi and Eora). All of my boys are fair-skinned, and don’t tan.

So, how do I define my Aboriginality? I have moved through the confusion, uncertainty, and self-consciousness, and am now more confident to say that I have Aboriginal heritage. Like my youngest boy does, like I did as a child, without any fear or shame. I have moved beyond the striving and grasping and seeking, to feel more comfortable in just being, trusting, and letting the knowledge come to me when I need it to, when I call upon it. Aboriginal spirituality is becoming such a strong part of me, it is the lens through which I view most things these days. It feels expansive, inclusive, and connected. I don’t need to fit into anybody else’s criteria,  specifications,  limitations, judgement, or definition.

I feel alright as I am.


“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
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3 Comments on “defining my Aboriginality”

  1. Helen K Says:

    I loved reading this.
    I myself, being a fair skinned Indigenous person from What is now called Canada. We still have our identity controlled by percentages defined by the Federal government. This “Indian status” creates its’ own complex to wrestle down when establishing ones identity. But it is about knowing who you are, and allowing our children to access the knowledge and teachings that are inherently there’s


    • tree girl Says:

      Hi Helen

      Thank you for your comment.

      I’m so glad we have got past percentages, well mostly. It’s still a strong concept in the community, that Indigenous people have to justify their heritage when no-one else has to. Now, I feel that I don’t have to explain myself to anybody, and I like that very much.

      Blessings to you.



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