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Telling the Truth and not Telling the Truth

Before leaving this NAIDOC 2019 week, with its focus on Truth and Voice and Working Together, we look again at the ‘fork in the road’, so important to Linda Burney. Our NAIDOC NewsFlash last Tuesday told this story[i].

The ‘fork in the road’, as Linda described it, is to either follow Truth and Truth Telling or take another road. We explore these separate paths.


There is a term called ‘passing’ to describe a person who lives other than as their ‘true’ self[ii].  The term is primarily used in the United States. ‘Passing’ often occurs at times when legal or social conventions severely prejudice minority individuals and subject them to legislated racial discrimination. There are also white persons who choose to ‘pass’, e.g. as a Native American or a person of colour.  ‘Passing’ is generally considered the opposite of truth. It transcends race, religion and ethnicity.

The film star Cyd Charisse passed as white, but was in fact of black heritage: something of which she never breathed a word during her career. Star of Singin’ in the Rain beside Gene Kelly, Brigadoon and The Band Wagon, she regarded her black heritage as career suicide. MGM insured her tall long-legs and explained her dark beauty as Latin Looks[iii].   Krazy Kat comics creator, George Herriman, passed as a Greek, despite his Louisiana Creole ancestry[iv].

Lisa Page and Brando Skyhorse edited an anthology, We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America[v], giving voice to the stories of various people.

Why do people ‘pass’?  According to Page and Skyhorse,:

‘the reasons are manifold: opportunity, access, safety, adventure, agency, fear, trauma, shame. Some pass to advance themselves or their loved ones to what they perceive is a better quality of life. Others are passed on by gatekeepers, who see in the person they’re passing some kind of kinship, an element that says, “You’re like me.  And now, you belong.”[vi]

Given the severity of racial discrimination through Australia’s post-colonial history, numbers of Australians with Aboriginal ancestry, and their families, have felt themselves required by necessity to deny their Aboriginal roots. Forced removal policies, massacres, juvenile incarceration, demeaning rules enforced by bureaucrats, Police and policy makers were and, in certain circumstances to this day continue to be, oppressive. Laws cruelly divided people arithmetically as to half, quarter, eighth etc. Finding oneself slotted into one of these fractions resulted in government control of legal rights that historically proscribed where you lived, who and whether you could marry, food entitlements for oneself and one’s children, one’s personal freedom and even potentially life itself.

When someone asks: ‘What are you?’ or ‘Who are you?’ – the retort “Who do you think I am?’ is not glib or defiant.  ‘What is the truth?’ can be a deeply complex, troubled issue. 


Many Australians have a deep sense of Aboriginal connection. Some know they are Aboriginal, or must be, but have no information of their Country or family.  

During KA’s work with Lawyers for the Arabunna Marree People (LAMP), there were lawyers and friends visiting Arabunna Country who discovered family linkages with the Arabunna – not direct, but not distant either. These ‘discoveries’ were celebrated with sheer delight by the Arabunna People as well as their city-based relatives. In those whose family connection emerged as reality, it was fascinating to find that the non-Indigenous persons, entirely unknowing of their Aboriginal connection, had often held high leadership roles in Federal Government, including Aboriginal affairs, with a lifetime of active interest in understanding Country and Aboriginal people.

It was not uncommon for those taking LAMP trips, to express their sense of an Aboriginal ancestry – whether it was dark skin, tight hair, whispered family tales or their own spiritual sensibility. This was no hokey, belated, hippy ‘finding themselves’ or new age rescue via Aboriginal spirituality, but a deep long held and grounded sense of unexplained belonging.

Other tour-takers sourced family links with Aboriginal Peoples elsewhere. Yet others found links with overseas First Nation Peoples.

Finding Truth

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AITSIS) has a dedicated area for researching Indigenous family history. It assists both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians to find family[vii].  There is extensive online information and helpful checklists.  Particular resources exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many of whom were affected by the Stolen Generation.

So, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, if you think you may have Indigenous ancestry, these AIATSIS resources are invaluable.   Anyone can anonymously search according to surname, town or region, particular Aboriginal group, mission, organization and language.

A person who finds Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander family can then seek recognition – a formal process involving an Incorporated Indigenous organization.  The individual seeking recognition must show they are Indigenous, demonstrate that they identify as Indigenous and confirm that the community accepts them as Indigenous. 

AIATSIS has a Family History Toolkit, with checklists and worksheets for a Research Plan, Sources at Home, Family Member Information, Biographical Outline (person by person), Records Checklist, Contacts Log, Research Log and a checklist for Planning a Visit. 

AIATSIS warns that historical records may be upsetting.  They may contain offensive material, words and ideas that reflect the perspectives and attitudes of people who made the document. They may contain very intimate material about family.  They might contradict each other and contain errors. They may challenge information given by trusted family members and contradict family tales and beliefs.

The searcher may well actually, to their complete astonishment, come across reference to themselves, e.g. their name as a baby in mother’s records, without any knowledge that the record about them existed. This AIATSIS vehicle, albeit with risks and imperfections, is a powerful tool for Truth Telling.

Voice treaty trust – Let’s Work Together for a Shared Future

Swirling through this 2019 NAIDOC week, and using the lens of the non-Indigenous woman, we see Miss Pink in her Alice Springs’ reserve with Johnny, Jan’s camp dinners with Reg on tour, Linda Burney’s ostracised mother and the injustice that pressed on her childhood innocence.  There is Ossie Ingram’s tale of the love of a station daughter near Whitton after rescuing the sole survivor of appalling Wiradjuri Country massacres. There is Stan Grant’s grandmother, Ivy Sutton & her man, missionary Ethel Gribble’s romance with Fred Woondunna up at Fraser Island, Rebecca Forbes (‘Mrs Widgety’) refusing to leave Beltana Station and her beloved Adnyamathanha People and Eva and George Rankins’ boot business. There is Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike inviting children to the fun of an imagined Royal visit to his Great Sandy Desert Country.

And, there is the lawyer explaining legal documents in the desert whilst, back at the office, the KA team faces up against the vast unmet urgent need for contemporary legal assistance to Aboriginal People all over Australia in issues affecting their Country.

Proudly there is that unforgettable image of Linda Burney’s cloak and the empty coolomon presented to Prime Minister Rudd at The Apology, symbol of the stolen children.  She voices her certainty in the power of Truth and Truth Telling[viii].

Working Together is the way forward for what must become Australia’s Shared Future. We leave the last work (as Reg Dodd would say) to Jan Whyte:

We need to keep at it, to persevere.

Non-Indigenous people are the ones who have to work a bit harder[ix]

Kellehers Australia congratulates NAIDOC for its important theme this year and again acknowledges the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – and, in respect to the KA series for 2019 NAIDOC week, expresses its deep gratitude and respect the Aboriginal People described and their Elders past, present and emerging.

[i] Kellehers Australia, http://kellehers.com.au/latest-news/parliament-and-members-of-parliament/, accessed 120719.

[ii]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passing_(racial_identity), accessed 120719.

[iii] Page, Lisa, 2019, Leaders Literary reading, Yale Writers’ Workshop, Yale Bookshop, New Haven, Ct. Author’s personal attendance, June.

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passing_(racial_identity), accessed 120719.

[v] op. cit.

[vi] op. cit. p x.

[vii] https://aiatsis.gov.au/research/finding-your-family, accessed 120719.

[viii] ABC op. cit.

[ix] Jan Whyte, Telephone interview by Dr Leonie Kelleher with Jan Whyte on 8 July 2019, written text confirmed 9 July 2019.