Indigenous Australians: Kinship and Skin Names

It is interesting I had never heard of skin names until I spoke with two indigenous women in Canteen Creek when I was teaching there. I was fortunate to spend the night learning. I didn’t fully understand their kinship system but I realised they had a structure to their culture that few anglo/europeans know. I was never taught about this.

Kinship and skin names

The kinship system is a feature of Aboriginal social organisation and family relationships across Central Australia. It is a complex system that determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land.

The kinship system determines who marries who, ceremonial relationships, funeral roles and behaviour patterns with other kin.
Today the number of ‘wrong skin’ marriages is increasing, and families are attempting to accommodate the contradictions.

However, there are some rules which are adhered to, in particular certain ‘avoidance relationships’, especially that between a mother-in-law and a son-in-law.

This relationship requires a social distance, such that they may not be able to be in the same room or car. Be sensitive to the signals that alert one to this situation, for example being told that there is ‘no room’ in a car or a building when there appears to be sufficient ‘space’.

Aspects of this system of social organisation differ between regions.

This is seen in the so-called ‘skin system’, a method of subdividing the society into named categories which are related to one another through the kinship system.

A moiety system (i.e. division into two groups: ‘sun side’ and ‘shade side’) exists across the region. Most language groups also use a section or subsection system with either four to eight ‘skin names’. 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.

Alternatively, the Pitjantjatjara , for example, are classified into moiety groups – ngana nt arka (lit. we-bone) ‘our side’, and tjanamilytjan (lit. they flesh) ‘their side’ (Goddard 1996) – but don’t use skin names.

You will notice in the chart below that the same skin names are spelt differently across different languages and dialects, eg. Warlpiri, Warumungu, Pintupi-Luritja and Pintupi.

This is simply because different symbols have been used in the different languages for writing particular sounds. So the spellings for skin names varies according to the region. If you are writing skin names, try to use the standardised spellings for the area concerned.

Notice that the skin names starting with the letter J (in Warlpiri) or Tj (in Western Desert dialects) denote males, and those starting with N denote females. These skin names can be used as personal identifiers like a first name in English. Skin names can also be used to refer to someone who is absent and whose identity is understood by the context.

Aboriginal people may have a number of names. For example, a European first name and surname, a bush name, a skin name and maybe even a nickname. Personal names are used less than by English speakers and people are often referred to indirectly or by reference to their skin names, for example ‘that Nangala’ (see Turpin 2000). In some community institutions such as clinics, skin names have been used in a manner similar to a surname. This can be a source of confusion if a range of ad hoc spellings is used.

Early contact relationships with non-Aboriginal people were ‘rather uncomfortable for Aboriginal people since it was unheard of for a person not to be ‘something’ (ie not to have a skin classification).

Thus the practice emerged of whites being given skin names. Some whites have mistakenly believed that this is a sign of acceptance by the people. It is truer to say that it is a mechanism Aboriginal people have employed to make their dealings with whites more comfortable for themselves, even though whites, through their ignorance, continually give offence under this system.

More recently, people have generally come to understand that whites have ‘nothing’ and are regarded as ‘free’ from any kinship commitments of the kind that govern Aboriginal society. (Heffernan and Heffernan 1999:160)

Mohandas Gandhi

“Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong”