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Hundreds of White Tasmanians Claim Aboriginal Ancestry - 2002-09-05

In the southern Australian state of Tasmania, hundreds of white people are claiming to have aboriginal ancestry. Do they really, or are they making the claim, as some Blacks charge, to gain access to rights and welfare entitlements reserved for indigenous people?

In the past, Australian school children were taught that Tasmania's indigenous people had been wiped out. Now more than 15,000 Tasmanians claim to be aboriginal.

Debbie Oakford is one of the 15,000. She held an elected seat on a powerful aboriginal council. Then a court ruled that she did not have indigenous ancestry, and she was forced to leave the council.

Despite the ruling, Ms. Oakford, says she has no doubts about where her roots lie. "I always had a sense of my own natural ability to be in tune with the land," she said. "I used to be three-years-old and fall in the creek because I'd be the one that would go and explore with my brother. But it was when I started asking questions and Mum and Dad probably realized that it was appropriate to tell me, then they came out and said that I was an Aboriginal person. I had Aboriginal ancestry."

The debate is not simply about private identity. Millions of dollars of public money have been allocated to Australia's indigenous community.

The problem is to identify who is indigenous and who is not. The original Australians were dark-skinned, but a large proportion of the country's Aborigines today are of mixed blood, and many appear to be white.

Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell leads the campaign to weed out those he claims are attempting to cheat the system. "If white people want to run around and say they're Aborigines, or as one person says, they're the keeper of the spirit of the Cow Pasture Meadow Tribe, then that's entirely up to them," he said. "It's a freedom of speech. But if they want to participate in elections that are set up for aboriginal people and only for aboriginal people, then they should be able to satisfy the criteria that they are in fact Aborigines to participate."

Australia's indigenous people represent around two percent of the population. They are disadvantaged at almost every turn. Life expectancy for Aborigines is 20 years less than for other Australians and the native community suffers disproportionately high rates of imprisonment and unemployment.

Tasmanian Aborigines who can prove their ancestry say the government money helps their communities stay afloat, and they want to protect it. Doug Maynard says he resents white Australians claiming to be black. "My family - my brothers and sisters - we was the only Aboriginals on the northwest coast," said Doug Maynard. "And now in Penguin there's a community of 260 Aboriginal descendants - people that we went to school with, people that I fought against, you know? Probably broke a couple of noses, I don't know. But they're Aborigines now, you know? Descendants, I should say Aboriginal descendants. And they get - you know - they are the ones that are in the jobs, setting up organizations."

A recent census showed the indigenous population had risen significantly in recent years. Some activists think the increase is a result of white Australians falsely claiming to be aboriginal, while others, such as historian Cassandra Pybus, insist people who once hid their black roots because of discrimination now feel comfortable with who they are. "People are - may discover something that indicates to them that it's possible that they've got Aboriginal ancestry," she said. "Now, some people might just put that aside and say, 'Well, that's interesting.' But for some other people, it's like a conversion. They then convert to being Aboriginal. And along with this comes a lot of notions about spirituality and a special relationship to the land."

Experts think the debate in Tasmania could spread to other parts of the country, sparking more heated arguments over exactly who can claim to be one of Australia's original people.