The encounters between the crew of the Endeavour and Indigenous Australians saw a collision of cultures. The ways of knowing and being—connection between place and people—in the culture and kinship systems of Indigenous Australians are at the heart of those colliding worlds.

Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders are two distinct and separate cultural groups. In turn, these groups are made up of hundreds of different cultural and language groups. However, there are certain cultural beliefs and practices that are common to both cultural groups and which continue to underpin ways of knowing and living today.

Lore and law

Australia before European colonisation was neither uninhabited nor lawless. Over the thousands of years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations coexisted across the country in accordance with complex cultural practices, traditional law and a unique relationship with the land and sea.

Traditional law, or ‘lore’, are the rules and behavioural norms surrounding appropriate behaviour. These include rules around homicide, abduction, assault, incest, adultery, sacrilege and the violation of one’s responsibilities. Any conflicts between members of a community and traditional law were handled by that community’s elders—the most senior people or those with cultural status in their community.

British settlers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations often came into conflict, in particular during the early years of settlement.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations were practicing their lore and culture for thousands of years before European arrival and expected that the British would respect the existing lore of the land. However, the British colonial authorities established courts in Australia and instead expected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to follow the new British laws.

Today, there is greater understanding among Australians about the differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lore and customs and non-Indigenous laws and customs. 

Lore and country

There is also broader understanding and appreciation today of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rich connection to Country. Land and sea is of great significance to First Nations people and communities. It is integral to language and culture. Indeed, the living environment of the land and sea and its connection to people and communities goes beyond a sense of physical place. Connection to Country is also spiritual and is central to individual identity.

The term ‘Country’ encompasses not just a place, but also an interdependent relationship between a person and their ancestral lands and seas. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, the relationship between people and country is viewed as reciprocal, with people having responsibility to care for their environment. For this reason, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are often referred to as traditional custodians.

Connection to Country includes the sense of being in touch with one’s history and stories. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have a strong tradition of storytelling. Understanding the environment is as much about knowing stories of that environment as it is about knowing which plants to eat and where to hunt. These stories include how the world was formed, the meanings of the constellations in the sky and the songlines that tell of great journeys and moments in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. In this way, knowing the stories of Country, provide more than knowledge of place and environment and are central to individual identity.

Kinship and communication

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship is a complex system that underpins all social interaction. A person’s place within the kinship system establishes their relationship to others and to the world. It determines their responsibilities towards other people, towards the land and towards natural resources.

Kinship is founded on moiety, totems and skin names. Here is what each of these terms mean.

  • According to moiety, everything is split in half, including people and their environment. To understand the world, these halves must come together to form a whole. This means moiety influences who a person can marry and how they might interact with others.It is possible to have the same moiety as someone else. In this case, you are considered siblings within the kinship structure. This means you have a responsibility to support one another.
  • Totems link a person to the physical world: to land, water, animals and geographical markers. An individual totem will recognise personal strength or weakness and must be safeguarded by that person to be passed on to future generations. Each person is given at least four totems: one for themselves alone, one for family, one for clan and one for nation.
  • Skin names work similarly to surnames within the kinship system. They denote how people are connected and how they must therefore interact. Unlike surnames, however, a child will not have the same skin name as their parents, with skin names being given according to a naming cycle. 

The kinship system is used throughout Australia, with each tribe, nation and language having its own network of kinship that guides individuals in their interactions with other people both within and beyond their groups. It provides people with order and purpose. In this sense, kinship pervades every aspect of social organisation and structure.

Kinship typically sees each member of a group sorted into categories with tribe-specific names. Qualifying names are given to relatives-in-law and blood relatives, such as ‘aunty’. Husbands and wives are classified as being one another’s kin. Kinship also guides behaviour, with a person’s place within the system determining which relatives they can talk to and which ones they cannot speak with directly, out of respect.

Kinship behaviour includes playing tricks on or teasing certain relatives—a behaviour predominantly found in grandmother-grandchild relationships. Kinship rules also govern customs for gift-giving, dancing, ceremonies, hunting parties and camp layout.

Understanding and appreciating kinship systems is valuable for all Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have a long history of deep connection and a sense of belonging. Certain aspects and attitudes of Indigenous kinship systems could be of value for providing a stronger sense of connection with people and country in broader Australian society.

Use of land and food

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s worldview and connection to Country have long made them skilled at managing land and water and keeping the Australian continent healthy. In turn, the land, seas and waterways have provided sustenance and become an integral part of societies, traditions and livelihoods.

Indigenous Australians have long used traditional burning, fishing traps, as well as sowing and storing plants in order to provide themselves with food. Existing land formations and natural vegetation has also been used to provide shelter. These techniques of acquiring food and shelter were sustainable for thousands of years, especially because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities did not take more from the land and water than they needed.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, however, they attempted to implement European farming practices, resulting in long-term changes to the environment. This environmental change and degradation has in turn threatened the continuation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and customs. This is because when a creek runs dry due to a dam upriver, for example, it is no longer possible to practice fishing there.

While many European accounts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land management have been lost, Australians are increasingly recognising—with the help of remaining documents and accounts—that Indigenous Australians had sophisticated and sustainable cultural practices. The stereotype of hunter-gatherers is not entirely true; rather, there is evidence that many groups rotated and managed crops, developing intricate agriculture and aquaculture across the continent.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities have had thousands of years of experience living in Australia. Their knowledge, expertise and innovations are important today to help preserve the health and the prosperity of this country.