Aboriginal people have complex social and marriage laws, based on the grouping of people with their society. The social fabric of Aboriginal society is maintained in the remote parts of central and northern Australia, and the present tense is used to describe these features.

In order to understand the complexities of Australian Aboriginal social organisation, it can be considered as having three parts:

The physical or geographic structuring of society
This is based on physical numbers of people and the land on which they live. The smallest physical group is the family. Several families may band together for food gathering, forming a band or horde of about ten to twenty individuals. The members of a group who all speak the same language can be considered a tribe or language group, and each tribe belongs to a specific tribal land. At the time of European colonisation, the number of individuals in a tribe ranged from about 400 to 600 with an average of about 450.

The boundaries between tribes are sometimes reasonably well-defined by rivers, creeks, hills and mountain ranges. At other times they are poorly-defined, with areas that are mutually shared between neighbouring tribes. Sometimes the boundary is disputed and members of neighbouring tribes are antagonistic towards each other. Disputes over boundaries have led to murders even within the past few decades.

Hordes hunt and gather food within their tribal boundaries, but also travel onto the lands of surrounding friendly tribes. Members of neighbouring tribes trade with each other.

Aboriginal people have always been multilingual, knowing the languages spoken by their neighbours. Neighbouring languages have many words in common, but as one moves further and further from one’s own tribe, it become increasingly difficult to understand the language spoken by the people of distant tribes.


The religious and totemic structuring of society
Under this arrangement, people belong to groups which have emblematic and religious leaders, referred to as totems (Totemic Beings). Because people regard these totems as their ancestors, they are also referred to as Ancestral Beings.

The number of different groups in a region varies throughout Australia. When people divide themselves into two main groups, these are called moieties. When they divide themselves into four groups, they are referred to as sections. When they are divided into eight or more groups, they are called subsections.

In the central and northern Kimberley, for example, people divide themselves into two groups led by two birds: Wodoi (the spotted nightjar) and Djungun (the owlet nightjar). These are represented by two stone piles at an important religious centre where the two bird-men are believed to have fought each other during the Dreamtime.

Stone Piles Two stone piles represent Wodoi and Djungun, leaders of the two Kimberley moieties, who are Ancestral Beings to the Ngarinyin people. Dicky Wudmurra, far left, explains the legend of how these two ancestors fought each other at this important sacred site.
Photo: David M. Welh 1989

When people divide themselves into sections (four) and subsections (eight or more), these groups are what Aboriginal people refer to as their “skin”. The name of the group to which a person belongs is their skin name. This might be the name of an animal, plant, or inanimate object, and each person has a special religious connection with the totem or totems within their group. People are born into these groups, assigned by their parents at birth, and remain in the same group throughout life.

Under Aboriginal law, a person cannot marry someone else from within their group. This custom, where a person has to marry outside their group, is called exogamy.

Skin names are often shared across tribal boundaries, and these form part of the Aboriginal kinship system, where distant people form bonds and relationships with each other.

Another function of the religious and totemic structuring of Aboriginal society is that it defines the system of land ownership. In the past, people did not regard themselves as owning the land, and the land-owning unit was not the tribe. Instead, people regarded themselves as belonging to the land, and it was the Ancestral Beings who held control over the land.

Where tradition is strong, people have a duty to maintain the integrity of their Ancestral Beings and the sites belonging to these beings. Ancestral Beings often live within the landscape, where paintings, engravings, trees, rocks and hills are the embodiment of those deities. Members of a group responsible for a particular Ancestral Being regularly visit the associated sacred sites and perform certain rituals, chanting, singing, rubbing stones together, and sometimes burning the surrounding land to “tidy it up”. In the Kimberley of Western Australia, they repaint their weathered Wandjina deities.

The members of each group associated with a particular Ancestral Being or totem are said to belong to a clan. Their senior person is described as the clan leader. The land over which they hold jurisdiction is referred to as their clan estate, and this is the basic unit of land ownership in Aboriginal society.


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