Monday, January 17, 2005

Kinship and masculinity

I was listening to Ted Egan, grand poobah of the Northern Territory on the radio tonight. He was commenting abut how we need as Australians to understand the first people's kinship system. As he put it, they could teach the kings and queens of Europe a thing or to about breeding" The kinship system gaurantees that even in the smallest bands they could ensure that in breeding did not occur. Although it's probably facile to discuss (s)kinship as being concerned with biology, it also dominates traditional thinking about psychology, sociology and ecology. In practical terms the consequences of kinship underlie the economic failure of many aboriginal people. In practical terms many indigenous people prefer the ties of kinship to economic success. The choice clearly depends on which you find the surer.

Geoff Bardon, 'Mr Patterns', in the recent documentary(ABC), talked about his relationship with men in Papunya during the 1970's when he was midwifing the birth of the Desert Art movement. He found the individual relationships he had with the Western Desert men to be profoundly moving and different from any others.
It's an experience that I've shared with him. Adult men are not individuals set against each other in traditional society. Even in a camp distant from your homeland, your place is defined by by sister or brother or mother or uncle. Someone will know exactly where you fit, because the system inherently acknowledges the 'small world' theory of networks.

What this means is that no matter what you do, your family will stand by you and this can be expected of your 'extended' family. It also means that you are expected to behave with a degree of circumspection and avoidance of conflict in the same way that you do in a family. Noongar women from the south west consider their sister's children to be their own and these children will call their maternal cousins, brother or sister, similarly, the word 'cousin' frequently refers to what English people call 2nd Cousins.

But in the traditional world there is not just one family. There are two families, that sit on either side of the fire. Each family provides the other with their spouses. Each side(or moiety) symbolically represents a dualism akin to the Taoist Yin Yang symbol. Symbolically, the crow and the eagle, the sun or shade side are refered to in the kin system.

This dualism in different places by a variety of sub divisions - often based upon intergenerational differences - so your grandfather, grandson are like your brothers and so on. This is at it's most elaborate in the Walpiri/Pintubi system where there are 8 subdivisions. Four within each of the two main family systems. Wife, wife's mother, children, mother, father, grandmother, wife's father,wife's mother. It looks a bit lopsided but the reasons is that there are four divisions on the maternal line and two on the male line. One needs to actually look at a diagram or live with people to fully understand the subtleties. This system spread to other neighbouring communities during the 20th Century.

The upshot of this system is that everyone and everything is related by a s(kin) name. The term 'skin' is used in the Northern Terrritory to refer to people's classification. This means that 1/8 of the world is your classificatory mother, 1/8 are your spouce, 1/8 is your mother-in-law or son-in-law and you must avoid any contact with them at all costs. We don't have equivalent words in English for the skin names, our best approxiamation is to use them as sirnames as in Alice Nampitjimpa, or Bob Tjampitjimpa or Fred Tjungarrayi or Mary Nakamarra. Alice and Bob are brother and sister. Fred is Mary's son.

Traditional people have a complex and subtle philosophy surrounding this basic description. But the most important thing to recognize is the consequence of our lack of 'skin' terms. They define an ontology, a way of thinking, that is different to most modern thinking. In social terms, kinship divides society vertically, somewhat like astrology, rather than horizontally in terms of class or caste. Although the Australian system makes a lot more sense than astrology, astrological signs and the meaning we invest in them suggests that this sort of vertical division makes some sort of fundamental sense to most people.

However, this is not the end of it, since kinship can also apply to a person and a particular animal or plant. This is not based upon the complexities of the desert skin system but on a perceived affinity between an individual and their particular totem. This is similar to the North American understanding of a totemic animal, often being ascribed at birth or early on in life by a significant elder based upon intuition and spritiual signs. People have a particular obligation towards their totemic spirit, usually they cannot eat their own totem and are responsible for it's increase Daisy Bates, wrote that after the Pinjarra massacre of 1834, many of the Murray River people died of hunger and grief, because it was a local tradition not to eat the totem of a recently deceased person. So many people had died that some people felt they could eat nothing.

Although this is a description based upon my own perspective. How the skin system is interpreted is different in every part of Australia not least because of the differing degrees of destruction of traditional society.

In the South West, the matrilineal terminology has remained largely intact, albeit in Aboriginal English, whereas the patrilineal system underwent a hiatus for several generations while English patrilineal sir names were adopted. Today, many Noongar are recovering from old geneologies the moieties and totems of their ancestors.

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