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Understanding and celebrating ‘the unique belief systems that connect people physically and spiritually to Country/Place’ and examining ‘kinship structures’ add depth and richness to student learning across the Australian Curriculum learning areas. These key concepts form part of the cross-curriculum priority: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures.

Aboriginal lore was laid down in the Dreaming — the embodiment of Aboriginal creation, which gave meaning to everything and affects the relationships people have with their environment, each other and their totems.

It is important to recognise the diverse range of Aboriginal peoples throughout Australia and that each language group has their own unique spirituality, beliefs and lore.

Dr Tyson Yunkaporta, a Bama Aboriginal researcher, talks about positioning himself as ‘part of “a complex lived reality” within a paradigm he calls “relationally responsive research”,’ in which relationships among people, places and laws shape fundamental understandings about roles, responsibilities and ethics.
(Yunkaporta, cited in Jeannie Bell, 2013, ‘The persistence of Aboriginal kinship and marriage rules in Australia: Adapting traditional ways into modern practices’, Journal of the European Association for Studies of Australia, vol.4, no.1, p. 66.)

Kinship systems

Kinship rights and obligations apply to land ownership, rights and roles, and also regulate social relationships.

A person’s kinship position determines who they may marry and who they may have daily interactions with, such as who they can share a joke with. Kinship may also specify some people to avoid having any personal contact with; for example, in some Aboriginal communities the son-in-law is forbidden to speak to his mother-in-law directly.

In nearly all Aboriginal societies, the importance of sibling relationships extends across generations. There is often great attachment in the relationship between a man and his father's sister. Generally, the mother's brother and father's sister have special obligations and responsibilities. They may, for example, have an important role in the initiation rituals of their brother's son or daughter, or sister's son or daughter.


In some communities Aboriginal peoples may have several totems that come from animals, plants, landscape features and the weather. People have special responsibilities to their totems, and ensure their survival by protecting them in various ways.

Those who share the same totem have a special relationship with each other. Knowing a person’s totem helps understand a person’s relationship to the language group and to other people.

As an example, here is a brief description of the approach to totems among the Gamilaraay people, whose Country is in the New England area of NSW.

Generally, the birth totem would come from the mother or father through a spiritual sign linked directly to the spirit of the ancestor that the totem represents. For example, a goanna may cross the mother’s path late in her pregnancy. The child is then seen as linked to the Goanna Dreaming or the ancestor Uudinaddalli, and has a special relationship with the goanna and with the physical location where the mother saw the sign.

Other totems may also be given, dependent upon the mother or father’s language group, totems or kinship ties, and the area in which they belong.

Knowledge keepers

Specific people are entrusted to keep knowledge, sometimes referred to as Dreamings. For example, Warlpiri (Central Australia, near Alice Springs) obligations for land ownership give certain groups or individuals rights of representation of the particular Dreaming connected with specific tracts of Country. This can be represented as visual art, oral narrative, song or dance.

These systems are designed to ensure the survival of specialised knowledge of all aspects of human existence, from zoology to astronomy to morality.


In seasons when food is short, some people are given preference over others for various types of foods, based on totems and kinship, as well as age and health.

Some foods have spiritual significance: these animals and plants need to be protected and are often not eaten or only eaten during ceremonies.

To demonstrate the significant differences between Aboriginal peoples: in some language groups, men and women eat meals separately; in some, food prepared by a man is not eaten by a woman and vice versa; in some groups, men do all the cooking, in others women do; in still other groups, women prepare some foods and men prepare others.

More information

  • Australians Together has a page explaining some key aspects of kinship.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has some explaining the connections Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples have with their totems, land, sea, sky and waterways .
  • Aboriginal kinship is an integral part of the Dreaming, as are people themselves and their land. Each person’s place in the kinship system also determines their rights and obligations with respect to other people, country and artistic expression. This in-depth essay, Friday Essay: land, kinship and ownership of ‘Dreamings, examines the relationships system of the Warlpiri people.
  • The Dreaming is not one story but many interconnected location-specific narratives. This link provides a deeper look into the complexities of oral and painted Dreaming narratives that are grounded in a particular location: Location, location, location: two contrasting Dreaming narratives
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