Aboriginal Kinship Systems

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

The Importance of Australian Aboriginal Kinship Systems

Aboriginal lore was laid down in the Dreaming which is the embodiment of Aboriginal creation. The Dreaming gives meaning to everything and affects the relationships people have with the land, their environment, each other and their totems. AboriginalAustralia was the original multicultural country with over 500 separate nations each with its own language, beliefs, spirituality and lore. There were overlaps and common themes, but it is important to recognise the diverse range of Aboriginal peoples throughout Australia.

Kinship is at the heart of Indigenous society. An Aboriginal person’s position in the kinship system establishes their relationship to other people and to the universe, prescribing their response to other people, the land and to natural resources. Traditional kinship structures remain important in many Indigenous communities today.

When two indigenous Australians meet as strangers, one will say to the other, “Who’s your mob?” They are asking where do you come from, where do you belong and who are your family? This enables each to place the other and to learn what to expect. The kinship system is a feature of Aboriginal social organisation and determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations to one another, ceremonial business and land. The system also determines who marries whom.

There are three key words used in describing kinship: moiety, totems and skin names.

As part of our commitment to understanding and sharing our knowledge of the history, culture and landscapes of Australia it is recognised that an appreciation of indigenous activity is an important facet of our learnings on Odyssey Traveller small group tours for mature and senior travellers be they a couple or solo traveller in Australia. This article is part of a continuing series of pieces on art, ancient landscapes and Aboriginal settlement of Australia dating back some 120,000+ years ago.


Moiety- a divided system

According to moiety, everything is split in half. This includes each individual and the environment. It is a bit like yin-yang. Each half is the mirror of the other rather like the palm and back of the hand. To understand the whole universe, the two halves must come together to form the whole. Each nation and language has its own term for Moiety. For example, the Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land are either Dhuwa or Yirritja. To the Yolngu, ancestral beings assigned everything in the universe to either the Dhuwa or the Yirritja Moiety. For example, the black cockatoo is Dhuwa, while the white cockatoo is Yirritja. The two Moieties complement and balance each other in ceremonies, marriage, and daily life. A person’s moiety can be determined by their mother’s side (matrilineal) or their father’s side (patrilineal). The Pitjantjatjara are classified into moiety groups -‘our bones’ or ‘inside’ and ‘our flesh’ or ‘outside’, but they do not use skin names.

Understanding the Totem

Another foundation of kinship is the totem system. Each person is given at least four totems – their personal, family, clan and nation totem. Totems link a person to the physical universe: to land, water, geographical features and animals. Although family, clan and language group totems exist before a person is born, an individual totem will recognise personal weakness or strength or a particular circumstance. A nation totem is a natural object, plant or animal that is inherited by the large group members of a clan or family as their spiritual emblem. Totems define peoples’ roles and responsibilities, and their relationships with each other and creation.

Aboriginal mixed race family outside their home

Each clan family belonging to the group is responsible for the stewardship of their totem: the flora and fauna of their area as well as the stewardship of the sacred sites attached to their area. This stewardship consists not only of the management of the physical resources ensuring that they are not plundered to the point of extinction, but also the spiritual management of all the ceremonies necessary to ensure adequate rain and food resources at the change of each season. Cultural burning is a practice associated with stewardship. The land is burnt at prescribed times and in a prescribed way to protect that land, the resources on it and the people who rely on and care for both.

Two totems of the Kamilaroi or Gamilaroi nation (people of the Liverpool Plains – Narrabri, Gunnedah, Moree) are the eagle and the crow. Under the eagle the clan totems include ringtail possum, red kangaroo, quoll, wallaroo, platypus, quail, barking owl, emu, brolga and death adder. Under the crow totem the clan totems include brush-tailed possum, bandicoot, echidna, eastern grey kangaroo, pelican, white cockatoo and kookaburra. Personal totems are chosen by a special incident during pregnancy or birth and may include one of the above. Marriage laws in the Kamilaroi nation mean that one cannot marry within the same nation totem or within the same clan or family totem. Individuals are accountable to their totems and must ensure these totems are protected and passed on to future generations.

I worked with a man whose country was western Queensland and his totem was the water dragon. He loved visiting my home in regional NSW because there were water dragons along the river. He knew he would always be safe and welcomed there, and he would never hunt or eat water dragons. If a Wiradjuri man from along the Lachlan River with a totem of Birigun or red kangaroo travels to Queensland and enters strange country, once he announces his totem, that group will try to find someone with the same totem and will say, ‘There is your aunty or there is your uncle’. Instant family caused by the shared totem.

Skin names

Another foundation of kinship are skin names which work in a similar way to a surname. They inform how people are linked to one another and their obligations to one another. Unlike the system of using surnames, an individual will not have the same skin name as their parents, nor would a husband and wife share the same skin name. An individual gains a ‘skin name’ upon birth based on the skin names of his or her parents, to indicate the section/subsection that he/she belongs to. It is a sequential system based on the mother’s name (in a matrilineal system), or the father’s name (in a patrilineal system), and has a naming cycle. (See the chart below which applies to the Kamilaroi or Gamilaroi people).


MoietyFemale Marriage ClassMarries Male Marriage ClassChildren will belong to:
WudhurruuGabudhaaYibaayMarrii, Maadhaa
MaadhaaGambuuGabii, Gabudhaa
Yangu(r)uBuudhaaMarriiYibaay, Yibadhaa
YibadhaaGabiiGambu, Buudhaa

The people of each country will have a system of between eight and sixteen subsection groups specifying the determinants.

This knowledge was not written down nor put into charts, but ‘known’ by the elders or ‘knowledge keepers’ and was entirely oral.

The Lardil people of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria have eight subsection groups, shown here with some of their totems:

Skin Groupings TotemsMay marry only
subsection group
Children will be
BalyarrinyBlack tiger shark,
sea turtle
BangarinyBrown shark, turtleYakimarrNgarrijbalangi
BuranyiCrane, salt water,
sleeping turtle
BurrarangiLightning, rough sea,
black dingo
KamarrangiRock, pelican, brolga,
red dingo
grey shark
NgarrijbalangiRainbird, shooting star,
YakimarrSeagull, barramundi,
grey shark

This means that there are at least four generations before blood ceases to be ‘too close’ for marrying.

The dualities in the Kinship System also indicate where interactions should not occur. Once childhood passed relationships between actual brothers and sisters were often restricted and involved some form of avoidance. The most outstanding avoidance relationship was between a man and his actual or potential mother-in-law-not just his wife’s mother but all women and girls who were classified as “mother-in-law.” Such avoidance could be sitting apart, sitting with back to the other, not travelling in the same car. This is not out of rudeness, but out of respect for the lore.

Early contact relationships with non-Aboriginal people were very uncomfortable for Aboriginal people since it was unheard of for a person not to be ‘something’ (i.e. not to have a skin classification). Some non-Aboriginal were given skin names. Some non-Aboriginal people mistakenly believed that this is a sign of acceptance by the people. It is truer to say that it was a mechanism Aboriginal people employed to make their dealings with non-Aboriginal more comfortable for themselves, even though non-Aboriginal, through ignorance, continually gave offence under this system. More recently, people have generally come to understand that non-Aboriginal have ‘nothing’ and are regarded as ‘free’ from any kinship commitments of the kind that govern Aboriginal society. Aboriginal people today will often use the word ‘aunties’ to describe their mothers rather than try to explain the complex idea to us, but simple to them.

Kinship in the community is complicated.

This complex family structure with every member knowing his/her place shows why the stolen generations felt bereft and lost. It was not just losing a mother and a father, but generations of mothers and fathers and siblings. The ‘Stolen Generation’ is the term used to describe the children that were removed from their families from the early 1900s through implementation of Government policies. Aboriginal people refer to these children as “taken” or “stolen”. It is one of the most significant Government policies to impact on the Aboriginal community and its effects are still reverberating in the Aboriginal communitybecause not only did the family group lose members, but those individuals lost the whole kinship system that maintained their sense of being.

In addition to the issue of the ‘Stolen Generation’ there are also concerns for many Aboriginal children who experienced adoption or fostering practices. It has only been recently that Government policy has recognised the importance of placing Aboriginal children within their own community to keep them connected with their culture. Past Government policies have resulted in inappropriate placements with non-Indigenous families where their Aboriginal culture was largely ignored or misunderstood.

Another basic principle of this system in traditional societies is the equivalence of same-gender siblings. According to this principle, people who are of the same gender and belong to the same sibling line are viewed as essentially the same. Thus two brothers are considered to be equivalent. If one has a child, that child views not only his biological father as father but applies the same term to the father’s brother. The same principle applies to two sisters with both being mothers to any child either one bears. As a father’s brother is also identified as father, the latter’s children will be brothers and sisters, rather than cousins. There are no half-brother or half-sisters – they are just brothers and sisters. Several people are identified by an individual within each classification. Thus a person has several fathers, several mothers, and many brothers and sisters.

When speaking to, or about, another person in Aboriginal societies, the individual’s personal name is rarely used. A person is addressed by the appropriate relationship term, e.g. father, aunt, or older brother. Another person is referred to as so-and-so’s son or mother. The personal names are seen as essentially part of the individual and are used with discretion

Aboriginal kinship ties, values, beliefs, identity and language are maintained by the family. The continuance of Aboriginal societyis dependent on keeping Aboriginal families strong and healthy both physically and culturally.

“You will never be an only child. Here’s all your other brothers and sisters…You’ve got all these other mothers and fathers to support and teach you. That’s the strength of the system…That extended family take it really seriously and want to be engaged on that life.”  Dr Lynette Riley (Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi woman)

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

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