Our culture

Kinship has wide implications in Aboriginal life and social structure. All facets of life are influenced by it, including relations to ancestral beings, sites and land. That is to say, it is not restricted to one’s ‘family’ as might be expected by comparison with mainstream Australian norms.

Performers at the Kenbi land claim handback at Mandorah on 21 June 2016

In the north of Australia, as elsewhere, Aboriginal kin organisation has a number of fundamental elements with wide ramifications. These are:

  • the kinship system
  • the moiety system;
  • the semi-moiety system; and
  • the skins

Each is addressed briefly below:

Kinship System

Each Aboriginal language in the Top End has a set of terms that are used by persons who are related in some way. Each term also has a reciprocal term, the one which is used back by the other person. Each language for example has a term generally covered by the English word, ‘father’ and anyone I would call father, must necessarily call me ‘son’, (being a kinship term and its reciprocal). As can be readily appreciated, even in English most terms have one - although it may be the same term. I call my cousin, ‘cousin’ and in turn am called ‘cousin’ by him or her.

English has much fewer kin terms than do most Aboriginal languages. All Aboriginal languages, for example, recognise an ‘elder brother/sister’ from a ‘younger brother/sister’ and each term in this example would be a reciprocal to the other. (If I call you elder brother, you must be someone who calls me younger brother.) While not present in English, this is a common feature in Asian languages within our wider geographic region.

In addition, most Aboriginal languages have several terms for the English ‘grandfather / grandmother’, with one for the father’s father grandparent and another for the mother’s father’s grandparent.

A further and very obvious difference to English can be seen in the way that every member of society has a kin term that any individual can, and should, use to address them. The terms are not restricted by simple genealogical connections, one can have many ‘fathers’ and ‘brothers’.

In these ways Aboriginal kinship differs from English and more closely, often very closely, resembles that from much of the non-Western World.

Moieties and Semi-moieties

Everything in the world, the countryside, nature and society is known to be of one, or the other (never both). A man and his offspring are in one of these, his wife and her siblings and their father are in the other.

One anthropologist expressed it this way:

Moiety means half, and over quite a large area of Australia, each tribe is divided into two halves or moieties. This division, known as the dual organisation, is a definite social and ceremonial grouping. Moreover, it is usually extended to embrace all things in heaven and earth so that it is totemic in nature, bringing man and nature into a common scheme, which is animistic or even “personal” in character. More specifically, each moiety has in some regions an animal or bird for its totem and name.

All societies in the Northern Territory divide the world into two patrifilially recruited halves. While not all societies name the two halves that result from this division, Dhuwa and Yirritja are the two terms most frequently heard in the NLC’s region, though there are others. For example: Mandirrija / Mandhayung  (Nunggubuyu language), Wilyuku / Lirraku (Mudburra) and Wilyiji / Lirriji (Jingalu).

In some regions the moieties do not appear to have one specific ancestor species associated with them, though they do have names, for example the Dhuwa and Yirritja. Instead of an intimate connection to an animal species they are linked with other aspects of social life, whatever it may be, they are always important.

Each of them has within it two smaller groupings, often called by anthropologists, ‘semi-moieties’. These divide non-European phenomena into four named categories: such as Burdal, Guyal, Murrungun and Mambali, which are terms for the four semi-moieties used in the Gulf Country of the Territory. These were among the first words recorded from the Top End by non-Aboriginal people as the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt noted their use by Aboriginal people along the Roper River in 1845.

All flora and fauna, ancestral beings, natural phenomenon, sites and land belong to one of these categories and all of the four semi-moieties are subgroups of one of the moieties. Like them they are not necessarily named in all languages of the Top End and not all Aboriginal groups recognise or use them in their own systems. Where they do, an individual belongs to the same semi-moiety as his or her father and their marriage partner should be to a person from a semi-moiety of the opposite moiety.

Subsections or “Skins”

Subsections or “Skins”, although not found in all societies in the region, are a further division of society into eight categories and are named groups of persons related by specific kinship connections. For example, the children of a woman of one particular skin will always be of another specific skin. This results in all members of society being considered as a person of some particular skin, and who can be addressed by one of eight skin names. (You will often see these called ‘subsections’ in books.) Each has a male and a female version.