Ted Egan: Forget splitting hairs, counting drops of blood.


2640 Jones book man, boy OKBy TED EGAN
Last updated 2 June 2019, 11.19am.
Any person who can establish genetic link to Australia in 1787 may be acknowledged, honoured and respected, by official recognition as a First Australian.
There is constant debate about Aboriginal Affairs and I make some hopefully positive suggestions on semantic issues, as the nation looks for positive ways to “close the gap”.
As we should, for it is not a gap: it is a chasm. We certainly need to be thinking big, to allow meaningful interpretation of our history, going back centuries in reflection.
Left: Luritja man, Nanatugubra, and a young boy, Nanabanji, photographed near Ilbili rock-hole, June 1931. Nanabanji is holding a sandhill carpet snake, kunea, which he killed for food. [Outback evangelist Ernest] Kramer had earlier treated the boy’s sore knee, placing a bandage around it which had slipped to his ankle. Source:  Images of the Interior by Philip Jones.
My first semantic suggestion is that we forget the word “treaty”.
Treaties are invariably drawn up by conquerors purporting to help correct, perhaps rehabilitate former adversaries. They are inevitably one sided and often counter productive.
I suggest “mutual recognition” be the quest for procedure and that an Australian word be established.
Forget “Makarrata” though: whitefellas can’t pronounce the word properly and it is not an appropriate word in any case.
A makarrta (note spelling) is a trial by ordeal, involving blood letting. I know a few appropriate Australian words suitable to promote mutual recognition, but as I am not a First Australian, I am thereby not authorised to advance them.
First Australians! I am in favour of a National Register, but again, I am not a First Australian, so I withdraw on that point.
All other residents of Australia may be referred to as Australian, if it is indeed an established fact that they are Australian citizens.
My granddaughter – Jessica Egan – is a proud First Australian. I, Ted Egan, Jessica’s grandfather, born in Australia 86 years ago, am proud to be an Australian. I am very proud to have a link to my privileged granddaughter. Jessica’s parents are my daughter Jacki and Malcolm, her First Australian father.
So I propose that, in all official debate, we concentrate on using “First Australian” as a means of identifying First Australians, who collectively have the right to national recognition. Exclusively.
There are many other contentious words in use; let me discuss these.
One constantly hears the word “indigenous” and I’m occasionally amused by “indigenity” and “indigeneity”.
The dictionary tells us that indigenous (adj.) is used to describe people and things “originating in and characterising a particular region or country”.
Now Pauline Hanson and many other people insist that they are “indigenous” Australians, on the grounds that they were born here. Good luck to them.
2640 Ted Egan 2 SMAboriginals of various skin tones claim the word as exclusive to them. Good luck to them too. But I would argue that a person or plant cannot be “part-indigenous”.
Left: Ted Egan.
A ghost gum is indigenous. Kangaroos, emus and koalas are indigenous. Almost certainly Vincent Lingiari, Albert Namatjira and Truganini were indigenous Australians in the true sense. Roses, gladioli, horses, cattle and sheep: noice, but not indigenous.
There are probably 20,000 people in Australia who, today, could accurately be classed as indigenous, but that takes us into the apartheidish business of splitting hairs and counting drops of blood.
Nowadays one hears all sorts of people describing themselves as “indigenous” and they mean “possessed of a non- Caucasian skin colour”.
As well as First Australian people of mixed descent, Polynesians, Africans, whatever, use the word “indigenous” to describe themselves – often with the assertion that they thereby deserve special treatment. Forget it.
Greeks are indigenous to Greece. The Welsh are indigenous to Britain. That does not give them special status in Australia.
2640 Jones book woman OKEven the words “Aboriginal” “aboriginal” and “aborigine” are likely to confuse matters if we seek to talk positively about social progress in Australia. Of course it is fair and accurate to say that “Aboriginals (with a capital “A”) are Australia’s aborigines (with a lower case “a”)” – the country’s original people.
Right: A young Arrernte woman at Alice Springs Telegraph Station, ca. 1895. She is wearing head rings and necklets of red-ochre vegetable-fibre string with a bird claw and fur pendant. Her body bears the ornamental cicatrices regarded among Arrernte as embellishments of beauty and maturity. Source:  Images of the Interior by Philip Jones.
But the overwhelming majority of today’s First Australians are of mixed descent. They have every right to assert proudly their Aboriginality and their honoured status as First Australians; but rather than “over-identify” as First Australians, as so many people do today, they should also acknowledge other components of their DNA and behave accordingly.
Let’s think again around divisive terms like “Invasion Day”: many of the protesters have inherited the genes of the “invaders”. Let’s establish and honour a day we all proudly recognise as Australia Day. (See my early “Irritation” – February 2019 –and my reasons for suggesting 8 September as Australia Day).
We used to often hear reference to “part Aborigines” and “part coloured” people. Smart people sorted that out: “Show me where the coloured part starts”! Fortunately.
Occasionally we hear reference to “First Australian Nations” and I am ambivalent here.
There is no credibility to the notion that Australia as a continent was – prior to 1901 – ever a single “nation” in the accepted sense of the term – “a unified group in dialogue with a common language”.
The Tiwi and Tasmanians did not know of the other group’s existence. We are all aware of our nation’s sad history: only about 20 of an original 300 plus languages are viable today and, unless we take drastic national action in this respect, there will be no acceptable lingua franca in Australia, other than English, by about 2050.
But if First Australians wish to call their own clearly defined areas “nations”, that should become national practice.
The Warlpiri Nation, one group of people speaking one still viable Australian language, recognised owners of an area of land larger than Switzerland, have every right to refer to themselves as a nation.
And there are four languages in Switzerland! Mind you, the declaration of “nations” is a difficult task, so let us perhaps set a few undeniable precedents. There are just a few very straightforward cases.
A note of warning: prospective leaders of First Nations within Australia would be well-advised to maintain good relationships with the properly constituted nation known as Australia. Mutual recognition, that’s what is required. Mateship indeed!
I hear more and more the stupid American phrase “people of colour” . We are all people of colour. I am pinkish.
The delightful fact about Barack Obama that the world failed to recognise was that he was brown – half black, half white – a man for all seasons and situations and a colossal bloke in the process. We could have put paid to all the stupid race debates that plague the world if we had used him as a basis of recognition.
He was a worthy man: why refer to him as the first black President, or the first African-American President? Happy birthday, Mr President.
Around these semantic quibbles, I recommend that the Prime Minister of Australia take the “First Australian Affairs” portfolio and commence discussions on a reasonable basis with reasonable First Australian people, very capable of advancing their claims for “mutual recognition”.
We might be pleasantly surprised at the immediate effect on national morale.
In my book Due Inheritance I recommended the election by First Australians of a First Australian Academy (cf, L’Académie Française) to present to the nation items vital for national consideration.
That did not arouse any interest, but I suggest it as the best approach for a First Australian Voice to be heard.
The much-vaunted Uluru Statement seemed to seek a referendum to propose First Australian representation in Federal Parliament. I suggest that any referendum seeking to affect First Australian issues has a snowflake’s chance in Hell of getting national endorsement.
The 1967 Referendum was a total aberration. The Parliament could set up an Academy with a single bi-partisan stroke.
The reader should be made aware that in the 1950s I worked for the Native Affairs Branch of Northern Territory Administration.
It was common at that time for Aboriginal people to be called “natives” and there was shameful counting of drops of blood to create pejorative terms like half-caste, quadroon and octoroon.
I feel terribly sad about that: we muruntawi (whitefellas) certainly had better opportunities. But in 1974 I resigned, to make way for the many young First Australian people that I had helped train to be the proper advocates for a better deal for their people. Bring it on!
Note: Images of the Interior by Philip Jones was first published by Wakefield Press in 2011. Our review here.
Ted Egan lives in Alice Springs. He was a member of the First Reconciliation Council. He wrote the song ‘Gurindji Blues’ in 1969 and recorded the song with Vincent Lingiari and Galarrwuy Yunupingu.


  1. Without being intentionally malicious here, I even recall a while back that there was a term of “pepper and salt sprinkling” used in the late 70s of the description of the varying sorts of the indigenous population! It was used to refer to the differing cast of them all.
    Thus, there was a fairly different view between the many of them back in those days.
    Yet, suddenly, it appears everybody is the one the same now.
    They themselves openly had their differences of who was what and who was the white aborigines and who was following the old ways.
    There’s a lot of conflict, from within themselves to sort out yet, before I feel they can step forward together as ONE to go here.

  2. I agree a National Register should be set up NOW – the same as in Canada.
    This would assist in those on Centrelink being paid on a needs basis, not race, as is the case now.
    The Indian Register is the official record identifying persons registered as status Indians under the Indian Act. Registered Indians, also known as status Indians, have certain rights and benefits not available to non-status Indians, Métis, Inuit or other Canadians.
    In my opinion the “first” Australians arrived in 1788.
    Natives were made British subjects along with everyone else – Australian citizenship in 1949.
    Contemporary aborigines are Australians.

  3. @ Ted Egan,
    A lot of what you say makes sense but have you seriously thought about the racist nature, shades of eugenics, of your statement:
    I am very proud to have a link to my privileged granddaughter. Jessica’s parents are my daughter Jacki and Malcolm, her First Australian father.
    Your argument is that a small part of her ancestry is somehow a privilege and superior to others. Seriously?
    You are saying Australians who do not have Aboriginal ancestry are inferior and unprivileged. The fact is, with so much intermixing over centuries, a lot of Australians, maybe most, would have some Aboriginal ancestry, albeit minimal.
    But to claim superiority for an accident of birth takes us back to less enlightened times. If I have a Royal ancestor am I privileged and superior?
    Do we have a ranking to follow of which Aboriginal tribes would be deemed superior in 1788 because their ancestors got here earlier? I mean, do we really want a citizenship based on ancestral longevity?
    If someone finds an Aboriginal ancestor are they suddenly privileged and superior to the rest? Such an attitude lays a very destructive foundation which has no place in a civilized world.

  4. Yes, Pauline Hanson is Indigenous, Indigenous to Australia, because she was born in Australia.
    Ultra right wing dog whistler Andrew Bolt has also labelled himself Indigenous.
    And that’s the problem with the word Indigenous.
    It’s a word that has crept into the Australian vocabulary and become more used in the last 20 to 30 or so years.
    It’s certainly taken off since the Mabo decision, when Torres Strait Islanders became more prominent. Instead of going to the effort of saying “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”, you can just lump both peoples together as “Indigenous”.
    Whoever labelled First Australians with such a difficult word wasn’t First Australian.

  5. Rose Jones: Oh well, I now feel very discriminated against.
    You are saying Australians who do not have Aboriginal ancestry are inferior and unprivileged.
    I must be worthless then. Why didn’t somebody tell me this earlier, before I went out to start my working lifetime? I could have relocated to a place of where was a little bit appreciated, because I spent many years out on these communities and have done much to enable them to enjoy all we have today.
    I even recall an old Aboriginal man saying: “White man, ice machine is white man magic.”
    I had connected up a simple plug in air-conditioner.
    So many have come so far, but now they do not appreciate much at all.

  6. If you don’t like the white man, STOP using everything that the white man invented, including the welfare system, period.

  7. My question is, if less than 1% ancestry allows someone to call themselves Aboriginal, or whatever politically correct term is allowed, then what stops people from using the same system to call themselves African, Asian, European, Anglo or indeed by nationality?
    Should we divvy up Anglos into there different tribal and cultural groups sourced in their many colonisations? For example, Celts, Britons, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Vikings, Normans etc?
    We could also then factor into African, Asian and European the tens of thousands of different tribal origins.
    How, may I ask, would that contribute to a modern, cohesive society?
    Why bother being Australians if we are defined by whichever part of our ancestry we select?

  8. Making one/any race uncomfortable because of their skin colour is truly an evil thing and should be stopped, regardless of their history.

  9. Uncle Hucklebuck: That has to be the most pointless, simplistic comment I’ve ever read here.
    I’m sure mining on Aboriginal land and the Aboriginal aspect of tourism more than pays for Aboriginal people using the social security net and whatever you’re milking from the taxpayer.

  10. During the Hawke years considerable discussion of a treaty occurred. Hawke would not use this term and referred to it constantly as a compact.
    I believe one of the reasons were that a treaty would bring any such agreement into international law and open it to interference and jurisdiction by the United Nations, Amnesty International and other global organisations.

  11. To Rose Jones
    You ask: If you have a royal ancestor, are you necessarily superior?
    No, and I am not asserting that First Australians are in any way superior: but they are primus inter pares, first among equals, if they can establish (necessary) genetic links to Australia dating beyond 1787.
    The Queen gets recognition because of her family tree.
    All persons have rights to property and other inheritances.
    We base everything in life on inheritance: we draw up wills to enable our descendants to maintain the same rights to property that we accumulated.
    All I am asking for is accurate history to be established in this country.

  12. Again we have looked around and ignored what we don’t want to see.
    Having lived in a rural part of Fiji for many years, the efforts of the British there go largely unnoticed, and often criticised, as they do here.
    The Brits stepped in in Fiji as requested by the chiefs and the first thing they did was to sit the chiefs who were at war down around a bowl of Kava and determined who owned which pieces of land traditionally.
    This land ownership was then assigned to a common ancestor, (a “matangali”) and carefully recorded so everyone knew which family group they belonged to, and which piece of traditional land was theirs.
    Now every child born with a common Fijian ancestor is recorded in a register as belonging to that piece of land and is recorded as “kai viti”.
    My children were all born in that lovely country to my wife and I and are all “Kai loma” I am “Kai valangi” meaning to have come from another country and my wife is “Kai viti” having come from Fiji.
    Kai loma (loma means inside) means between, or inside both and is a lovely way to describe people who are between as so many of us are.
    Is that all too simple?
    As a footnote my children are all eligible to claim ownership of their traditional land in Fiji but have chosen not to do so as land is scarce.
    However, whenever we return their Fijian heritage makes them very comfortable.
    There is a middle path, but for some reason it is sometimes ignored.

  13. @ Trevor Shiell: The problem with the concept of land ownership is that it still exists in places like Fiji because the culture is less developed, i.e. still tribal in many respects.
    Every single human culture in our history had such concepts but most grew out of such tribalism.
    Just because some cultures evolved slowly and still retain tribal and undemocratic traditions, which entitle some to privileges, does not mean it is a good idea.
    The fact is, if we sifted through our ancestry every human on the planet could make such claims somewhere but would that be a good idea? I think not.
    Someone who calls themselves Fijian in the 21st century is very different to someone who called themselves Fijian in 2100BC.
    Surely what is important in a modern, enlightened world is our democratic rights and not our tribal rights?

  14. I do have a genetic link there are DNA tests for aboriginality now as many bodies from museums around the world have original specimens which are being brought back to their original countries or parts of Australia.
    The descendants can have their DNA linked to these ancestors. There is now a DNA database for all parts of Australia for aboriginal peoples which are different genetically in different parts of Australia.
    Broome has a bigger Asian component because of ties to Indonesia and Japan in that area’s history.
    I think Ted meant – correct me if you disagree, Ted – but I think he meant that we all should acknowledge all parts of our ancestry and history because it is what makes us up and proves we really should be brothers and help each other if we can.
    No one can change the past wrongs but we can make a better future. Education and giving the young a chance to reach their potential is probably “>the key.

  15. @ Trevor Shiell and Rose Jones: Interesting stuff and comment.
    Let me digress. Years ago I travelled through El Salvador and was told 3% of the population owned 97% of the land.
    So is El Salvador more developed and less tribal than Fiji?
    Is this what we want?


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