Home General News Indigenous population growing, but reliable census data not an easy comparison

Indigenous population growing, but reliable census data not an easy comparison

by Anthony L. Gonzalez

Australia’s indigenous population is at or above estimated levels at the time of white settlement, as new Census data suggests it is likely approaching a million people.

Census data released Tuesday showed a 25 percent increase in Australia’s indigenous population compared to five years earlier.

The number of natives over 65 has more than doubled.

Indigenous population growing

Figures suggest the growth is driven by changes in how people think or report being Indigenous. Still, one expert says the real change has been a breakdown in the categories statisticians use to define cultural concepts.

Dr. Francis Markham, a human geographer with the ANU, recalculated Monday’s data using the agency’s numbers to estimate the number of Indigenous people it could not survey on the night of the census.

He discovered that Australia was about to hit a milestone.

“When the final census estimate is published next year, the official estimate of the indigenous population will be only one million, or about 980,000 people,” he said.

“That means Australia’s indigenous population has doubled in 20 years — an extraordinary increase.”

Dr. Markham said population estimates were influenced by several factors, including the increasing tendency for people to identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in the census.

The official estimate would be for the population as of June last year.

Myths and Facts

Previously accepted historical estimates put the number of Indigenous people living in Australia at the time of white settlement at about 700,000 to one million. Still, a more recent study has suggested the number could be three times higher.

The census question regarding ethnic background has changed.

Professor Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous studies at Macquarie University, says ABS has tried to focus on the changing ways Indigenous people establish their identities, likely fueling the myth that people can falsely claim Indigenous heritage for a free ride.

She says the Census falls short by not reaching as many indigenous people and using definitions of identity based on a concept many would not recognize.

“The statistics are never really indicative,” said Professor Carlson.

“For us, identity is about relationships… it’s about your family and community, kinship, kinship bonds, all those things.

“But if our kinship system comes under pressure… [in the contemporary world] and pieces are missing, for many people, it’s not that simple.”

Not much more than 50 years ago, in 1971, indigenous peoples were first counted in the Census.

Professor Carlson said that people felt safer by declaring themselves as Indigenous and that social institutions now observed Indigenous culture, giving people a point of reference outside the family home.

A changing picture

The most recent census form included a new, easy-to-check box on an ethnic background question to indicate that you have Aboriginal heritage. This answer previously could only be handwritten without a prompt.

The number of Australians claiming to be of Indigenous descent rose by nearly 600,000.

A study from the previous census found that urban areas of Queensland and New South Wales were expected to be responsible for more than half of future Indigenous population growth, driven by changing identities.

Dr. Markham said previous Census data showed that changing classifications and self-definitions changed the official statistical picture of who Indigenous people were, a trend he said policymakers should consider.

“It’s very joyful to think our numbers are growing,” said Professor Carlson.

“We are almost at the number here before the British arrived – it only took 230 years.

“I would like a little more nuance in how we are counted.”

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