Website to help retain Indigenous kinship systems

3 March 2016

Sometimes they have elderly people who have some knowledge of the old systems, but a lot of the knowledge was lost in the 20th century.

The ANU has launched a new website mapping and explaining the Australian Indigenous kinship system that underpins Aboriginal society.

Chief Investigator Dr Patrick McConvell said the AustKin website, which maps kinship terms of more than 600 Indigenous groups, had the potential to help Indigenous communities regain lost knowledge of their kinship systems.

"Some of the communities, especially in the south, have lost the some of this cultural background and are very keen on getting it back," said Dr McConvell, from the ANU School of Literature Languages & Linguistics.

"Sometimes they have elderly people who have some knowledge of the old systems, but a lot of the knowledge was lost in the 20th century."

ANU Research Fellow and Ngaanyatjarra women of the Western Desert, Elizabeth Ellis, said the kinship system underpins roles and responsibilities within Indigenous culture as well as how people interact with each other.

"When non-Aboriginal people come to our communities, the main thing they can never understand is the kinship system," Ms Ellis said.

"Your kinship category is like a duty statement. In everyday life because you're an Aunty you have certain responsibilities towards a niece or nephew. It also dictates your role in ceremony.

"When you meet someone you can have a family relationship straight away.

"A lot of the way you speak is dictated by how you are related. When outsiders come into Aboriginal communities, there has to be an establishment of relationship.

"People won't speak to you unless they know you're in the right kinship category for them to speak to," she said.

Dr McConvell said the AustKin site, had the potential to help non-Aboriginal people or organisations in their dealings with Indigenous communities.

"If you go into an Aboriginal area you have to familiarise yourself with the kinship system, otherwise you won't get anywhere," he said.

Dr McConvell said he hoped the website would be used by schools and Indigenous language groups. AustKin has been six years in the making and supported by two ARC grants.