The social structuring of society
The social structuring of Aboriginal society defines the relationships between people based on their age and birth.
Boys and girls undergo a series of ordeals leading to their acceptance as adults within their society. The ordeals vary across the country and include body mutilations such as cuts to the skin (cicatrices), having one or two teeth knocked out, circumcision, sub-incision, introcision, and the amputation of a finger (for girls in the Darwin and Sydney regions). Adolescents are taught the sacred knowledge, and this process of ordeal and learning constitutes a person’s initiation towards becoming a full adult member of their tribe.
The leaders of society are the elders – the most senior men and women who are respected by others. Important decisions are made by a council of elders, which include clan leaders and the most respected elders of the tribe. Australian tribes were not ruled by chiefs, but they had senior men who might be regarded as the best warrior, the best spear-maker, a medicine man, or being particularly wise.
Aboriginal society has separate names for up to seventy family relationship terms in some tribes. That is, far more than the European terms “father/mother”, “grandfather/grandmother”, “uncle/aunt” etc. Under their family and society rules, people have obligations towards certain relatives, and these obligations are reciprocated.
For example, amongst many tribes, a man has an obligation to care for his brother’s children – his nieces and nephews, more so than his own children. This is why Aboriginal people sometimes refer to their uncle as their “father” and their uncle’s children as their “brothers” or “sisters”. A person knows, of course, who their real mother and father are, but under these societal (kinship) laws, other family members have equal importance. The common terms of endearment amongst modern urban Aborigines, “brother” or “sister”, used when talking to people, are derived from these kinship terms and associations.
The kinship system
The family obligations and the spiritual sharing of totems and Ancestral Beings constitute what is called the kinship system. The value of the kinship system is that it structures people’s relationships, obligations and behaviours towards each other, and this in turn defines such matters as, who will look after children if a parent dies, who can marry whom, who is responsible for another person’s debts or misdeeds, and who will care for the sick and old.
The kinship system allows each person in Aboriginal society to be named or regarded in relation to one another, through either their family genetics or by applying their totemic ancestry and their moiety, section or subsection.
When Aboriginal people accept an outsider into their group, they have to name that person in relation to themselves, to allow that person to fit into their society. They need to have in their minds the kinship relation of that person to themselves, and that person must have a defined social position. Thus, when a non-Aboriginal person goes to live in an Aboriginal community, they proudly tell their friends that they have been adopted by the group, being called a “mother/father”, “daughter/son” or “brother/sister” to someone.
The ban on speaking with one’s mother-in-law
One of the rules under the kinship system is an Aboriginal custom, present throughout Australia, which bans a person from talking directly to their mother-in-law, and vice versa. This rule applies to both men and women talking to their mother-in-law. Perhaps this rule was developed to overcome such a common cause of friction in families, when a husband or wife has to endure many years of disagreement or argument from their mother-in-law! To allow this rule to work, communication took place via a third person. So, if you wanted your mother-in-law to do something for you, you might ask your spouse or another person: “Please ask your mother (so and so) to do (so and so) for me”. When food was divided and shared around campfires, a mother-in-law had a small fire of her own separate to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law and their spouse. Her own daughter or son would chat and bring over some of the meat, or perhaps a grandchild would sit with her and act as messenger between herself and her daughter or son's partner.
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