Aboriginal Identity

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Aboriginal Identity in Post-Colonial Australia

The ‘colonisation' of Australia by Europeans has caused a lot of problem for the local Aborigines. It drastically reduced their population, damaged ancient family ties, and removed thousands of Aboriginal people from the land they had lived on for centuries. In many cases, the loss of land can mean more than just physical displacement. Because land is so much connected to history and spirituality, the loss of it can lead to a loss of identity. This paper will examine the works of Tim Rowse and Jeremy Beckett as well as other symbols of identity that are available to modern Aborigines in post colonial Australia.

"In pre-colonial Aboriginal culture, people did not have identity as ‘Aborigines' (Rowse, 1993). I think it is important to point out that the issue of Aboriginal identity only became an issue after white settlement. However, that is not to say that there was no cultural identity pre-colonisation, but more that colonisation was the cause of Aboriginal identity to be threatened. There are several ways in which the colonists imposed themselves on Aboriginal society. Firstly, when they arrived they needed land to settle on and this of course meant they would take land away from local Aborigines. This action displaced thousands of people from their homeland and severed their spiritual connection to the land. From this point on, the idea of Aboriginal identity was simultaneously created and put at risk. Without land and place to connect people to their heritage, Australian Aborigines were forced to search for other symbols of Aboriginality to provide them with a sense of identity.

Tim Rowse in his work After Mabo suggests that Ruby Langford's autobiography Don't Take Your Love to Town may give some insight into symbols of Aboriginality that can be found in modern Australia. At one stage, Rowse talks about Langford's trip to Uluru and how it felt to be there as an Aboriginal person. "It made me think of our tribal beginning, and this to me was like the beginning of our time and culture" (Langford 1988:243). It seems that at that point she felt she was suddenly connected with her heritage. She could still relate to the land of ‘her people', even if she did not live there or own it.

On another occasion Ruby finds a woman who has the same heritage as her and who is reported to have retained some spiritual connection with her land. She later indicates that knowing that someone is still in touch with the culture of her people makes her feel connected and positive. This is another possible source of cultural wealth, and an anchor of identity, however as time goes by there will be fewer highly spiritual people from whom to access this strength.

A major aspect Rowse looks at is Aboriginal art and how it is portrayed and interpreted. He identifies the gap there is between the Aboriginal interpretation of art, backed up by knowledge of the specificity of symbols, and the attempt made by art ‘gurus' to interpret Aboriginal art based on their ‘cultural self-confidence' (Rowse 1993). Can art be an anchor of identity for Aboriginal people if the identity it means to them is not the same as the identity interpreted by others? Art dealers such as Gabrielle Pizzi believe that even without understanding, one can still feel the ‘power and commitment inherent in the work' (Pizzi 1992, in Rowse 1993). Fiona Foley, a Fraser Island artist takes a more local perspective, expressing her criticism of Aboriginal artists who adopt styles or images from parts of Australia that they are not from. This raises the question of wether Aboriginal people are seeking a unified identity or a specific one based on their traditional land. However, regardless of which identity is being expressed it appears that art is a way of creating identity and connecting with heritage.

Jeremy Beckett has researched another outlet of Aboriginality that focuses more on Aboriginal people and less on the...
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