Island Aborigines Torn Apart by Row over Racial Identity

Article excerpt

A POISONOUS dispute over who has the right to call themselves Aboriginal is tearing apart Tasmania's indigenous community and threatening to spread to mainland Australia.

The conflict, which has split families in the island state and set community leaders at each other's throats, has been provoked by looming elections to jobs in a powerful indigenous organisation with A$6.5m (pounds 2.3m) of funds to distribute among local groups.

In an attempt to end the wrangling, the government took the controversial step of setting up an indigenous electoral roll and appointing an independent committee to adjudicate on challenges to would-be voters. Thousands of objections have been lodged and passions are running so high that even the Aboriginality of committee members has been questioned.

The root of the problem lies in Tasmanian history and the bloody frontier battles waged in the early 19th century between white colonists and indigenous tribes.

The Aboriginal population was almost exterminated. The few survivors were exiled to an offshore island in the Bass Strait, where the women intermarried with European sealers and whalers. Eight generations on, descendants of those unions - most of whom have white skins - claim to be the only true Tasmanian Aborigines. They say thousands of Tasmanians are masquerading as Aborigines to gain access to benefits.

Those accused of fabricating indigenous heritage say they are related to Aborigines who avoided relocation to the Bass Strait. They claim they are being disenfranchised as part of a power struggle.

Among those whose an- cestry is being disputed are prominent members of the community such as John Clark, chairman of the state branch of the influential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. …