Traditional Life

Social Organisation

People lived day to day in family groups, banded together as hordes, and met at times of ceremony, when one to several hundred members of a single tribe came together. Members of different tribes met together at the largest ceremonies and gatherings, when there might be over 1,000 people at one gathering.

Aborigines have complex social and marriage laws, based on the grouping of people within their society. They also have a complex kinship system where everyone is related to everyone else. In order to understand the complexities of their social organisation, it is best to consider it in the following way, dividing it first into three main aspects. First, the physical structuring of society in terms of numbers – family, horde, tribe, second, the religious structuring based on beliefs and customs, totems, and marriage laws, and these beliefs divide people into moieties, sections and subsections, totemic groups, and clans. Third, there is also a kinship system that gives a social structuring.  The social structuring and kinship system can become very complex and difficult to understand for non-Aboriginal people, but is a natural part of life for Aborigines, and its details vary from tribe to tribe.

The following lists the three main aspects of Aboriginal social structure and then the details and grouping within these are given.

  1. The physical or geographical structuring of the society. A tribe or "language group" of perhaps 500 people is made up of bands of about 10-20 people each, who join together for day to day hunting and food gathering. Each band of people can be called a "horde". Within each horde are several families.
  2. The religious and totemic structuring of the society. On a religious level, society in much of Australia is divided into two moieties. These moieties may be based on Ancestral Beings from the Creation Period. Within each moiety are significant animals, plants, or places, which are of a highly religious nature. Each person, as well as belonging to one or the other moiety, is also connected to one or more of these subjects, called "totems". Sometimes moieties are further divided into sections or subsections.
  3. The social structuring - relationships between people – the kinship system. The kinship system allows each person in Aboriginal society to be named in relation to one another. This is seen when a non Aboriginal person goes to live in an Aboriginal community, and proudly tells their friends that they have been adopted by the group, being called a "mother/father", "daughter/son" or "brother/sister" to someone. When Aborigines accept an outsider into their group, they have to name that person in relation to themselves, to allow that person to fit into their society. This is because they need to have in their own minds the kinship relation of that person to themselves, and that person must have a defined social position.

    The value of a kinship system is that it structures people's relationships, obligations and behaviour towards each other, and this in turn defines such matters as, who will look after children if a parent dies, who can marry whom, who is responsible for another person's debts or misdeeds, and who will care for the sick and old.

    The kinship system allows individual naming for up to 70 relationship terms in some tribes. That is, far more than the European terms "father/mother", "grandfather/grandmother", "uncle/aunt" etc. It is also the system where brothers of one's father are also called, in one sense, "father", and cousins may be called "brother" or "sister". A person knows, of course, who their real mother and father are, but under kinship laws, they may have similar family obligations to their aunts and uncles, the same as they would to their mother and father, and this is reciprocated. The common terms of endearment amongst modern urban Aborigines, "brother" or "sister", used when talking to people, are derived from these kinship terms and associations.

These groups are further described

  1. Tribes or "nations". In Australia, tribes are really "language groups", made up of people sharing the same language, customs, and general laws. The people of a tribe share a common bond and in their own language, their word for "man" is often the word used for the name of the tribe. For example, in Arnhem Land, people are called "Yolgnu" when they are from the Yolgnu tribe, and this is the Yolgnu name for "man". People from another tribe are outsiders. Because a tribe is like a small country with its own language, some tribal groups also use the term "nation" to describe themselves, such as the Larrakeyah tribe around Darwin calling itself the "Larrakeyah Nation".

    Tribes were generally not a war- making group, they were not led by a chief, and people generally use their moiety or clan name to describe themselves individually, rather than their tribal name. There were an estimated 500 Aboriginal tribes in Australia at the time of European settlement. Of these, about 400 still have people representing them, and in central and much of northern Australia, these tribes are largely intact.

  2. Moieties. Throughout Australia the moiety system divides all the members of a tribe into two groups, based on a connection with certain animals, plants, or other aspects of their environment. A person is born into one or other group and this does not change throughout their life. A person belonging to one moiety has to marry aStone piles representing two moieties. Photo: David M. Welch. person of the opposite moiety. This is called an "exogamous" system, meaning that marriage has to be external to the group. For example, in the northern Kimberley, the two moieties are represented by the two birds, Wodoi the Spotted Nightjar, and Djungun the Owlet Nightjar, who fought in Lalai, the Dreamtime. Wodoi is associated with certain plants such as the edible Cabbage Palm (Livistinia species) and the Kandiwal tree used to make spear throwers. Djungun is associated with the Baler Shell, Rock Cod, Flying Fox and Corella.

    Two stone piles in the photo represent the leaders of these two northern Kimberley moieties, Wodoi and Djungun, Ancestral Beings to the Ngarinyin people. Dicky Wudmurra, far left, explains the legend of how these two ancestors fought each other at this important sacred site.

    A person belonging to one moiety has to marry a person of the opposite moiety. This is called an "exogamous" system, meaning that marriage has to be external to the group.

  3. Sections and subsections (sub-classes or "skins"). Most tribes in central and northern Australia also divide people further, into either four groups or eight groups, based on their relation to one another. These divisions can be described as "sections" when there are four, and "subsections" when there are eight groups.

  4. Totemic groups. A totem is an animal, plant or other object believed to be ancestrally related to a person. In the Kimberley example above, people belonging to the Wodoi moiety call the Spotted Night Jar their father. But they will also have other animal or plant associates. For example, Jack Karadada, a Kimberley elder, is named after his totem, the Butcher Bird ("Karadada" in local language). A totem can be represented in nature in the form of a large rock, tree, hill, river, or other landform.  It may have a man made emblem such as when a wooden pole, ceremonial board or other decorated object represents it. Much of Aboriginal art is connected with the imagery of totems.

  5. Clans. The clan is an important unit in Aboriginal society, having its own name and territory, and is the land-owning unit. A clan is a group of about 40-50 people with a common territory and totems, and having their own group name. It consists of groups of extended families. Generally, men born into the clan remain in the clan territory. This is called a patrilineal group.

    Not all members of a clan live on the clan territory. The sisters and daughters of one clan go to live on their husbands' clan territory, if that is the tradition for that tribe.  Although a clan has its own territory, members of one clan will live with another, for the wives of the clansmen have come from clans of the opposite moiety. One can think of this in European terms as if a woman marries a man, but does not change her surname to his. If her surname were her clan name, then despite marrying a man from another clan, her clan name remains and she still belongs to the clan of her father.

  6. Hordes or bands. A horde is an economic group, consisting of a number of families who might band together for hunting and food gathering. It is a term for this group of people, seen through the eyes of non-Aboriginal observers. A horde is not a distinct group in the minds of Aborigines, who more regard themselves as belonging to a particular clan, totemic group, or skin name (section or subsection kinship group). Different members of these groups may be contained within the horde. At the main camp, the horde separates into family groups who each have their own camp fire and cook and eat separately, but who may share food between families.

  7. Families. A family group can be quite large, consisting of a man and his wives, the children from each wife, and sometimes his parents or in-laws. A man often has from two to four wives, ranging from one to more than ten. Nowadays, most men have just one wife.

The Mother in law rule / The ban on speaking to one's mother in law.

Aboriginal custom all over Australia bans a person from talking directly to their mother in law. This rule applies to both men and women talking to their mother in law. Perhaps this rule was developed to overcome such a common cause of friction in families, when a husband or wife has to endure many years of disagreement or argument from their mother in law! To allow this rule to work, communication took place via a third person. So, if you wanted your mother in law to do something for you, you might ask your spouse or another person: "Please ask your mother (so and so) to do (so and so) for me". When food was divided and shared around campfires, a mother in law had a small fire of her own separate to her son in law or daughter in law and their spouse. Her own daughter or son would chat and bring over some of the meat, or perhaps a grandchild would sit with her and act as messenger between herself and her daughter or son's partner.