What it means to identify as Indigenous

There are now almost one million Indigenous people in Australia, according to the 2021 Census.

The estimated Indigenous population of 983,300 people in August 2021 has increased from 798,000 in 2016. This translates into population growth of around 4.6% per year, accelerating from 3.5% between 2011 and 2016.

This rapid increase is much faster than can be accounted for by births alone. It also reflects changes to how people answer the question on “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin” in the census.

What does this mean for Indigenous identity? The census defines Indigenous people as those of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin, not according to skin colour or Indigenous community recognition.

However, there is a strong case for the census to better recognise Indigenous identities according to the structures meaningful to Indigenous peoples in Australia today.

A rapidly growing population

Between 2016 and 2021, the number of people directly recorded in the census as being of “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin” increased from 649,200 to 812,700. However, this is an undercount of the Indigenous population, as it doesn’t include the Indigenous people who are among the 1.2 million Australians who either didn’t answer the Indigenous status question on the census form or didn’t return a form at all. After adjusting for this, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates the Indigenous population is more like 983,000. However, we will focus on the census count, for which more data is currently available.

The increase in the census count of 163,500 Indigenous people can only partly be accounted for by the 85,900 Indigenous babies born between 2016 and 2021 and counted in the census. Further, according to life expectancy statistics, we expect around 14,700 Indigenous people who were counted in 2016 to have since passed away.

Adding these two together, we calculate that if the Indigenous population had changed only because of births and deaths between 2016 and 2021, the census count would have reached only 720,400 in 2021, not 812,700. This leaves an “unexplained” increase of 92,300.

Understanding the population increase

Three different factors contribute to this “unexplained” population increase. The first is that census coverage changes. If Indigenous households are becoming more willing to participate in the census, or the ABS is reaching more Indigenous households, this could contribute to the “unexplained” increase. But according to the ABS’s report, this does not seem to be the case.

The second factor is migration: if more Indigenous people returned to Australia from overseas than left between 2016 and 2021, this could contribute to the increase.

The third is net identification change, whereby people who previously did not state they are of “Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin” in the census now choose to do so.

Of these three factors, net identification change appears to be the largest contributor.

The increase in the number of Indigenous people aged 65 or older from 31,000 in 2016 to 47,700 in 2021 has been widely remarked upon. Around 71% of this increase can be accounted for by Indigenous population ageing and mortality, with 29% remaining unexplained by demographic factors.

In other age groups, identification change is a larger contributor to population increase. High levels of identification change among children continues a trend from previous censuses, possibly due to the form being filled out on children’s behalf by different adults in different years.

Population growth is most significant in New South Wales and Queensland, with 68.9% of total Indigenous population increase and 71% of unexplained population increase occurring in these two states. In the Northern Territory, the Indigenous population is actually smaller than expected based on the 2016 Census.

How do people identify as First Nations?

The question here is, why do Indigenous people identify in the census when it is a voluntary process? In my research on Aboriginal Melbourne, Aboriginal people were very thoughtful when they chose whether or not to identify as Aboriginal in the Census — or even whether to complete the Census at all.

Many Indigenous people identify in the census because they feel there are few negative consequences from doing so and they’re not being forced to. For them, the census is a safe place to “tick the box” and identify privately. Others feel it is their duty to represent their community through a population count and consider that participating will not impact on their claims to sovereignty. Some feel that times have changed, and where once perhaps they may have felt embarrassed to identify as Indigenous, this is no longer the case — this could be contributing to the increase in the population.

There is also resistance from First Nations people to participate in the census, which stems from early government policies and life experiences, such as child removal and incarceration. Some Aboriginal people from Melbourne consider the census to be another form of government surveillance.

First Nations identity has become subject to a public debate. First Nations scholar Bronwyn Carlson argues increasing census counts aren’t necessarily evidence of a population increase, but rather just statistical methods catching up with reality. She has also highlighted the fact the census doesn’t capture Indigenous ways of living.

This can result in a mismatch between what the census measures and different views of what it means to be Indigenous or First Nations. The census defines Indigeneity in terms of self-reported “origin” or ancestry. This is a very different criterion to the government-preferred “working definition”, which states an Indigenous person is someone accepted as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person by Indigenous community members.

Indigenous identity is made of many things today: pride, kinship knowledge, language revival, history, music, art, connection to Country, caring for Country, and the cultural responsibilities of educating our people and, for some, the wider population too. These things are not measured in the Census.

Social media has been a great reinforcer of identity and kinship connections. This has made it easier for younger generations to identify with each other and Elders, and to find out if they are related.

First Nations Elders are proud of the achievements of their community, such as rapper Briggs, actress Leah Purcell, and sportspeople like Ashleigh Barty and Paddy Mills. Whatever the Census has to say, identity is something First Nations people understand and define for themselves.

This article was originally published in The Conversation