Growing Up as an Aboriginal in Australia: Two Young People’s Tales of Community, Country and Misconceptions

Growing up as a part of the Aborigine community in Australia comes not without challenges. We spoke to two young Aboriginal Australians who have just finished university telling us what it is like to grow up as an Aborigine in Australia. Their names have been changed in order to maintain their privacy.

Instagram | @barefootwandering.photography

Pat*

On my upbringing…

My name is Pat, I am 25 and grew up in the Blue Mountains, just outside Sydney. I am a descendant of the Dharug people, the ongoing custodians of the Sydney region and parts of the Blue Mountains (with the Gundungurra peoples).

My upbringing was one where I always knew I was Aboriginal. I am ‘passing white’, meaning I have fair skin and don’t look like what most people think of when they imagine an Aboriginal person. Always knowing this, I often encountered racism, which those sending that message were quick to deny. They would say that I am not a true Aboriginal or at the very least, I don’t fit their expectations. Whatever they may be.

But I have always been told that the only people who can argue about who is or isn’t Aboriginal are your ‘Aunties’ – women who are relatives, or close friends of my parents or other family members – and they always say you’re Aboriginal or you’re not, there is nothing in between. And therefore, I am very much Aboriginal. 

Growing up in the Mountains was great, being on ‘Country’ (the land traditionally belonging to my people), surrounded by the bush and being able to go out, relax and maintain a certain calmness. The bush has an amazing regenerative feeling. I have recently come back home and been able to relax on Country and spend time with my family. To me this is a key part of my identity. Being Aboriginal isn’t about skin colour or whether you can talk in your Aboriginal language or dance. It’s about family and home.

On life for Aboriginal people…

These things are all very important but due to the history of colonisation of Australia, many of our people, including myself, cannot speak our Aboriginal language or have limited knowledge of our culture. Our old people were banned from sharing it, and had to hide it in shame or for fear of having their children taken from them by government organisations, as part of what is known as ‘The Stolen Generation’. This practice was only stopped completely in the 1970s.  

I think our opportunities in life are dependent on our family situation and the support we receive from our community and those close to us. Intergenerational trauma is real and not everyone is supported in their endeavours. I was fortunate to be blessed with amazing parents who were able to work and provide for myself and my siblings to have better opportunities than they did. However, when at university there were still many people who would think that we would get in only on scholarships or have not earned our way into our course – this is wrong and comes from a place of ignorance. For so long our people were denied education and opportunity, and so it is our right to be at institutions learning Western ways to bring back to our Community to help others.

On misconceptions…

I think the biggest misconception about Indigenous Australians is that people are afraid to ask questions. Or they believe what other people say and make assumptions based on other people’s agendas. Indigenous Australians are the oldest surviving culture in the world. A culture that is rich in art, music, story, sport and science. It is a very different culture than the one that arrived here in 1788. And is often dismissed because people fail to listen or come with fixed minds or pre-judgements.

For people wanting to come to Australia, an obligation of your journey and time here is to visit and meet the Traditional Owners of the Aboriginal “Country’ you are staying in or visiting, hear their stories and know their history of survival. Indigenous Australia has the oldest surviving culture in the world because we share. That is how we as a people have survived, not by greed or selfishness, but by sharing with our community, sharing song, stories, dance, food and of course, cups of tea.

Aborigine girl with traditional face paint
Instagram | @renaesaxby

Rickelle*

On my upbringing…

My name is Rickelle. I am a proud Larrakia and Warramungu women from my father’s side and a proud Gija and Yawuru women from my Mother’s side. I grew up in Darwin, Northern Territory and I am the eldest of 5 in my immediate family. However, who I consider and accept as part of my family goes well beyond blood, as it does with most Aborigine’s. 

Growing up, I had many ‘Aunties’, ‘Uncles’ and ‘Cousins’. Many of whom were distant family members, my parent’s close friends and friends of other family members, but they were all considered ‘family’, no matter if I could or couldn’t explain how. 

Although this may seem strange to some, this is the way a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families function across Australia. And because of this system, I felt supported and safe growing up, whether I was back home in Darwin, or in Adelaide – where I spent 12 years at boarding school and University – or now in Newcastle (North of Sydney), where I am currently living and working as Communications and Engagement Officer at a University.  

On community…

The Aboriginal families, communities and networks I became part of in Adelaide and Newcastle made me feel as though they were another extension to my family back home in Darwin. There are similarities in the way they care, support and challenge you. They have created an environment where I can be myself, talk about what challenges I am facing as an Aboriginal woman, talk politically about the same issues we are all going through with fighting for Indigenous Rights, fighting against discrimination and racism, challenging the gaps within the system in terms of education and health care for Indigenous people, but also sharing happy thoughts, memories and laughter.

Because of this, we, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, like being together. We feel safety in numbers which allows us to feel like we belong and that we are part of a larger, greater family/community, especially when you are living away from your own.