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Australian Aboriginal Kinship

Laurent Dousset


The purpose of this book and how to read it

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Figure 1: Geographical map

Figure 1: Geographical map

ACT: Australian Capital Territory
NSW: New South Wales
NT: Northern Territory
QLD: Queensland
SA: South Australia
TAS: Tasmania
VIC: Victoria
WA:Western Australia

Figure 2: Desert Map of approximate location of cited languages and tribes (also see the map of Figure 6 on page 38 for the location of more Western Desert dialectal groups)

Figure 2: Desert Map of approximate location of cited languages and tribes (also see the map of Figure 6 on page 38 for the location of more Western Desert dialectal groups)

1Everyone familiar with Australian Aboriginal communities understands how very important kinship is in daily interaction. Some anthropologists have claimed that the concept of kinship, and thus kinship studies, are ethnocentric and biased, if not useless. They suggest that centring social phenomena on kinship is a particularity of the Western world and see kinship studies as a domain invented in Western academic circles. Although it may well be true in philosophical and epistemological terms, such a viewpoint neglects the fact that life in Aboriginal societies is structured around what social scientists label ‘kinship’. This handbook draws attention to this important social domain and explains how such ‘kinship’ systems work; it also offers an accessible introduction to this fascinating field. Far from those academic discourses that attempt to deconstruct a field that Aboriginal people themselves value, this book is directed towards those who are, or may soon be, living and working in Australian indigenous communities.

2Since 1994 I have worked as a researcher in Aboriginal Australian communities, in par- ticular in the Western Desert. I have always been astonished by the lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture, and especially of kinship, shown by non-indigenous students and staff who live and work in these communities, to say nothing of in Australian society generally. Throughout these years I met many teachers, shop managers, community advisers, nurses, mechanics, PhD students, but most lacked any understanding of kinship principles and structure or indeed of much of Aboriginal culture in general. Most inter- preted their encounters with Aboriginal people in terms of their own cultural background and often resorted to erroneous analogies. Some displayed a rather dogmatic fascination for an intellectual exoticism that seemed to exist only in their minds. In this view, Abori- ginal people are given a passive role in which they are enduring a threatening modernity, while simultaneously possessing esoteric powers that enable them to reconcile humanity, nature and the spiritual dimension: they are the people of the Dreaming. I found this ‘forwards to the origins’ attitude, which clearly derives from Rousseau and pleads for a return of the latter’s idealistic views, far more disturbing than their ignorance and lack of understanding. It was difficult to respond to this ideology with anything other than ideology.

3This book is meant for the former category of readers: those who do not know, who are struggling to understand structure and behaviour in Aboriginal communities and seeking insights into a different way of perceiving the world and human relationships but who are not guided solely by ideological or philosophical considerations. It is also for those who believe they know and understand but admit that additional examples and opinions may assist them. Since this book is an introduction to the principles of kinship and Australian Aboriginal kinship in general, as well as to the Western Desert culture in particular, it is also aimed at undergraduate and, to some extent, postgraduate students.

4Importantly, this work is also written for the Western Desert Aborigines themselves. After a meeting in Warburton in 1995, where I submitted my project to study kinship and social categories in a desert community to a Ngaanyatjarra Council General Meeting, some people approached me, asking whether I thought it would be possible to produce a little booklet about Western Desert kinship that could be of use to children and students, among others. This work is a belated response to these initial requests, which, I should add, were not prompted by any kind of anxiousness to record a disappearing culture or out of fear that knowledge about kinship and its use as a tool to organise indigenous processes might soon be lost forever. Indeed, relatedness (the sense of being somehow related to others and of sharing something with them) is a very important feature of Western Desert culture as an underlying motive for action and thought; kinship, as we outsiders call it, is its dominant structuring vehicle, involved in most, if not all, social processes. The request was in fact an expression of Aboriginal people’s understanding of what the global system in which they are embedded is about: functioning with the ‘written word’ as the dominant medium for permanence and power. Indigenous people have learned and understood that what has been written down is evidence and what has not is volatile and even non-existent. Taking into account the imposed necessity to ‘write things down’, Aborigines have had to learn to deal with and accept the difficult and intangible notion of the anonymous: the complete unpredictability of the interpretations made by readers of books about them. The idea of communicating, in this case writing, without knowing who the reader will be is perhaps one of the most bizarre consequences of Gutenberg’s revolution.

5All of the above entail important ethical and methodological problems. Why would an outsider want to describe what Aboriginal persons use and apply every day? How will ana- lysts (in this case, me) ensure they are not blinded by dogmatic ideologies similar to those described above? I do not claim to know better or to fully understand Australian Aboriginal kinship systems, but my training as an anthropologist provides me with the tools to explicate differences and similarities between cultural systems and thus shed light on cultural patterns. Although I am not in the best position to explain Western Desert kinship, I can compare the European system with those of Aboriginal Australia and thus identify some possible confusions. One condition for successful comparison is the systematic use of identical tools and concepts. Let us take the example of measuring and comparing dis- tances. The definition of how long a unit of distance will be (for example a meter) and the cross-cultural application of this is an ethnocentric process. However, once the definition is accepted, we can use it in other contexts to compare rather than to define distances.

6This book places a great deal of importance on comparing and contrasting European and Aboriginal Australian kinship systems in order to demonstrate how difficult and ephe- meral unsophisticated cultural analogies can be. It will provide the tools and concepts required to undertake such comparisons. Another necessary step will be to describe how Australian Aboriginal kinship systems have been analysed and presented at various stages of anthropology’s evolution as a discipline. We will progress through several steps, each of which should be taken only after the previous one has been fully assimilated. It is there- fore essential to read this book in the order it is presented.

The text is organised into four parts

  1. A discussion of general ideas surrounding the notions of culture and hunter-gatherer society, in which ethnographic material from the Australian Western Desert cultural bloc will be presented since most examples and discussions will be based on material drawn from this area.

  2. In this more technical but also crucial chapter, some of the most important notions in the realm of kinship are introduced. Definitions of marriage, descent and terminology will be outlined. There will also be a general discussion of the major differences between the various kinship systems. This will be rather complex and includes some specific terminology, all of which is defined and explained.

  3. Here the concepts explained in Part 2 are applied to the ethnography of the Western Desert. We shall examine key elements: family, domesticgroup and household. Western Desert kinship terminology is discussed and I elaborate on the ways people find a spouse and marry.

  4. This section addresses another complex domain of Australian Aboriginal kinship: social categories. Here theory and ethnography are defined and the concepts of generational moieties, sections and subsections as well as patri- and matrimoieties are explained. Part 4 concludes with an elaboration on the dynamics of these social category systems and shows how such systems have diffused and how groups have adopted them.

7While the intention here is to provide elementary anthropological tools and knowledge for understanding Aboriginal Australian kinship, please note however that this book is not about recent and historical transformations of kinship systems, which are in some cases considerable, and it does not deal with many of the uses of kinship in everyday life. These topics are planned to become the subject of other introductory handbooks.

How to read this book

8Since this is an introduction to the basic concepts used to understand the complexity of Australian Aboriginal kinship systems, I have endeavoured throughout to explain concepts and ideas clearly so as to make them understandable even for non-anthropologists. Simul- taneously, I have provided opportunities for additional enquiry for those interested in pursuing the subject further. First, however, I need to explain a few conventions that are used throughout this work.

9Each part is followed by a summary and a further reading section. The summary repeats the most important elements of the chapter. A reader who does not understand the summary should reread the chapter before moving on to the next one. The further reading sections list books that ought to be available in public libraries. References quoted in the text and listed at the end of the book are additional literature the interested reader may want to consult.

10Part of the information provided in this book was collected during my research in the Western Desert, in Alice Springs and in other parts of Australia. The remaining information comes from reading the work of other researchers. If this is the case, the reference is indi- cated in the following way: Tonkinson (1991:52). You will find the full reference at the end of the book, under the title References cited. The reference reads as follows: Tonkinson is the surname of the author (look under Tonkinson in References cited); between brackets is the year of publication. Sometimes, if a specific page of this publication is referred to, a colon followed by the page number is added. In some cases, the reference is indicated as follows: Lévi-Strauss (1967 [1947]). This means that the original edition was printed in 1947, but the edition I have been using was printed in 1967. This additional information is parti- cularly useful if we are using old references that have been reprinted, since we need to know the date of first publication.

Texts inside a box such as this one provide additional information on the discussed topic. It is not necessary to understand the content of the boxed text to read the book. If you feel that something in the boxed material is too challenging, just skip it.

11Words between quotes such as ‘this’ mean that the concept or idea has to be taken with some caution or is under discussion. Either I am not happy with the word but could not find a more appropriate one, or it represents an idea that is generally used for something that I think needs to be approached carefully. The context of the phrase should usually make the reasons for adding quotes around a word self-evident.

12Words printed in bold are key concepts. The most important ones are defined in boxes next to the text. All of these bold concepts are additionally explained in the glossary at the end of the book. They are in bold only on their first usage. These concepts should be kept in mind while reading on. Footnotes contain explanations or definitions of words which are not included in the glossary since they may, for some readers, be difficult to understand but are not anthropological concepts.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Geographical map
Légende ACT: Australian Capital TerritoryNSW: New South WalesNT: Northern Territory QLD: QueenslandSA: South Australia TAS: Tasmania VIC: VictoriaWA:Western Australia
Fichier image/png, 77k
Titre Figure 2: Desert Map of approximate location of cited languages and tribes (also see the map of Figure 6 on page 38 for the location of more Western Desert dialectal groups)
Fichier image/png, 124k

© pacific-credo Publications, 2011

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