Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Aboriginal Tribal System

A tribe, in the Aboriginal context, is a group of people related by actual or implied genealogy, a common language, occupying a recognised tract of country where they hunt and gather food. The characteristic that differentiates their tribal system from that of other such systems is their powerful connection with the land they occupy. The land they occupy was travelled by their spirit ancestors in the Dreamtime, when the places were named and their laws and traditions were given them by the Dreamtime ancestors. These same ancestors formed the various landmarks and totemic sites as they travelled around the territory. The boundaries between tribal territories are not always immutable, in some cases they overlap at places along the boundary, and some tribes can have totemic or Dreaming centres in a neighbouring tribe's territory, which they are considered by both tribes to own. It is not known how long it took for the tribal boundaries to become established, but by the time of white occupation the territories had long been established. After all, they had 60,000 thousand years to get it right. The boundaries were apparently to some extent elastic, some tribes being allowed to hunt on the territory of neighbours in times of drought in their own country, at least in some cases.

Tribal territories varied in size, depending on the productivity of the country, the central Australian tribes occupying semi arid to desert country, need a much larger territory to survive than those in highly productive areas such as wetter coastal areas, so the inland territories are larger to allow for this. Fighting between tribes was not unknown, but in no case could this fighting be caused by, or lead to, the taking over of the territory of one tribe by another. Neither side would consider that situation. To the Aboriginal tribal person, the land they were born in is part of them, their spirits were believed to reside in places like sacred waterholes or other places when a person died until it entered the body of a pregnant woman and was reborn as a baby. So the lack of the possibility of acquisition of a neighbour's territory byany tribe removed an excuse  for war that was present in other parts of the so-called civilised world. Even when the tribes did have wars, there were often stylised substitutes for outright war that minimised death or injury. Another case in which they had customs, that would seem to be more civilised than those of the rest of the world, where wars have always been fought over anything that a powerful leader considered a good excuse to gain extra territory.

The meanings of tribal names were not always known, even to members of that tribe. The name of the Dieri of Lake Eyre means simply 'man' - implying the other tribes were lesser beings.  Some examples of tribal names are the Walang or Gunbalang. The 'Bat' people' lived among the caves on the northern Arnhem Land coast. The Maijali or 'Stone country' people lived south of Oenpelli. The Gunwinggu or Winggu 'Fresh Water' people of western Arnhem Land. In west-central Northern Territory there were the Lungga or 'Long faced' people.

The various tribes mingled to varying degrees with their neighbours. Some interacted easily while a few kept themselves relatively isolated because they were not tolerant of the neighbours' customs. Such groups kept to themselves, restricting the choice of marriage partners to within their borders. But even these isolated groups did occasionally meet with their neighbours for the purpose of trade and the ceremonies that took place when neighbouring tribes joined to participate in large ceremonies connected with the dreamtime beings, usually when paths of one or more of these dreamtime beings crossed through the territory of more than one tribe. The groups that imposed this isolation on themselves had a harder time than the less isolated tribes accepting the forced contact with European settlers.

In some parts of Australia, neighbouring tribes formed varying degrees of alliance, in some cases crossing each other's tribal lands almost at will, intermarry and coming together to perform large secular ceremonies, as well as the religious ceremonies that other neighbouring tribes combine for. Examples of these multi-tribe groups are the  Pidjanga-speaking bloc and the 'Narrinyeri' Confederacy.

The Pidjanja-speaking bloc included tribal lands of the member tribes that extended across the Great Victoria Desert, through the Musgrave Ranges and the Everard Ranges, along the Canning Stock Rout to the country of the Wailbri (Warlpiri, Walpiri) and Waneiga around Tanami and the Granites.

The 'Narrinyeri' Confederacy included such tribes as the Wakend, Tangani, Jaraldi, Tatiear and Ramindjeri. On the northern Australian coast, between the Daly River and Fitzmaurice River, were the 'Bringkin' groups.

While the tribe was a linguistic and territorial unit, that united all its members, in everyday life it was the smaller groupings within the tribe, the clan, horde and family unit that took part in the daily life activities, food gathering, feuding, fighting, hunting and fishing.

Clan members trace their descent from a common ancestor. In places such as eastern Arnhem Land, the line of descent is through the father's line, while in other places, such as western Arnhem Land, it is the mother's line . Each clan belongs to a special district within the tribal country. Each clan usually has its own rituals or songs. Members of a clan usually find their husbands and wives in other clans, usually within the same tribe. Members of a particular clan are usually expected to not marry other members of their clan. The extended family of parents and children, and often including other relatives, is called the horde by anthropologists.

A moiety is a term used by anthropologists to describe the practice, in nearly all tribes in Australia, of dividing each tribe into 2 groups for social and ceremonial purposes. It was usual for people to marry someone from outside their own moiety. The children may belong either to the moiety of the father or their mother, depending on whether the local group recognise their descent through the mother or the father. This system is at least partly totemic in nature, as it is often extended to include other animate and inanimate things, as well as the people. In some areas the moieties can be further divided into sections and sub-sections, where special marriage rules apply, as well as grouping various relatives in different ways.

To the Aboriginal People, the social organisation in their system was known to every member of every tribe, but to outsiders it is often extremely complicated and riddled with hidden difficulties and contradictions, making it difficult to master. Yet another indication that these were not simple primitive savages.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Aboriginal Australia

Sources & Further reading

  1. Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 29/09/2013

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