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Aboriginal Australian kinship comprises the systems of Aboriginal customary law governing social interaction relating to kinship in traditional Aboriginal cultures. It is an integral part of the culture of every Aboriginal group across Australia, and particularly important with regard to marriages between Aboriginal people.
Subsection systems are a unique social structure that divide all of Australian Aboriginal society into a number of groups, each of which combines particular sets of kin. In Central Australian Aboriginal English vernacular, subsections are widely known as "skins". Each subsection is given a name that can be used to refer to individual members of that group. Skin is passed down by a person's parents to their children.
The name of the groups can vary. There are systems with two such groupings (these are known as 'moieties' in kinship studies), systems with four (sections), six and eight (subsection systems). Some language groups extend this by having distinct male and female forms, giving a total of sixteen skin names, for example the Pintupi (listed below) and Warlpiri. While membership in skin groups is ideally based on blood relations, Australian Aboriginal subsection systems are classificatory, meaning that even people who are not actual blood relations are assigned to a subsection. They are also universal, meaning that every member of the society is assigned a position in the system.
Subsection systems are found in Aboriginal societies across much of Central, Western and Northern Australia. On the basis of detailed analysis and comparison of the various subsection systems and their terminologies, and in particular the apparent prefix /j-/ for male and /n-/ for female, it has been identified as a social innovation originally from the Daly River region of the Northern Territory, which then spread rapidly southwards to other groups.
The Yolŋu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land divide society (and much of the natural world) into two moieties: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each of these is represented by people of a number of different groups (each with their own lands, languages and philosophies) through their hereditary estates – so many things are either Yirritja or Dhuwa:
|Skin name||Clan groups|
|Yirritja||Gumatj, Gupapuyngu, Wangurri, Ritharrngu, Mangalili,|
Munyuku, Madarrpa, Warramiri, Dhalwangu, Liyalanmirri.
|Dhuwa||Rirratjingu, Galpu, Djambarrpuyngu, Golumala, Marrakulu,|
Marrangu, Djapu, Datiwuy, Ngaymil, Djarrwark.
Fish, stone, river, sea etc., belongs to one or the other moiety. Things that are not either Dhuwa or Yirritja are called wakinŋu. Yolŋu also have a kinship system with eight subsections (four Dhuwa and four Yirritja which is what creates moiety).
The Gamilaraay language group from New South Wales have a four-section system.
|Moiety||Section name (female)||Marries (male)||Children|
The Martuthunira language group from the Pilbara region of Western Australia have a four-section system.(The spelling l.y indicates that the letters represent two distinct phonemes, and are not a digraph).
|Section name (female)||Marries (male)||Children|
Similar systems are found across most language groups in the Pilbara, though with some variation in the forms of the names. For example, speakers of Ngarla use Milangka where Martuthunira use Pal.yarri.
The Alyawarre language group from Central Australia also have a four-section system, but use different terms from the Martuthunira.
|Section name (female)||Marries (male)||Children|
The Lardil of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria have eight subsection groups, shown here with some of their totems:
|Subsection group||Totems||May marry only|
|Children will be|
|Balyarriny||Black tiger shark,|
|Bangariny||Brown shark, turtle||Yakimarr||Ngarrijbalangi|
|Buranyi||Crane, salt water, |
|Burrarangi||Lightning, rough sea,|
|Kamarrangi||Rock, pelican, brolga,|
|Ngarrijbalangi||Rainbird, shooting star,|
Each Lardil person belongs to one of these groups. Their paternal grandfather's subsection determines their own; so a Balyarriny man or woman will have a Balyarriny grandfather. Members of each group may only marry members of one other, specified, group.
Once a person's subsection group is known, their relationship to any other Lardil can be determined. A Ngarrijbalangi is a 'father' to a Bangariny, a 'father-in-law' to a Yakimarr and a 'son' to another Bangariny, either in a social sense or purely through linearship.
The mechanics of the Lardil skin system means that generations of males cycle back and forth between two subsections. Ngarrijbalangi is father to Bangariny and Bangariny is father to Ngarrijbalangi and similarly for the three other pairs of subsections. Generations of women, however, cycle through four subsections before arriving back at the starting point. This means that a woman has the same subsection name as her (matrilineal) great-great-grandmother.
The Pintupi of the Western Desert also have an eight-subsection system, made more complex by distinct forms for male and female subsection names; male forms begin with "Tj", the female forms with "N". The Warlpiri system is almost the same:
|Gender||Subsection name||First marriage|
|Children will be|
The Kunwinjku of Western Arnhem Land have a similar system; male forms begin with "Na", the female forms with "Ngal":
|Gender||Subsection name||First marriage|
|First marriage |
children will be
|Second marriage |
children will be
Each person therefore has a patrimoiety and a matrimoiety, a father's and a mother's subsection group.
Outsiders who have significant interaction with such groups may be given a 'skin name', commonly based on the people they have interacted with and the types of interaction.
The variety of English used by many Australian Aboriginal people employs kinship terms in ways that are based on their equivalents in Australian Aboriginal languages.
The Warlpiri, sometimes referred to as Yapa, are a group of Aboriginal Australians defined by their Warlpiri language, although not all still speak it. There are 5,000–6,000 Warlpiri, living mostly in a few towns and settlements scattered through their traditional land in the Northern Territory, north and west of Alice Springs. About 3,000 still speak the Warlpiri language. The word "Warlpiri" has also been romanised as Walpiri, Walbiri, Elpira, Ilpara, and Wailbri.
The Yolngu or Yolŋu are an aggregation of Aboriginal Australian people inhabiting north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. Yolngu means "person" in the Yolŋu languages. The terms Murngin, Wulamba, Yalnumata, Murrgin and Yulangor were formerly used by some anthropologists for the Yolngu.
In the tribal law of the Noongar, an indigenous Australian people, a kinship classification system determined descent and inheritance, and enforced restrictions on intermarriage between certain groups.
The Pintupi are an Australian Aboriginal group who are part of the Western Desert cultural group and whose traditional land is in the area west of Lake Macdonald and Lake Mackay in Western Australia. These people moved into the Aboriginal communities of Papunya and Haasts Bluff in the west of the Northern Territory in the 1940s–1980s. The last Pintupi to leave their traditional lifestyle in the desert, in 1984, are a group known as the Pintupi Nine, also sometimes called the "lost tribe".
Kinship terminology is the system used in languages to refer to the persons to whom an individual is related through kinship. Different societies classify kinship relations differently and therefore use different systems of kinship terminology; for example, some languages distinguish between consanguine and affinal uncles, whereas others have only one word to refer to both a father and his brothers. Kinship terminologies include the terms of address used in different languages or communities for different relatives and the terms of reference used to identify the relationship of these relatives to ego or to each other.
Takariya Napaltjarri is an Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. She has painted with Papunya Tula artists' cooperative. First exhibited in 1996, her work is held in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Eileen Napaltjarri is a Pintupi-speaking indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. Eileen Napaltjarri, also known as Anyima Napaltjarri or Nanyuma Napaltjarri, began painting for Papunya Tula artists' cooperative in 1996. She was named as one of Australian Art Collector magazine's 50 Most Collectible artists in 2008; her works are held by the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Louisa Lawson Napaljarri (Pupiya) was a Warlpiri-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. Louisa commenced painting at Lajamanu, Northern Territory in 1986. Her work is held by the National Gallery of Victoria.
Helen Nelson Napaljarri, also known as Helen White Napajarri or Helen Spencer Napaljarri, is a Walpiri-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. A literacy worker in Yuendumu, Northern Territory, Helen began painting with Warlukurlangu Artists in the 1980s. Her paintings are held by the Art Gallery of South Australia and South Australian Museum. She has contributed to several bilingual language books in Walpiri and English.
Sheila Brown Napaljarri was a Warlpiri-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. A contributor to major collaborative paintings by Indigenous communities, her works are also held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the South Australian Museum.
Valerie Lynch Napaltjarri is an Indigenous Australian artist from Papunya in Australia's Northern Territory. She is a painter and printmaker whose work has been collected by the National Gallery of Australia.
Maggie Napaljarri Ross is an Aboriginal Australian artist. Her work has been collected by Artbank and the Kluge-Ruhe Museum in the United States.
Topsy Gibson Napaltjarri, also known as Tjayika or Tjanika, is a Pintupi-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region.
Nora Andy Napaltjarri is a Warlpiri- and Luritja-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. like her mother Entalura Nangala, Nora has painted for Indigenous artists' cooperative Papunya Tula. Her work has been exhibited at the Gauguin Museum in Tahiti, and is held by Artbank.
Ada Andy Napaltjarri is a Warlpiri– and Luritja–speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. Ada was born near Haasts Bluff, Northern Territory, and has lived in several Northern Territory communities. She began painting in the early 1980s at Alice Springs and probably played a role in the development of interest in painting in the communities in which she has lived.
Molly Jugadai Napaltjarri was a Pintupi- and Luritja-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. Her paintings are held in major collections including the National Gallery of Australia.
Norah Nelson Napaljarri is a Warlpiri-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. Norah Nelson began painting in 1986 and has exhibited her works both in Australia and other countries. Her paintings and pottery are held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.
Napaljarri or Napaltjarri is one of sixteen skin names used amongst Indigenous Australian people of Australia's Western Desert, including the Pintupi and Warlpiri. It is one of the eight female skin names. Skin names are often treated by Western cultures as equivalent to a surname; as a result the name is familiar to many as that of prominent Indigenous figures, such as artists Tjunkiya Napaltjarri, her sister Wintjiya Napaltjarri, and Linda Syddick Napaltjarri.
Kaytetye is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken in the Northern Territory north of Alice Springs by the Kaytetye people, who live around Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek. It belongs to the Arandic subgroup of the Pama-Nyungan languages and is related to Alyawarra, which is one of the Upper Arrernte dialects. It has an unusual phonology and there are no known dialects.
The Dangu are an Aboriginal Australian people of Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, one of many Yolŋu peoples. They are, according to Norman Tindale, to be carefully distinguished from the Djaŋu.
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Australian Aboriginal Kinship