Aboriginal Totems

When understanding Aboriginal kinship structures, the concept of Aboriginal totems, also known as Dreamings, is one that holds a lot of importance. An Aboriginal totem portrays a person’s relationship to their nation, clan, and family group, and represents their strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, it defines an individual’s roles and responsibilities towards their community and the environment.

What Are Aboriginal Totems?

An Aboriginal totem, or Dreaming, is a spiritual emblem taken from nature in the form of a natural object, plant, or animal. It’s inherited by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a symbol of their roles and responsibilities to each other and their connection with the earth.

Like Aboriginal skin names, Aboriginal totems are a key part of the Aboriginal kinship as they relate people back to their cultural lineage. Totems are linked to The Dreaming; they’re believed to be descendants of the heroes from those stories, so they carry a lot of meaning and significance concerning the spiritual histories of First Nations cultures.

Examples of Totems

There’s a wide range of totems that can be given to members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. These depend on the natural features and wildlife relevant to the Nation. Some examples of Aboriginal totems include a hawk, a kangaroo, a koala, an emu, and an owl, to name a few.

Each First Nations person has at least four totems, including inherited ones for each national, clan, and family group, plus an assigned or personal totem. Totems are split between moieties. 

Aboriginal moieties are the first level of kinship in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society. They split everything in two mirroring halves, creating a balance. In the case of Aboriginal totems, the split ensures the long-term conservation of that totem as one emphasises sustainability while the other permits proper use. For example, the kangaroo may be protected by members of one moiety, while individuals from the other may eat it.

What Responsibilities Come With Aboriginal Totems?

Aboriginal totems aren’t just symbols or family emblems–they represent and entail a sense of responsibility and ownership over nature in the form of conservatism and stewardship. Generally, an individual’s totem signifies a natural object, plant, or animal that they must be responsible for. 

It’s important to note that Aboriginal totems are not ‘owned’ but accounted for. They don’t attach a certain authority to a person; instead, they signify an obligation. This means that First Nations members must ensure that their totem is properly cared for; they must protect their totem and pass it on from one generation to the next. 

This entails looking after natural resources in their area to make sure that they’re used properly and are available to their totem animal. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must also never kill their totem animal.

Aboriginal totems also represent a responsibility that First Nations members have towards their communities. They define an individual’s role within the family, along with their relationships with others. 

When Are Aboriginal Totems Given?

Aboriginal totems, specifically those that relate to one’s nation, clan, and family group are given at birth. This means that children already have an identity as soon as they enter the world, and they are given their stewardship responsibilities very early on–though these are further taught as they grow up. 

Personal or assigned totems may be given later on. These totems recognise an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and link them to the land, air, and other geographical characteristics.

Learn About Aboriginal Kinship Structures with Evolve Communities

The Aboriginal kinship system is one of the most complicated in the world, but it’s essential to understand it to gain a better appreciation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and ensure you are creating a welcoming environment for First Nations people. Evolve Communities’ cultural competency and Ally training programs are a great starting point to learn more about Aboriginal kinship structures, First Nations history, and Indigenous culture in Australia. Get in touch with us today to learn how to get involved!

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