The notion of family in Aboriginal culture is closely tied to themes of connectedness and kinship. In this setting, family structures are pivotal to identity formation, understanding one’s own spiritual and cultural belonging, and assists in establishing strong links with community. Ultimately, family and kinship are a cohesive forced that bind Aboriginal people together.
With over 500 Indigenous nations across Australia, there exists a vast array of Aboriginal communities. These nations are often made up of clan groups, and within these clan groups are family groups that often share a kinship system and common language (based on either patrilineal or matrilineal lines of decent). Traditionally, Aboriginal families were made up of a collaboration of clan groups, however in today’s terms this is known as ‘extended family’.
The Foundation of Family
Irrespective of culture, family is the foundation from which one gains emotional and psychological support. This is true of Aboriginal communities, with family standing as a form of spiritual, cultural and emotional guidance through life. It is therefore pivotal to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people.
The strength of the Aboriginal family reflects long standing cultural values and highlights the power of the kinship system. Kinship is not typical of non-Aboriginal families, as kinship rejects the notion of the nuclear family. By contrast, kinship encourages individuals to develop a more flexible understanding the concept of the family unit and relationships with others. The expansive nature of the family structure adopted by Aboriginal communities is closely tied to kinship responsibilities. Below we provide an introduction to the concept of kinship and outline the various ways it can be recognised in Aboriginal culture.
What is Kinship?
The concept of kinship describes a person’s responsibilities towards other people, the land and natural resources. Kinship is a system that determines how people relate to one another and their surroundings, with the aim of creating a cohesive and harmonious community. It determines not only responsibilities towards others, but also how one relates to others through marriage, ceremony, funeral roles and behaviour patterns. People who hold a position in the kinship system have a responsibility to adhere to kinship principles through their actions.
The kinship system is a central feature of Aboriginal socialisation and family relationships. There are three foundations from which kinship is developed in Aboriginal communities. They are:
Moiety – Moiety, meaning ‘half’ in Latin, is a system whereby everything is considered a half of a whole, and therefore is a mirror of the other. It comes from the belief that if one is to understand the whole universe, two halves must come together. This principle applies to people and nature alike. As such, Aboriginal communities usually have unilineal descent, either patri- or matrilineal, so that any individual belongs to one of the two moiety groups by birth, and all marriages take place between members of opposite moieties.
Totems – In Aboriginal communities an individual will hold at least four Totems representing their nation, clan, family group and personal totem. These Totems link an individuals to the universe via links to land, air, water and geographical features. Nation and clan totems are determined are preordained, whilst personal Totems are links to individual strengths and weaknesses. People are responsible for their totems to ensure they protected and passed onto the next generation. Totems are split between Moieties to create a balance of use and protection.
Skin Names – A skin name is similar to a surname as it indicates a person’s blood line. It demonstrates how generations are linked and how they should relate. Unlike the non-indigenous surname system, husbands and wives in Aboriginal communities don’t share the same Skin Name, and children don’t share their parents’ name. Rather, it is a sequential system. Skin Names are given based on the preceding name (the mother’s name in a matrilineal system or the father’s name in a patrilineal system) and its level in the naming cycle.
Links to the Foundation
The Watarrka Foundation is passionate about helping Aboriginal communities stay connected with their social and cultural histories. As stated by our Director & Chairman Paul Jensen:
"The power of kinship reinforces our commitment to helping build a thriving Aboriginal community that will support one another and keep alive the traditions of Aboriginal culture. "