Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Urban identity


We aren’t all in the ‘bush’, ‘outback’ or ‘on communities’…

I don’t leave my Aboriginality at the airport or in a locker at the bus station on the city fringes when I visit. It seems that some people assume that Aboriginal people don’t belong in the city or big regional centres. Research undertaken in Brisbane suggests that some people think that Aboriginal people belong in the ‘bush’, ‘outback’, and ‘on communities’. Others think that somehow our Aboriginality becomes irrelevant in the city or that we place our cultures to the side in order to ‘succeed’. In spite of such comments, Aboriginal people are still asked to give a ‘welcome’ or an ‘acknowledgment to Country’ in cities and in other urban areas. We may be asked whether we know, or could we organise, a group to do traditional dancing or play the didgeridoo, or whether we can get an artist to paint a mural or display some art? Our involvement is generally placed in the context of what is deemed ‘traditional’, ‘authentic’ or ‘tribal’. That is, we are asked to be involved in ways that portray the artistic and material cultural images of the past. What if we don’t depict the cultural and social stereotypes of what some people in society believe, perceive or expect of us? What if we aren’t dark brown or black skinned?

I have experienced people trying to categorise me by my hair, skin or eye colour, in an attempt to organise me into a grouping that suits their framework of what they perceive to be an Aboriginal woman. I have been asked, ‘What part is Aboriginal?’ I know as an urban Aboriginal woman that if I don’t fit the images that some people hold, I may be perceived as having no culture, as not being ‘real’, as ‘unauthentic’ or a ‘fake’. Sadly, some Aboriginal people feel this about themselves and others. What does the word ‘authentic’ even mean with regard to Aboriginal people in the historical context of urban Brisbane or in any other urban area?

Normally, the word ‘authentic’ is posed in a way that describes someone being more ‘tribal’ or ‘traditional’. These terms can set Aboriginal people within a timeless and static setting where we are generally represented in the bush, on a hill, or in a remote community. These images trap us and don’t represent the complex lives and situations in which we find ourselves as Aboriginal people. They also trap non-Indigenous people into a way of seeing us as Aboriginal people. In the trapping, the images and accompanying thoughts may keep us from honestly knowing each other.

There is no single urban Aboriginal experience or identity. The experiences are as diverse as the population and include a diversity of experience, need, prospects shaped by gender, education, religion, age and level of human security. Culture cannot stay the same, it is dynamic and there are many cultural configurations. Aboriginal people live in the contemporary world and weave in and out of two, three and even more cultural domains. We are part of colonisation, just as it is part of us. Aboriginal culture has needed to adapt, adjust and modify itself in order to survive within the contemporary world. This does not mean that our cultures are not, and that we are not, Aboriginal. You might have to look and listen more closely, but culture is always there in some form, always was and always will be.

Aboriginal people have had to work hard to build and sustain positive Aboriginal identities due to the influence of the dominant culture on our lives. The contacts and interactions we have with institutions, agencies and services are grounded in the world view of the dominant culture.

The constant exchanges, interaction and dialogue with non-Indigenous urban society can present challenges to our identity. It can be a struggle to live a life within the dominant culture, while at the same time trying to honour and protect our own heritage, institutions and worldview. Sometimes it can be difficult for Aboriginal people living in the city, trying to deal with issues such as having a troubled, or no, connection to land due to historical processes or being removed as a child, or your parents or grandparents being removed. For those that may not even know where they have come from, and where they belong, what then?

It might be difficult for some people, for a range of reasons, to access ceremonies, language and Elders and they may therefore feel disjointed from what culture may mean. It is not easy for some Aboriginal people in the city. Life in big cities and other urban areas presents Indigenous people with many factors and interactions that create self-doubt, identity confusion and anguish—all  of which can work to undermine one’s sense of Aboriginality.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that over 50 per cent of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now live in urban areas including the big cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The statistics demonstrate that living in urban centres is as much a reality for Aboriginal people as living in a discrete Aboriginal rural, regional or isolated community. This reality includes using a range of accommodation options, buying goods and services, finding a job, participating in sporting groups, clubs and organisations and sharing and interacting with people from a diverse range of backgrounds. It also includes trying to find or make space within the city for Aboriginal cultures, languages, individual and collective expression, establishment and maintenance of Aboriginal organisations, programs, services and other structures.

Just because we might work, go to school, TAFE or university, hang out, drink alcohol, smoke, play sport, be members of clubs and associations, shop for food and buy services, drive cars, have problems and issues, or live in houses in urban streets or on the streets, does not mean we are no longer Aboriginal.

Urban Aboriginal people are not ‘hybrids’ or alienated from the Aboriginal experience. Aboriginal culture is dynamic and new Aboriginal identities have developed in response to urban life. Urban identities will keep developing and adapting as they did in the past and as they do in the present. This is about our survival.  

Bronwyn Fredericks grew up in Brisbane and now lives in the Rockhampton region. Artwork by Pamela Croft.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thought provoking article that strikes a real chord for me. More power to you Bronwyn.

Jody St Clair | 12 December 2015  

Dear sir or madame , I'd like to submit International Conference on Cities’ Identity Through Architecture and Arts (CITAA) link on your website to be beneficial for all . This is Conference link : goo.gl/djPh2b Regards, Mohamed Abdallah

Mohamed Abdallah | 13 July 2016  

I spent 10 years living and working in remote Aboriginal communities at Lockhart River, Wadeye and Groote Eylandt as a CDEP manager but I know nothing about urban Aboriginals. I read this article to try and find out something about them but did not learnt much. The last two paragraphs tell me what urban Aboriginals are not, but not what they are. Can anyone direct me to a description(s) of Aboriginality in an urban setting- customs, beliefs, values etc.?

Rod Cordell | 06 February 2018  

Similar Articles

The road not taken

  • Stephen Yorke
  • 18 May 2007

Stephen Yorke considers the effects of the decisions we make.


Phone a friend

  • Michele Gierck
  • 18 May 2007

Michele Gierck meets the people on the other end of the line