'Nobody has ever asked me if I'm Aboriginal. This is the only time.'

JACK CHARLES'S indigenous background is hardly a secret, but the federal government has a problem believing him.

His mother was a Bunnerong woman, his father a Wiradjuri man. Charles was born in Melbourne in 1943 and is one of Australia's most renowned Aboriginal actors.

He was involved in setting up Australia's first indigenous theatre group, Nindethana, at the Pram Factory in Melbourne in 1971, and most recently performed in the 2012 Sydney Festival production I am Eora, about Sydney's Aboriginal community. And then there is the colour of his skin.

''Yes, I obviously look like an Aboriginal,'' he said.

Yet that is not enough for the federal government's arts funding body, the Australia Council, which has demanded Charles prove his Aboriginality before it considers his application for a grant to write a book about his life.

But Charles said he should not have to prove what is blindingly obvious.

''I don't want a temporary visa from the Australia Council proclaiming I'm an Aboriginal,'' he said. ''I expect to be treated honourably and with respect … I have received money in the past but nobody has ever asked me if I'm Aboriginal. This is the only time.''

The Australia Council's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board has required indigenous applicants to prove their identity since 1997 by providing a letter confirming their indigenous identity from a senior member of the community or registered organisation.

''The policy is not intended to cause offence,'' said the board's executive director, Lydia Miller. ''Rather, it is in place to ensure that this dedicated funding supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.''

Ms Miller said there were no exceptions to the rule.

Charles is in Sydney rehearsing for the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Secret River, part of next year's Sydney Festival. But he said he could not continue with the show, or Belvoir St Theatre's Coranderrk, scheduled to open in December next year, if the Australia Council continued to insist he prove his Aboriginal identity.

''I'm not going to perform for them if I have to prove I'm a bloody Aboriginal,'' he said.

Charles said the policy was flawed, pointing out that many indigenous people, especially members of the Stolen Generation, found it difficult to find information about their background.

He said many other Aboriginal artists and performers had been ''rudely abused by this policy''.

The story 'Nobody has ever asked me if I'm Aboriginal. This is the only time.' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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