(The meaning of family in an Australian Aboriginal context)
While the trendy slang expression ‘Who’s your daddy?’ takes the form of a rhetorical question, it is commonly used as a boastful claim to assert dominance over the listener. Sometimes used as a throwaway line in movies, television and car commercials, it was used to full effect in a funny episode of Will and Grace. In Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner, Jack attempts to transfer his rapport with Karen to Grace by asking her, ‘Who’s your Daddy?’, to which she candidly replies ‘His name is Martin Adler.’ When used in an Australian Aboriginal context, the popular phrase takes on an entirely different meaning so far as family is concerned, intriguingly complex but no less comedic.
So many mothers and fathers, sister girls and brother boys.
If you’ve ever spent time with Aboriginal people it soon becomes obvious that there are so many relatives. In fact, there is not one but many mothers and fathers, more than biologically possible – not to mention numerous aunties and uncles, bro’s (brothers) and tiddas (sisters) and lots and lots of cousins (cuz). So how can this be? How is it that Aboriginal people all appear to be related to one another? Is your curiosity aroused by the quirky Aboriginal expression ‘cousinbrother’? Are you wondering how and why there are so many ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ among Aboriginal people? Then skin provides the answer.
What is ‘skin’?
The AboriginalEnglish term ‘skin’ refers to the traditional kinship structures that govern Aboriginal concepts of family. All across Australia, Aboriginal people traditionally lived according to strict rules dictating who could marry who, who you can joke with, who you can or cannot speak to (taboo or avoidance relationships), who you are socially obligated to and so on. Skin also sets out how people are related to one another and the kinship terms they must use. In traditional artwork depicting Aboriginal skin, the elaborate networks resemble Buddhist mandalas. In practise they operate as social, living This social classificatory kinship system is truly creative, innovative, sophisticated and ingenious. The world has much to learn from Aboriginal concepts of ‘family’, especially in regard to what it means to truly care and look out for each other. In the Bible, God asks Cain of his brother Abel’s whereabouts. Denying any knowledge, he pithily replies with the now infamous line, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ In a world where there are no ‘outsiders’ and everyone belongs, the question would never be asked by an Aboriginal person because in our skin system, everyone is each other’s keeper.
How do you get your ‘skin’?
Traditionally, an individual is born to a specific skin group (already predetermined and proscribed either by their mother or father depending on whether the system is patrilineal or matrilineal). Thereafter they are known by that skin name (along with other members of the same group). While the skin names are similar sounding, a slight difference in spelling indicates whether the person is male or female. For example, in the Kukutja skin system of Western Australia, Tjakamarra indicates a male person while Nakamarra denotes a woman. The term ‘skin’ has little to do with actual skin colour and more to do with how people are related to one another, either on a biological or social basis. Under the skin system, family includes biological and all nonbiological relatives (not just our inlaws (those related through marriage.) They are considered just as important as our blood relatives. By definition this automatically creates extended families.
How do Aboriginal concepts of ‘family’ differ from mainstream Australia?
Aboriginal definitions of ‘family’ is much broader and more encompassing than mainstream Australia. Unlike AngloAustralian kinship that is linear and collateral, which effectively goes up and down and sideways to include siblings or distant relatives, Aboriginal kinship by contrast is circular and generational. This is evidenced by the terms Aboriginal people use for grandparents and their grandparent’s siblings. AngloAustralians distinguish between their grandparents and their grandparent’s siblings whereas Aboriginal people do not. Grandparents’ siblings are considered the same as one’s biological grandparents and are also called ‘grandmother’ or ‘grandfather’ as opposed to grandaunt or granduncle. Similarly, Aboriginal people make no distinction between ‘first’ cousins and siblings, referring to them instead as brothers and sisters, or in Aboriginal kriol as ‘cousin brother’ or ‘cousinsister’ to signify ‘closeup’ relationships from more distant ones. Aboriginal kinship is non hierarchical in that we don’t grade our cousins as being ‘first’, ‘second’ or ‘third’ as they collaterally outwards, they are simply cousins (or as in the case of ‘closeup’ cousins as siblings). Aboriginal skin systems also make further distinctions between the generations that are far too complicated to explain in this short article.
Where did skin originate and what purpose does it serve?
These kinship patterns and associated rules for human conduct and relationships were established long ago in the Dreamtime. They not only maintain law and order but more importantly keep the bloodlines pure by not crossing over. This is absolutely imperative in small genetic pools to prevent inbreeding with its concomitant genetic complications. In the Kimberley region where I come from, Elders point out multicoloured birds such as blue mountain parrots as living examples of what happens to newborns when people don’t follow the skin rules and marry the wrong way. What this practice reveals are knowledge of genetics.
How many skin groups are there?
Typically skin groups vary in count from sets of groups of 4, 8, 16 and 32 (or more depending on the system) into which community members are born. Skin groups are made up of both sexes and are intergenerational. A comparable system in western cultures is found in astrology in the zodiac. In this system of 12 star signs, there are 4 sets of 3 signs grouped together based on their elemental qualities of air, earth, fire and water. Like the zodiac system which dictates who you are romantically ‘compatible’ with, Aboriginal skin operates in a similar manner except with regard to the number of choices available for a potential spouse or love interest. Under the horoscope system there is a choice of 6 potential signs of compatibility whereas under the skin system there is only one (i.e. who you are ‘straight’ for) or potentially one other (usually crosscousin) who you are allowed to marry. Of course, while the zodiac system favours elemental compatibility it does not preclude other liaisons whereas Aboriginal skin strictly forbids ‘starcrossed’ love relationships referring to them as ‘wrongway’ marriages.
Is Aboriginal skin still followed today?
In many places across Australia these traditional skin systems are still followed. While they may vary in size and names, the rules governing social interaction and obligation are remarkably similar in application, context and meaning. And while they may be culturally specific to particular areas there are many cultural overlaps that make the system translatable to other Aboriginal nations. What this means is that Aboriginal people are easily able to fit into an existing structure elsewhere and interact with one another appropriately even though they may come from different nations or communities. This is because skin dictates what the correct kin relationships are and the socially correct way for for individuals to behave towards one another. Even where colonisation has had a devastating impact on Aboriginal cultures and languages, you will still find Aboriginal people relating to one another along traditional skin lines. This is abundantly evident by the extensive use of English kinship terms as opposed to Indigenous ones such as ‘Aunty’, ‘Uncle’, ‘Cousin’, ‘Brother’, Sister and so on. And as in Aboriginal skin where grandparents and grandchildren have the same Indigenous skin terms for each other such as Kaparli and Tjamu (maternal) or Ngawatji and Kirlaki (paternal) in the Kukutja language, you will find Aboriginal grandparents referring to their grandchildren as ‘grannies’ by the same English kinship term as their grandchildren. It is in this sense that Aboriginal kinship is circular and returns to the fold every third generation (this may vary according to which system is followed). The crucial point to make here is that even though cultures inevitably change and adapt, nonetheless you will still find Aboriginal people following the old skin ways even where English has replaced traditional languages. What this reveals is the importance of Indigenous cultural frameworks in keeping culture alive in the face of enormous change. In his song about the Stolen Generations, Took the Children Away, Koori singersongwriter, Archie Roach proudly proclaims at song’s end that ‘The children came back.’ This powerful refrain is testament to Aboriginal cultural resilience that celebrates the strength of Aboriginal family ties and the strong sense of belonging and connection we feel to the land and each other. It flies in in the face of assimilation policies and practices designed to rid Aboriginal people of their cultural identity and birthright.
Who’s your daddy?
Well that’ll be my father’s cousinbrother or my father’s cousinsister. From an Aboriginal perspective, one’s ‘Daddy’ just might be a woman or even a small child.
The Skin Game: Cultural Awareness
One of the cultural awareness tools we’ve developed at Evolve to teach Aboriginal kinship is an interactive workshop called The Skin Game. Participants are put into Aboriginal skin groups and given skin names. Following a brief introduction to the system they are then tasked with finding all their ’lations (their family). This experiential game is strategically profound, enlightening and comedic.
Looking for some very different cultural awareness training? Don’t miss out. Call now to book a session for your workplace.
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