Aboriginal people have complex social and marriage laws, based on the grouping of people with their society. The social fabric of Aboriginal society is maintained in the remote parts of central and northern Australia, and the present tense is used to describe these features.

In order to understand the complexities of Australian Aboriginal social organisation, it can be considered as having three parts:

  • physical or geographic structuring.
  • religious and totemic structuring.
  • social structuring.

The physical or geographic structuring of society
This is based on physical numbers of people and the land on which they live. The smallest physical group is the family. Several families may band together for food gathering, forming a band or horde of about ten to twenty individuals. The members of a group who all speak the same language can be considered a tribe or language group, and each tribe belongs to a specific tribal land. At the time of European colonisation, the number of individuals in a tribe ranged from about 400 to 600 with an average of about 450.

The boundaries between tribes are sometimes reasonably well-defined by rivers, creeks, hills and mountain ranges. At other times they are poorly-defined, with areas that are mutually shared between neighbouring tribes. Sometimes the boundary is disputed and members of neighbouring tribes are antagonistic towards each other. Disputes over boundaries have led to murders even within the past few decades.

Hordes hunt and gather food within their tribal boundaries, but also travel onto the lands of surrounding friendly tribes. Members of neighbouring tribes trade with each other.

Aboriginal people have always been multilingual, knowing the languages spoken by their neighbours. Neighbouring languages have many words in common, but as one moves further and further from one’s own tribe, it become increasingly difficult to understand the language spoken by the people of distant tribes.

The religious and totemic structuring of society

Under this arrangement, people belong to groups which have emblematic and religious leaders, referred to as totems (Totemic Beings). Because people regard these totems as their ancestors, they are also referred to as Ancestral Beings.

The number of different groups in a region varies throughout Australia. When people divide themselves into two main groups, these are called moieties. When they divide themselves into four groups, they are referred to as sections. When they are divided into eight or more groups, they are called subsections.

In the central and northern Kimberley, for example, people divide themselves into two groups led by two birds: Wodoi (the spotted nightjar) and Djungun (the owlet nightjar). These are represented by two stone piles at an important religious centre where the two bird-men are believed to have fought each other during the Dreamtime.

Two stone piles represent Wodoi and Djungun

Two stone piles represent Wodoi and Djungun, leaders of the two Kimberley moieties, who are 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.
Photo: David M. Welh 1989

When people divide themselves into sections (four) and subsections (eight or more), these groups are what Aboriginal people refer to as their “skin”. The name of the group to which a person belongs is their skin name. This might be the name of an animal, plant, or inanimate object, and each person has a special religious connection with the totem or totems within their group. People are born into these groups, assigned by their parents at birth, and remain in the same group throughout life.

Under Aboriginal law, a person cannot marry someone else from within their group. This custom, where a person has to marry outside their group, is called exogamy.

Skin names are often shared across tribal boundaries, and these form part of the Aboriginal kinship system, where distant people form bonds and relationships with each other.

Another function of the religious and totemic structuring of Aboriginal society is that it defines the system of land ownership. In the past, people did not regard themselves as owning the land, and the land-owning unit was not the tribe. Instead, people regarded themselves as belonging to the land, and it was the Ancestral Beings who held control over the land.

Where tradition is strong, people have a duty to maintain the integrity of their Ancestral Beings and the sites belonging to these beings. Ancestral Beings often live within the landscape, where paintings, engravings, trees, rocks and hills are the embodiment of those deities. Members of a group responsible for a particular Ancestral Being regularly visit the associated sacred sites and perform certain rituals, chanting, singing, rubbing stones together, and sometimes burning the surrounding land to “tidy it up”. In the Kimberley of Western Australia, they repaint their weathered Wandjina deities.

The members of each group associated with a particular Ancestral Being or totem are said to belong to a clan. Their senior person is described as the clan leader. The land over which they hold jurisdiction is referred to as their clan estate, and this is the basic unit of land ownership in Aboriginal society.

The social structuring of society
The social structuring of Aboriginal society defines the relationships between people based on their age and birth.
Boys and girls undergo a series of ordeals leading to their acceptance as adults within their society. The ordeals vary across the country and include body mutilations such as cuts to the skin (cicatrices), having one or two teeth knocked out, circumcision, sub-incision, introcision, and the amputation of a finger (for girls in the Darwin and Sydney regions). Adolescents are taught the sacred knowledge, and this process of ordeal and learning constitutes a person’s initiation towards becoming a full adult member of their tribe.

The leaders of society are the elders – the most senior men and women who are respected by others. Important decisions are made by a council of elders, which include clan leaders and the most respected elders of the tribe. Australian tribes were not ruled by chiefs, but they had senior men who might be regarded as the best warrior, the best spear-maker, a medicine man, or being particularly wise.

Aboriginal society has separate names for up to seventy family relationship terms in some tribes. That is, far more than the European terms “father/mother”, “grandfather/grandmother”, “uncle/aunt” etc. Under their family and society rules, people have obligations towards certain relatives, and these obligations are reciprocated.

For example, amongst many tribes, a man has an obligation to care for his brother’s children – his nieces and nephews, more so than his own children. This is why Aboriginal people sometimes refer to their uncle as their “father” and their uncle’s children as their “brothers” or “sisters”. A person knows, of course, who their real mother and father are, but under these societal (kinship) laws, other family members have equal importance. 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.

The kinship system
The family obligations and the spiritual sharing of totems and Ancestral Beings constitute what is called the kinship system. The value of the kinship system is that it structures people’s relationships, obligations and behaviours 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 each person in Aboriginal society to be named or regarded in relation to one another, through either their family genetics or by applying their totemic ancestry and their moiety, section or subsection.
When Aboriginal people 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. They need to have in their minds the kinship relation of that person to themselves, and that person must have a defined social position. Thus, when a non-Aboriginal person goes to live in an Aboriginal community, they proudly tell their friends that they have been adopted by the group, being called a “mother/father”, “daughter/son” or “brother/sister” to someone.

The ban on speaking with one’s mother-in-law
One of the rules under the kinship system is an Aboriginal custom, present throughout Australia, which bans a person from talking directly to their mother-in-law, and vice versa. 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.

More about tribes
In Australia, tribes are really language groups, made up of people sharing the same language, customs, and general laws. 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”.    
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.

Tribes were generally not a war-making group, they were not led by a chief, and people generally use their moiety or skin 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 much of central and northern Australia, these tribes are largely intact.

More about totemic groups
A totem is an animal, plant or other object believed to be ancestrally related to a person. In the Kimberley for example, people belonging to the Wodoi moiety call the spotted nightjar their “father”. Then there are other animal and 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 totemic animals and plants.

More about 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, section or subsection. 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.

More about hordes or bands
The 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 regard themselves more 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.

More about 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. In the past, a man often had from two to four wives, ranging from one to more than ten. Nowadays, men generally have just one wife.