Many white people are surprised when they find out that the biggest Aboriginal community in the country is in Sydney. Media coverage of Aboriginal issues tends to focus on remote areas, and if that’s your only source of information you could be forgiven for thinking that most Aboriginal people live in the bush. In fact 70% of Aboriginal people live in urban centres.
White society is often fixated on demanding that Aboriginal people demonstrate their cultural authenticity according to colonial standards of traditional-ness. Although the maintenance and revival of traditional cultural practices are very important for many Aboriginal communities, and should be fully supported, Aboriginal people should be given space to assert their cultural identities on their own terms.
With this in mind, I spoke to five Aboriginal students about the challenges and opportunities which living in the city brings, and the ways in which they navigate their sense of cultural identity while living in the city.
Alison is a Gomeroi woman from the Namoi River floodplains in north-western NSW. She moved to Sydney at the age of 17, seeking “education, work, politics, fresh starts… [she] relocated for the first one, and stayed for the last three!” For her, Sydney presents the opportunity to study law and work in law reform, which wouldn’t be possible back on her country.
She feels a real tension between wanting to stay connected to her community and country, a feeling which manifests as a “bodily yearning for home,” and wanting to work in an area which will benefit her people. She cautioned that while the city might be seen as a “hive of activity and opportunity”, her country “has so much more, and it’s crucial that those who leave for education end up back there.”
She’s seeking a career in law and academia, but laments that “funding for legal aid, elitism and inflexibility in the academy” would make it impossible to have that career back home. As a result Alison has built a life for herself in Sydney, and feels “stuck in this loop” between “two beautiful homes… many hundreds of kilometres apart”.
Kyol shared these feelings of “living in two worlds…speaking two different languages.” Kyol is also from the Gomeroi nation, and grew up in the small town of Werris Creek. Kyol’s connection to his Gomeroi people and country is extremely important to him, as is “sticking together with other Blackfellas” by identifying broadly as Aboriginal.
Kyol moved to Sydney eight years ago to make use of a scholarship to a private school, and feels this opportunity has allowed him “to get the messages that are important to me and my culture out there”. Kyol’s “experiences on both sides of the fence” have meant he can engage politically.
Although Sydney has been great in some ways for Kyol, who is now the President of the Sydney Uni SRC and has been at the forefront of Aboriginal activism in the city, he also shares concern about the potential for dislocation from his culture and community, saying he has “had to relearn a lot of things”. His advice to other young Aboriginal people moving to the city was to take those opportunities, but to “make sure that you don’t lose contact with your culture”.
Georgia, one of the Indigenous Officers at the Sydney Uni SRC, identifies as a Gadigal woman from the Eora nation. She explained how when she describes herself as an Aboriginal person, people sometimes expect her to be from somewhere else––“they get this image of central desert or something like that!” She grew up in Western Sydney, and feels that “coming here [the inner city] and coming to uni has been a spiritual thing for me.” She pointed out that there are still Aboriginal cultural sites like middens, carvings and rock paintings around, as well as natural features, but that “you have to find these places amongst high-rise buildings”.
For Georgia, the experiencing of trying to reconnect with her cultural heritage has been very difficult. She pointed out that her country “was the first place to be invaded” and that in the early days “more than 3⁄4 of the Gadigal people were wiped out.” Despite the fact that “a lot of the [cultural knowledge] is just lost”, she spoke about some programs which are attempting to revive the Eora language and cultural practices, and was optimistic about the future.
She gets frustrated at how “I don’t meet [white people’s] expectations of an Aboriginal person” because she is fair- skinned and hasn’t been able to learn much of her culture. In this environment, she feels that “I just have to know within myself and within my family who I am.”.
Evelyn identifies broadly as a Koori woman, as her family background contains both Bundjalung and Dharawal heritage. She has lived all her life on Dharug land on the Hawkesbury river, and her family’s connection with local elders has been crucial to her sense of cultural identity. The Hawkesbury was the site of devastating frontier violence and massacres of Aboriginal people. Evelyn talked about how the Dharug community is now “reclaiming sacred sites” to affirm their cultural relationship with the land, and also highlighted “a real push to acknowledge that terribly painful history.” She stressed that her identity can be a “flexible, hybrid kind of process” given these complexities, but that culturally and spiritually “it’s important to pay respects to the land I’ve grown up on as well as the country I’m from”.
For her, education has facilitated not only a “spiritual and cultural engagement with the local community”, but an “ethical and social engagement with Aboriginal Australia as a whole”. She has been connecting with her own Bundjalung heritage through a language program offered at a local TAFE, and her PhD in Aboriginal literature has also allowed her to connect with communities from around the country.
Nathan is also a Sydney Uni SRC Indigenous Officer, who identifies as coming from Biripi country near Taree but who feels that “home has always been a bit of a moveable thing for me” because of moving around growing up, and mostly living on Wiradjuri country in Dubbo. When talking about his cultural heritage, he said “I’ve always had a nebulous connection to country, but ever since I can remember i’ve always known and understood that I’m Aboriginal.” Nathan expressed frustration at the way that outsiders can sometimes have a pre-formed idea of what it means to be Aboriginal and, that because he isn’t connected to country in the ways they expect, “does that mean I’m not as Aboriginal [to them]?” His connection to his Aboriginality has come about not mainly through his connection to his country, but through his experiences of community, family and art.
For Nathan, the sense of community with other young Aboriginal people in Sydney has also been key to his connection to Aboriginal culture––he says “I maintain my connection through my relationships with people around me.” This is something which the other interviewees shared as well–– Alison described feeling part of a “diaspora of sorts” where “although our experiences are diverse, having that commonality is a strong binding element”.
Despite this diversity, many white people remain fixated on a narrow, stereotypical conception of Aboriginal people. Such notions have their origin in the policing of Aboriginal identity which always formed a crucial part of the colonial project in Australia. Mick Dodson, former ATSI Social Justice Commissioner, argued in “Re (de)finding Aboriginality” that definitions of identity have been used as a mechanism of control, being employed in legislation to police all aspects of Aboriginal people’s lives. Whether these definitions revolved around skin colour or cultural difference, their main purpose was to affirm the inferiority of Aboriginal people and justify their subjugation at the hands of settler society. Dodson urged that we move beyond such definitions, and that Aboriginal people be given space to define their own senses of cultural identity.