Intermarriage between Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians.

Author:Heard, Genevieve

Intermarriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is increasing as cultural and socioeconomic divisions are broken down. For the first time at the 2006 census, a majority of both male and female Indigenous persons were partnered with non-Indigenous persons. This analysis shows that location is more important than education or income in determining rates of intermarriage. In metropolitan areas the overwhelming majority of partnered Indigenous people live with, or are married to, non-Indigenous people; in non-metropolitan areas this is true only of those who are highly educated and/or on high incomes.


To what extent do Indigenous Australians mix with non-Indigenous persons when forming partnerships? Intermarriage in this context may be viewed as a development that is positive (part of the mixing of backgrounds and cultures that contributes towards a diverse and tolerant society) or negative (signifying the dilution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander blood and cultures). Either way, it is important to examine the extent of its occurrence, since intermarriage both reflects and affects the number of people identifying as Indigenous and thus alters the parameters of Indigenous affairs policy.

Using data from the 2006 census, this paper assesses the extent of intermarriage (defined here as including both formal and de facto marriage) by Indigenous status in Australian society. Where possible, trend data are used to assess the direction of change. (1) The paper is part of a larger study of intermarriage in Australia that also examines intermarriage by birthplace, ancestry and religion. (2)


Just as inter-ethnic marriage reflects the erosion of boundaries between Australians of different cultural backgrounds (see article by Khoo et al. in this issue), the extent to which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are forming partnerships with each other is an important indicator of whether past social or cultural divisions between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities have dissipated.

As late as the 1960s, only a small minority of non-Indigenous Australians were prepared to say that they would accept a full-blood or part-Aboriginal person as a relative by marriage into their family. (3) To the extent that such prejudice still exists, it constitutes a formidable barrier to intermarriage, since marriage is the most intimate of social relationships.

In some societies, longstanding racial divisions and accompanying negative stereotypes have led to negligible intermarriage. As an extreme example, less than ten per cent of African Americans partner with persons of a different race, (4) despite a 'remarkable' increase in interracial marriages in the United States. (5) As the findings below will show, rates of intermarriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians suggest a more permeable divide. A better comparison may be with the native Americans of the United States. Studies of intermarriage within this community indicate that exogamy is relatively high (59 per cent of married native Americans were married to non-Indigenous partners by 1990). The rate of exogamy was especially high amongst those who had moved to metropolitan areas where they constituted only a small proportion of residents. (6)

In Australia, the analysis of intermarriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons raises some unique measurement issues. For official purposes, an Indigenous person is one who is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives. The census question is aimed at the first and second parts of this definition, (7) and census respondents are simply asked whether they or other members of their household are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin.

Australian residents have shown an increased propensity to identify as Indigenous. The number identifying as such in recent censuses rose from 250,738 in 1986 to 414,390 in 1996, (8) and 455,028 in 2006, which in 2006 represented 2.4 per cent of Australia's population. (9) Over and above natural increase among Indigenous Australians, more people have come to think of themselves as Indigenous and/or are inclined to declare themselves as such on the census returns over the past couple of decades.

It is likely that the growing propensity to identify as Indigenous has implications for intermarriage; however, it is not immediately clear what these implications might be. On the one hand, confidence in one's Indigenous identity may be accompanied by greater engagement with non-Indigenous Australians. If so this might increase opportunities to partner outside of the Indigenous community. Alternatively, the growth of 'identity politics' (10) or the 'politics of recognition' (11) may imply a greater propensity to take pride in Indigenous identity, and a greater interest in its preservation through partnering within the Indigenous community.


The level of intermarriage on the part of Indigenous Australians is inevitably linked to the issue of socio-economic mobility. Indeed, intermarriage can be interpreted as a significant measure of this mobility. Socio-economic factors are fundamental in shaping partnering decisions, since people tend to look for partners with similar educational and class backgrounds to themselves. (12)

It follows that circumstances that limit social mobility are likely to perpetuate barriers to intermarriage. Where minority groups are socially or economically disadvantaged relative to the rest of society, exogamy is less likely, since prospective marriage partners are unlikely to bridge this gulf. Recent public discussion about Indigenous issues has concentrated on the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of health indicators, life expectancy and educational attainment. The pronounced socio-economic differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Australia might be expected to minimise intermarriage.

Conversely, intermarriage between groups can mean that these groups are becoming more similar with regard to other social and demographic characteristics. The sociological literature suggests that intermarriage will be relatively high where the members of a minority group achieve upward social mobility. Relatively high levels of education, in particular, are often found to facilitate intermarriage. (13)


In addition to social mobility, geographic mobility is important to the likelihood of intermarriage. At the most basic level, intermarriage relies upon opportunities for members of different groups to meet. (14) Historically, much of the Indigenous community in Australia has lived in relative geographical isolation from the non-Indigenous community. For most of the 20th century this...

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