Aboriginal Kinship Systems
In Aboriginal Australia kinship, one of the most complex systems in
the world, is the basis of all social interaction. The
kinship system of a particular tribe or language unit controls the
network of interpersonal relationships in that tribe guiding its members
in their interactions with other tribal members. Kinship pervaded every
aspect of social organisation and structure.
There are 10 points that are regarded as important about the
Aboriginal kinship system.
- Kinship is an integral part of the total social organisation.
The tribal members are sorted into categories with names used in
each tribe. Relatives-in-law are often placed in the same categories
as consanguineal relatives, though qualifying names can be given to
them. Ideally, husbands and wives are related to each other as kin,
though it can be in a classificatory sense rather than real kinship.
- Classificatory kinship is used throughout Aboriginal Australia.
For example, if a man addresses another man with a particular kin
term he will use the same kin term for his full brother. A kin term
applied to a woman will also apply to all her full sisters. This
system is a formal structure, in the implementation of it in actual
cases differences are recognised and in practice the equivalence is
rarely exact or complete, at least as it refers to adults. Attitudes
varied according to the closeness of the ties. A person's father was
never confused with a nominal one, or of an own brother being
confused with a classificatory one such as a father's brother's son
or a mother's sister's son. In some cases there may appear to be
almost complete identification, as between a man and a person he
calls his 'own' son, but he can explain the relationship by saying,
for instance, that the boy's father is his own close brother, and
that he has helped to rear the boy as his own. The social aspect is
all important. Opposite sex siblings are equivalent for other
purposes. In some systems a man uses much the same terms for his
sister's children as she does. They may reciprocate, using terms
that associate him socially with her. Correspondingly, both siblings
may use identical terms for his children. An example comes from
north-eastern Arnhem Land. In this system a man calls his own children
gadu and they call him baba (baba is also a term for
father in Cantonese and Mandarin, the different Chinese dialects
placing different emphasis on the first and last parts of the word.
Did Zheng He's
fleet visit Arnhem Land on his voyage to southeast Asia?), and his sister mugal-baba;
a woman calls her own children wagu, and her brother uses the
same term for her children.
- Some relationships are thought of as being more binding than
others. This is the case with same sex siblings, where conflict is
ideally at a minimum - though brothers may compete for the same
women and this situation is exacerbated in many areas by the
levirate (The passing of a widow to her dead husband's younger
brother). In some parts of Australia sibling rivalry is much more
apparent than in others. It is generally modified or kept under
control by common religious interests which are of dominant concern.
Sisters are often close friends and this was often reinforced when
they were also co-wives. Competition for husbands or sweethearts is
less noticeable between sisters, at least partly, because they can
and may share the same husband. A man can have multiple wives if he
wishes, and his circumstances permit it. In all such families there
can be only 1 man. As a result there is likely to more competition
among men. Children of same sex siblings are classified together,
while opposite sex siblings may be distinguished by different terms.
The local group organisation is underlain be the structural
principle equivalence of same sex siblings. Thus for this purpose, a
man's father's father, father's father's brothers, father, brother's
brothers, brothers, father's brothers' sons, sons, and brothers'
sons are classified together. The same applies to his mother, his
mother, mother's brother, mother's brother's son, etc.
- The statuses of mother's brother and father's sister is an
extension of the sibling relationship. This status involved special
obligations and responsibilities in nearly all Aboriginal societies
that could be combined with avoidance taboos. Such persons often have
an important role in the initiation rituals of their brother's son
or daughter, or sister's son or daughter. There is often great
attachment in the relationship between a man and his father's
sister. But there are often taboos of some kind between the man and
the wives or husbands of these kin. This is usually because of their
role in providing for their actual or classificatory nephews, or
husbands for their nieces. This is the case whether or not
cross-cousin marriage is preferred. The kin positions of the
mother's brother and the father's sister are pivotal and crucial.
- The relationship between people from different generation levels
is not simply an extension of the parent-child bond. It signifies a
difference in status and authority, if not in age, in terms of
superordination-subordination. That is, it suggests horizontal
stratification on the basis of status and kinship positioning.
People related to each other as grandparent and grandchild are often
drawn closely together for certain purposes, as those of succeeding
generations are for others, and this is often reflected in the
terminology used. This is usually a symmetrical relationship, in
contrast to the possibility of asymmetrical relations for those
under (4). It usually signifies mutual aid and respect, in the case
of the grandparent, a teaching-learning relationship. But it can
also mean that in some cases a person may marry into the generation
of a grandparent or grandchild. Generation levels in this sense are
not reckoned in terms of chronological age. They are formal
divisions based on relative status. For example, when a man marries
for the first time in his 30s, has several children, and whether or
not he marries in between, takes another wife later at the age of
about 50 or 60. If he married his first wife when she reached
puberty she may still be bearing children. There may be a gap of 20
years or more between surviving children of one mother and father
and it may be even wider between the children of one father and
different mothers. In other societies around the world this is not
an uncommon situation. In this case polygyny and the classificatory
system complicate it. To at least some extent there would be
'equals' within a person's own generation level - brothers and
sisters, cross-cousins, age-mates, etc. Some with authority over him,
directly or indirectly, would be included in the generation level
above him - father, mother, father's sister, father's sister's
husband, mother's brother, mother's brother's wife, possibly
mother-in-law, father-in-law, etc. Deference, and in some cases
avoidance, are relevant here. In some systems a degree of constraint
is present in some relationships, even within his own generation
level, as in the case of a wife's brother, or a sister's husband.
Constraint or partial avoidance can be the rule between between a
man and all the women he calls sisters. Relations usually revolve
around superordination-subordination in the generation below. A
person's own children, brother's children (classified as his own),
sister's children, etc. In some areas avoidance relationships are
present, usually between a man or woman and the men they call
daughter's husband. Formally, a man might be a generation level above
his wife's mother. For example, if he marries his father's sister's
daughter's daughter's daughter. That is, kin positioning and
generation level represent only one aspect of status relations.
- Reciprocity in marriage is part of the wider principle.
Betrothal arrangements underline the fact that marriage is not
simply a relationship between 2 people or nuclear families. In all
tribes, in one way or another, there are structural implications.
Those receiving a wife must make a repayment, at the time or at a
future date, and the repayment doesn't have to be in kind. Men
exchanging sisters or women exchanging brothers, as in bilateral
cross-cousin marriages, is the simplest arrangement of this
repayment. This can mean that a mother's brother's wife is actually
a father's sister. Maternal and paternal cross-cousins are often
terminologically equivalent. The same principle applies when the
marriage is between 2 moieties, different clans or local descent
groups. It is at least potentially implicit in the section and
subsection system. There may be a delay in this reciprocity.
Marriage reciprocity also involves the exchange of gifts as well as
of men and women. There are also rights and privileges, obligations
and responsibilities associated with the exchange. Where elopement
is not institutionalised it represents a threat to this system. It
upsets the balance of relationships between the persons or units
involved and in that particular cycle of marriage arrangements.
- The basic kinship is the nuclear family, as well as being the
basic social unit. With its core of husband and wife or wives it is
also the usual medium of achieving sexual satisfaction. The
structure of the majority of Aboriginal kin systems allowed for the
opportunity for both men and women to find extra-marital sexual
partners on a transient-mundane or transient-ritual or even romantic
basis. This was achieved with the potential replacement of spouses,
as well as allowing for parent surrogates. Extra-marital relations
conventionally fit into this broad framework. In some places, as
with the Dieri, the provision of secondary wives and as in western
Arnhem Land the provision of secondary husbands.
- Kinship is always involved in interpersonal relationships.
Usually kinship doesn't indicate relationship between groups or
classes, simply between persons within those social groups. In
north-eastern Arnhem Land the relationship between mada is an
exception. Kinships are usually oriented genealogically with respect
to any given person. Almost every person in that particular society
can be expected to have a slightly different perspective within it.
- There are a number of factors that distinctive patterning is
a. The number of kinship groups distinctly
recognised and terminologically separated out. In some cases, as
among the southern Aluridja, the few terms used do little more than
indicate sex, generation level and marriage relationships. The
people of north-eastern Arnhem Land had 25 main terms.
b. The preferred marriage type and the series of reciprocal
exchanges associated with it.
c. The question of socially acceptable alternative marriages that
could entail the rearrangement of personal genealogies and kin
alignments, with the associated reshuffling of terms.
d. The question of irregular marriages that are thought to be
wrong but not crucially wrong and those that are consistently
condemned, and in the old tradition subject to severe sanctions,
such as unions considered to be incestuous.
e. Factors influencing the range of marriage choice and the
terminology used, such as local descent group, moiety, subsection,
section and exogamy.
f. The method of distribution of responsibilities, rights and
duties among various types of kin.
g. The form of
totemism present in the area.
h. The fact that kinship systems were often modified to
accommodate introduction of section or subsection system.
i. Questions of descent.
- Descent is central to reckoning the kinship system,
relationships to and through one parent in terms of unilineal
descent is emphasised. Overall kinship is bilateral. Recognition of
descent in terms of other social categories can also be bilateral.
Usually one is selected over the other, or one is made
subordinate to the other.
Sources & Further reading
Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure
Smith Pty Ltd.