Aboriginal Skin Names

Besides Aboriginal totems, Dreamings  and symbols, Aboriginal kinship and family structures are some of the most interesting concepts in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. These govern the relationships and connections of individuals within their communities. Aboriginal skin names, for instance, determine how people relate to each other and their social, ceremonial, and land-related roles, rights, responsibilities, and obligations. 

What are Aboriginal Skin Names?

Similar to a surname, an Aboriginal skin name indicates a person’s bloodline. It also conveys how generations are linked and how they should interact. Each person in an Indigenous community is given a skin name at birth based on the skin names of their parents or as given by their community.

Skin Systems

Skin systems (also known as ‘kinship systems’) follow a set pattern that reveals how everyone is related to one another and the exact nature of that relationship, differing not just according to number but to gender, as well. A person’s skin name may be matrilineal, meaning they inherit it from their mother, or patrilineal, where children get their skin names from their fathers. In some cases, a skin name may also be ambilineal– the individual obtains their skin name through both parents.

Skin systems vary per community, but are generally made up of between four and sixty-four skin groups. This is because there are typically subsets within each skin group for male and female members; usually, male skin groups start with ‘T’ or ‘Tj,’ while female skin groups begin with ‘N’ or ‘Na.’ Each nation has its own term for every skin name, and they can be as diverse as the many languages of Australia’s Indigenous communities.

Skin Names and Relationships

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person’s skin name defines their relationships with each of the other skin groups. Husbands and wives don’t have the same skin name, and children also have a different skin name from their parents. The kinship system is sequential, so skin names are given based on the preceding name and its level in the cycle. 

For example, in a matrilineal skin system, the mother has the first skin name and their child has the second skin name. All other individuals with the second skin name will now be considered a sibling of that child, and everyone with the first skin name (that of the mother) will be considered their parent. If the child has a kid of their own, that child will have the third skin name, and the cycle continues until the end is reached. Then, it starts all over again from the first skin name.

Skin names are often used as a basis for determining who one can and cannot marry. According to the system, an individual can only marry someone of the opposite moiety.

Why Aboriginal Skin Names Are Important

Aboriginal skin names are important because they act as an identifier of each individual in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. A person’s skin name reveals how they are related to their nation, and what their role, rights, and responsibilities are in regards to their tribe and their land.

Skin systems are also set up so that everyone is connected. It works so that if a parent has a child, their brothers and sisters have equal responsibility in caretaking; all of the siblings’ children will also be considered to be brothers and sisters to the parent’s children. 

So, if an individual is born as an only child, they will never be a true ‘only child.’ They will always have an extended family through the kinship system that will treat them as blood and provide them with the same level and nature of support and guidance. 

Understand Aboriginal Kinship and Family Structure with Evolve Communities

Aboriginal kinship and family structures are some of the most interesting concepts in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. They can also impact social and workplace relations, which is why understanding Kinship is one of Evolve’s 7 Steps to Reconciliation and Allyship™. Learn more about these intricacies with guidance from Evolve Communities!

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