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How kinship structures have been adapted to allow continued descent of rights and interests in north-estern Victoria.

The data discussed within this paper were gathered in the course of my work as an anthropologist with Native Title Services Victoria and the analysis forms part of a presentation to the State of Victoria on behalf of the First Peoples of the Millewa/Mallee. Following anthropological convention, I do not provide names of the individuals or families that were the subject of my analysis. Nor do I discuss the specific language group identities of the region in anything but the most general terms. This is because language group identity in the region has become a highly significant aspect of identity for Aboriginal people in the native title era. Further, because of the legal and political ramifications of identifying (or not identifying) with a historical language group, the individuals and families with whom I worked might be unintentionally identified by a closer discussion of specific language group composition. My aim here is not to delegitimise language group identities but to present a more descriptive model for the region.

I first sought permission to write this paper in 2015 as I intended it to include the themes I developed during the course of my work on the region for the purposes of native title research. I feel strongly that, where possible, research developments that stem from native title research should be more broadly available as they are often the most extensive source of long-range ethnographic engagement with Aboriginal communities available to anthropologists and other academics focusing on the people of any particular region of Australia. Furthermore, I believe that it is important, where permission is given, that the voices of people, so long the focus of research, should be heard by the broader anthropological and academic community outside the boundaries of the native title legal context.

Owing to the interval between beginning the paper and publishing it, in 2017 I again sought and was granted permission from the group to publish. As in the first instance, this was done at a meeting of the whole claim group, at which copies of the completed draft were handed out and briefly discussed. I was, and remain, very grateful to the people of the region for allowing me to present this material and to contribute it to the field of anthropology (and related studies).

The primary data were collected over a two-year period using semi-structured interviews of varying lengths and field trips involving participant observation, and by attending and participating in native title claim group meetings. I have applied a constructivist approach to the analysis, building a descriptive model as it emerged from the data. My work as an anthropologist in native title in Victoria involves a detailed reading of the ethno-historical record, which is used, in concert with my contemporary field work, to provide context and clarity.

Precolonial society in north-western Victoria

Language-bounded models of Aboriginal societies have dominated native title research now for many years. One explanation of this lies in the convenience of imagining a group of people seminally defined by their language use who are confined by strict, unchanging boundaries that are widely recognised by other Aboriginal groups as 'traditional'. Most native title claims are proposed by claim groups emphasising a particular language group identity. These claims depend on anthropological, linguistic and historical analysis to assert, in the first instance, the existence of the claimed language as distinguishable from the other languages spoken within the given region. This allows for the proposition that the people speaking that language also possess socio-cultural practices linked specifically to the area and its associated language group identity.

Given such clear definitional boundaries, it is no surprise that this model, where applicable, has often resulted in successful native title determinations. However, while it is descriptive of many areas throughout Australia, I argue that it does not allow for the complexities involved in describing groups such as those along the central Murray riverine, where mutually intelligible dialects of the same language were no barrier to overarching social structures and shared cultural ceremonies and beliefs. Keeping in mind the successful description of Bardi and Jawi people as two language groups sharing the same 'society', (1) I argue similarly that the presence of multiple dialects within a heavily populated area such as the Murray River corridor is not, in and of itself, suggestive of multiple 'societies' such as in the concept used in native title methodology.

Accordingly, I propose a model in which the central Murray riverine groups formed a society through a patchwork of mutual responsibilities and recognition of commonality rather than one based on language commonality or difference. I argue further that the principle of mutual responsibility, respect for common regional identity and family-based group decision making has endured long after language and dialect differences have become functionally irrelevant. In my opinion, this approach provides a more realistic foundation upon which to build an analysis of how contemporary Aboriginal socio-cultural structures (such as Aboriginal kinship groups and families of polity; Burke 2010; Sutton 2003) carry on the functions of an older, precolonial cultural milieu. However, in order to elucidate these thoughts, I must first turn to the historical record of the central Murray riverine.

The ethno-historical record and cultural blocs

The positioning of the different tribal identities found in the historical record along the Murray River in the central Murray riverine has long been a cause of contention among Aboriginal people of the region and researchers of various disciplines. Whereas for much of south-western New South Wales there appears to have been a fairly uniform record of occupation by the Barkindji people, and related groups such as the Mauraura and the Keramin, the southern side of the Murray River appears in the historical record as holding multiple groups, for the most part adhering to a 'double no' naming system (see, for instance, Beveridge 1883; Smyth 1876:38; Curr 1887:452-3) in which the word for 'no' in the dialect spoken was doubled and used as an indicator of group identity. For instance, squatter Peter Beveridge recorded the groups between Lake Boga and the Mournpall Lakes as 'Boora Boora, Watty Watty, Waiky Waiky, Litchy Litchy, Yairy Yairy, and Darty Darty' (Beveridge 1861:14-24). Although the origins of this nomenclature are unknowable, I note that it is often the finer differences in largely homogenous populations that come to serve as markers of distinction. (2)

Importantly, when mapped out, the various geographical positions reported for each group identified in the historical record are contradictory and uniformly overlap portions, and in some cases the entire extent, of territories attributed to neighbouring groups. A number of reasons for these discrepancies are immediately apparent. In the first instance, those individuals engaged in recording the names and locations of the various groups were invariably unfamiliar with both the language and the customs of those they were observing and this made fertile ground for misunderstanding and misjudgment. In the second instance, the authors of early reports concerning the Aboriginal people of the region were, for the most part, amateur ethnographers who were either unaware or unmindful of the deeper meaning behind the ceremonial and cultural practices they were observing and largely unconcerned to understand the finer aspects of the social structures utilised by the broader society within which each of the local groups participated.

When we consider closely the data available from the early record and take into account the motivations, competencies and worldviews of the authors of that record, we can begin to understand the reasons for such a divergent historical record. The earliest recordings of Aboriginal individuals and communities in south-eastern Australia were made by white men imbued with all the colonial prejudices of their time; considering this, the record they left is fragmented, biased and unreliable.

Linguistic analysis of the various word lists left by these reporters appears to be equally confused and distorted. Again, it is important to understand how these word lists were collected and by whom. With some notable exceptions, (3) the word lists used by modern linguists to discern the relationship between one group and another and, indeed, one society and another, are lists of somewhere between 70 and 300 words (approximately), with no grammar or grammatical rules collected phonetically. Furthermore, they were collected largely by white men such as squatters, police or minor local officeholders who were untrained in either the study of culture or the study of language and who were acting on behalf of amateur ethnographers. The work of seminal early Australian ethnographers such as Smyth (1876), Mathews (1898a, 1900, 1903) and Howitt (1904) all bear testimony to the widespread nature of this practice.

The lack of clarity and reliability with regard to the linguistic record seems also to have been compounded by the tendency of early reporters to understand the different 'double no' identities of the groups within the region as wholly distinct 'language groups' or 'tribes' of people distinguished from one another by their own unique language. As a consequence of this, the true nature of the relationship between each of the languages and dialects used in the region remains unclear. For their part, linguists such as Blake (Blake and Dixon 1991; Blake and Reid 1998), Reid (1995), Dixon (1980, 2002) and Hercus (1986, 1992), who have focused upon the region, assert that the weight of evidence indicates that most of the groups within the study area spoke dialects of the western Kulin group of languages.

Significantly, archaeological evidence suggests that the region was possibly the most densely populated region of precolonial Australia and that the resources to hand from the rich riverine environment supported a proliferation of different, yet related, groups (Pardoe 1998; Radcliffe-Brown 1918:231). Indeed, while numerous, these groups occupied comparatively smaller territories in relation to those of people in more arid areas because their country could 'carry' more people. This appears to have led to a situation where groups were in relatively close contact with each other and were connected socially and spiritually by the Murray River, which likely dominated their physical and cultural worlds (Pardoe 1998).

The central Murray riverine society we find in the historical record appears to extend along the Murray River, bounded on the north by the Murray River itself from the vicinity of Mildura to beyond the South Australian border (correspondence from Cameron to Howitt, Balranald, 8 April 1882; correspondence from Loonus to Mathews, 5 August 1890; Curr 1886:566; Mathews 1896, 1898b), where the country is strongly associated with the Barkindji people. To the south, the historical record is again unclear but the references point to the groups of the central Murray riverine not extending beyond 40 miles south of the river along its breadth throughout the study area. The society found in the historical record is characterised structurally by patrifiliation, in which rights to, and on, country descend to a person through their biological or social father, and through its use of matrimoieties, in which ritual and ceremonial knowledge and obligations descend to a person through their mother (Howitt 1904).

If, as I argue here, neighbouring cultural blocs may be distinguished from each other by significant structural difference, then Curr's (1886:566) description of what he refers to as 'Bangerang' social organisation being patrifilial and utilising patrimoieties, rather than matrimoieties, suggests that the eastern extent of the central Murray riverine society, or cultural bloc, appears tentatively to extend to Gunbower. It is at Gunbower that Curr places the most western extent of the Bangerang (also, and more commonly, known as the Yorta Yorta) and this structural difference in social organisation at the macro scale implies differences in the descent pathways for rights to country and spiritual, ritual and ceremonial obligations and taboos. While there is no doubt that the Murray River environment promoted communication, trade and engagement between the people of the central and upper Murray River regions, in my opinion such a clear structural difference is indicative of two distinct societies rather than a local variation within one continuous society, or cultural bloc.

Although again not within the study area, the western extremity of the central Murray riverine society appears tentatively to be along the stretch of the Murray River where the river runs south into the South Australian Lakes region. From the fieldwork of the Berndts, it is understood that that part of the Murray River contained a series of sites where the Kukabrak would meet with the people of the central Murray (whom they called the Walkandi-woni, meaning approximately 'warm wind from the north-east') to engage in the exchange of trade goods, the arrangement of marriage partners and mutual engagement in religious ceremonies that extended common cycles of mythology downstream from the Walkandiwoni to the Kukabrak and then on to the Murray mouth (Berndt et al. 1993).

Kinship structure

The variation in socio-cultural norms and structures in precolonial Australia was never sufficient to create societies so vastly different as to not exhibit many common structural features. Accordingly, in order to progress to a discussion of the distinguishing features of the central Murray riverine society, we must first discuss some of the features of precolonial Aboriginal society that were common throughout the Australian continent.

Howitt and Fison's discussion of the two seminal structural features of Australian Aboriginal social organisation hint at a dynamism within socio-cultural systems that runs counter to the social-Darwinian theories of evolution so influential in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Far from a static and unchanging monolith, Howitt and Fison describe an underlying and necessary tension between the principle of exogamy within the structure of a moiety system and the pragmatic necessities of local estate groups living in relatively close proximity to one another, containing members of both moieties but with localised identities, rights and interests. In their words:
The former may be called its social aspect, the latter we may speak of
as its local and physical aspect. The two are co-existent and
conterminous; they cover and inter-penetrate each other, and yet the
classes of the one are distinct from the divisions of the other
excepting in rare cases to be mentioned by and by and are subject to
quite different organic laws. Let us for the sake of convenience call
the former the social organisation of the tribe, and the latter its
local organisation. Let us also (for convenience of distinction) call
the subdivisions of the former classes, and those of the latter clans.
(Howitt and Fison 1883:33)

I note here that modern anthropologists have come to understand 'class', as it is used above, as moiety and 'clan' as an estate group in the manner described by Stanner (1965). Notwithstanding this, in the above excerpt Howitt and Fison accurately describe the fundamentally binary nature of precolonial Aboriginal society. In the central Murray riverine, this was particularly true as moiety membership in concert with totemic association generally prescribed marriage choices for every individual within each landholding group throughout the society. Importantly, moiety relationships create a dialectic that affect's every aspect of social life within what Sutton has called 'classical' Aboriginal society.

Indeed, Cameron reported to Howitt (correspondence, Balranald, 8 April 1882) that the moieties Mukwara and Kilpara formed 'two exogamous and intermarrying classes' of what he called 'a considerable nation' within the central Murray region (Cameron 1885). Cameron's reporting is further supported by policeman George Loonus, who reported that a local Latji Latji man named Whorlong told him that 'the class names Kilpara and Mukwara extend into Victoria as far as Lake Hindmarsh & Tyrell and below Euston on both sides of the Hume [Murray River] into South Australia, Lake Lalbert' (correspondence from Loonus to Mathews, 5 August 1890).

Concerning the maternal line as a descent pathway for significant aspects of identity, Howitt (relying upon information supplied by JW Boultbee) noted that 'the child takes the class and totem names of its mother' (Howitt 1904:194). Furthermore, Howitt, referring to the people of the Murray-Darling junction as the Wiimbaio, also notes that the 'series of two-class tribes which extend up the Murray River from Wiimbaio have been described by Mr ALP Cameron, who says that any totem of Mukwara among the Tatathi [Tati Tati] and Keramin may marry any totem of Kilpara and Vice-versa, and descent is in the female line' (Howitt 1904:195).

Indeed, Cameron also noted that the Kilpara/Mukwara moiety structure was common in the region and that this, along with other similarities of culture and custom, indicated to him that the groups of the central Murray riverine were components of a larger grouping rather than distinct, yet neighbouring, societies in their own right (correspondence from Cameron to Howitt, Balranald, 8 April 1882). Along with moieties, totemic associations formed an integral part of this patchwork of mutual responsibilities and recognition. As Howitt and Fison (1883:33) note, Aboriginal society wove a fine web of moietal and totemic relationships, yet within this web resided a more intimate kinship structure that, while bounded (or made formal) by moieties and totemic associations, remained chiefly an expression of family structures and the close familial relationships of people who survive by co-operation and mutual dependence.

I argue that Howitt and Fison's assertion of the tension between local and society-wide organisation is a valid one. Indeed, their further assertion that localised exigencies tended to become the driving force for structural change in local organisation among precolonial Aboriginal groups also rings true. The notion of structural change being led by local context and contingencies is not a novel one yet it is seminal to understanding the way in which these more classical structures described by the likes of Howitt and Fison have adapted in response to change over the past two centuries without losing their cultural coherence.

Classically, the moieties were the broadest kinship categories and they divided precolonial Aboriginal society in the region into (socially) binary opposites. This binary system represented the first line of division between who may marry and who may not. As with the Bunjil/Waa distinction in central Victoria, the Mukwara/Kilpara distinction ensured Mukwara must marry Kilpara and vice versa. Below this, the binary system was then divided into sections, commonly utilising either four or eight sections in south-eastern Australia. As Cameron, the only author to have given an account of the kinship system in the region, notes (with the possible exception of the Tati Tati, whom he thought may adhere more to the eight-section system of the Barkindji), the groups of the region 'were divided into four classes, viz., Ipai, Kumbo, Murri, and Kubbi; the female equivalents were: Ipatha, Butha, Matha, and Kubitha' (Cameron 1899:218). By way of explaining how this system informed 'right' marriage practices, Cameron (1899:218) further noted, As a general rule Ipai marries Matha and the child is Kubbi; Kumbo marries Kubatha and the child is Murri; Kubbi marries Butha and the child is Ipai; and Murri marries Ipatha, the child being Kumbo.'

In a filial society such as this, rights and interests to, and on, country, spiritual and totemic associations, the reckoning of duties and obligations, ceremonial action, and decisions regarding trade, travel or marriage descend through one's socially recognised parents (some paternally, some maternally). Indeed, this system of kinship would have, as it does today in many areas of Australia, extended to all acquaintances, whether family or not. A good example of this is the way in which non-Aboriginal people working for lengthy periods on remote area communities are often given skin names. This allows the people of those communities to incorporate unrelated individuals within the life of the community using existing appropriate relationship categories. Commonly, a non-Aboriginal person might be referred to as someone's brother, sister, daughter or son but this is usually an expression of a structural relationship rather than a filial one. In this way, all social actors were brought into the system and categorised in known and regulated relationships.

Due to the dearth of information concerning the exact make-up of the kinship section system in north-western Victoria, arguments concerning how many sections were in use are moot. What is clear is that each person within the area was engaged in, and defined by, the kinship system as it was configured in the precolonial era, albeit differently in different contexts. Thus the normative role of kinship relations, along with the mitigating effect of local context on the stabilising influence of the social structure and the jural nature of groups within the moiety system, emerges as a fundamental aspect of the precolonial central Murray riverine society that remained intact during the period of first contact. The question now becomes, given the destructive changes experienced by the Aboriginal people of the region in the intervening years, do these fundamental characteristics remain intact in the modern era?

Forced change and social adaptation

Just as the period from first contact in the 1830s to the 1880s was a traumatic one for the Aboriginal people of the region, the period between the 1880s and the 1960s was equally traumatic as it saw the institutionalisation of Aboriginal people in Victoria and the systematic removal of many communities from the country they are so uniquely and closely connected to. To give some idea of the scale of change endured by these communities, one only has to consider the extent of depopulation that occurred throughout the region and the effects this must have had on social structures that had persisted for thousands of years.

There is little doubt that the region was (and remains) abundant in natural resources that were easily accessible to Aboriginal people. Indeed, Radcliffe-Brown (1918:231) opined that this area was the most favourable of the continent for exploitation by Aboriginal people and inferred that this was possibly the most densely populated region of precolonial Australia. Accordingly, speculation concerning the precolonial population of the region has consistently favoured a dense population demarcated into many small groups (possibly clan or estate groups) differentiated by finer differences than may have been the case elsewhere in south-eastern Australia (Pardoe 1998).

Tellingly, in 1854, approximately 20 years after the first significant incursions into the region by British colonists, missionary Thomas Goodwin (1854, in Massola 1970:14) recorded six tribes within a distance of approximately 300 miles 'between the junction of the Murrumbidgee with the Murray, and the South Australian boundary' numbering between 100 to 250 individuals. Yet these numbers must have represented a disastrous decline in a previously stable regional population that numbered at least in the thousands along the Murray River from Gunbower downstream to the South Australian border. Later commentators such as Smyth indicate that this decline in population continued apace throughout the following years and by 1876 he estimated the Aboriginal population of Victoria to be approximately 1788 people (Smyth 1876:44).

As was attested to by Smyth, disease was a major factor in the tragic loss of life among the Aboriginal groups of the region, particularly in 1876, the year his major work was published. As he recounted, 'an epidemic of measles carried off a large number of natives both in Victoria and in the colony of South Australia during the early part of the year 1876' (Smyth 1876:45). Still later, commentators like Massola (1970:11) acknowledged that although disease was a real factor in the death rate among the Aboriginal people of the region, 'bullets, poison and starvation' also played a major part.

In addition to the attrition caused by massacre, disease, and loss of access to land and resources, Aboriginal people were the subject of removal to various mission stations throughout Victoria, where their lives were controlled to a great extent by the state and where they were forced to subsist on handouts that were a poor compensation for the rich environmental resources they had previously enjoyed by right of ownership. While this is a subject too complex to deal with here, I raise it briefly to highlight the role that the colonial government of Victoria played in the disruption of Aboriginal lives in north-western Victoria beyond the realities of massacre and disease already noted above.

Importantly, this rapid depopulation had an indelible and enduring effect on the lives of the people of the region. In order for their cultural and social identity to survive, the Aboriginal groups of the central Murray riverine were forced to adapt their socio-cultural systems (what we might otherwise call laws and customs) to new circumstances and to new contingencies. These socio-cultural systems, which had evolved over thousands of years in a context made stable by the river-fed environment, were deeply altered by British colonisation and the massively destructive forces that came with it.

However, it is possible to make the case that the socio-cultural systems of the precolonial central Murray riverine society have maintained their fundamental logic in the face of massive and destructive change. It is the Murray River itself that provides the fundamental context for this argument. Both the historical record and the oral traditions of the people of the region suggest they maintained their connection with the Murray River and its environs. Indeed, many of the Aboriginal people who survived the period of first contact and the subsequent period of colonial expansion either stayed within the region, forming new communities along the river, or maintained connections of family and identity with those communities. It is from those newer communities that the current aggregations of Aboriginal people in north-western Victoria have emerged.

As history records, Aboriginal people dispossessed by British colonial expansion formed communities, many of which existed along the banks of the river. These communities were made viable in the new colonial context by their residents' access to a combination of traditional riverine resources and semi-permanent and seasonal employment on the squatter stations that appeared throughout the landscape. Additionally, as these stations encouraged more and more Europeans to enter the region, Aboriginal people formed communities on the outskirts of the towns and the regional centres (such as Swan Hill, Robinvale, Euston, Mildura, Merbein and Wentworth) that consequently sprang up. This is unremarkable when we consider that the first colonial settlements in Australia were invariably on resource-rich and accessible land formerly occupied by Aboriginal people.

In the second instance, the ethno-historical record points to an increased mobility, particularly between the central and lower regions of the Murray River, during the period of first contact and the subsequent period of colonial expansion. While the reports concerning the pre-contact era point to a structured and formalised system of communication, travel and exchange between the two regions, the oral evidence of Elders in the region indicates that travel up and down the river became a much more frequent occurrence in the post-contact era when people were obliged to travel for work and to seek out other Aboriginal people for marriage, ceremony and community. Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that people formed new groups along the lines of cultural compatibility, which coalesced into viable communities within which they continued to live and utilise their regional identities before, during and after the assimilationist period.

What is truly interesting about the movement of people within the region is that, even during the time of depopulation, they maintained a regional cultural identity and were not subsumed by the identities of the neighbouring, yet culturally different, groups. By this I mean that, if we take the people of the central Murray riverine as being of one overarching cultural bloc, we can see that they were not incorporated into the people of the societies to the north, the south or the west of the central Murray riverine. Indeed, to this day they regard themselves as a distinctive people even though, in many instances, they hold firmly to the language group identities that have risen to prominence in the native title era.

Where they do associate with peoples they consider to belong to a different macro-grouping is in the west, where they have many kinship and social connections. This is entirely consistent with the work of early amateur ethnographers such as Cameron, Mathews and Howitt and the work of the Berndts with the Yaraldi in the 1930s. Indeed, in the Berndts' seminal text A world that was: the Yaraldi of the Murray River and the lakes (Berndt et al. 1993), many of the traditional relationships that mediated contact between these two macro-social groups were explained by their informants, some of whom themselves had married into the Yaraldi from the central Murray riverine.

In the third instance, both genealogical and fieldwork data (4) suggest that, within these communities, the descent of rights to and on country was maintained through intergroup relationships that would, in what Sutton calls the 'classical' period, have occurred only rarely due to the abundance of more immediate and obvious marriage and trade partners in the precolonial context. As Sutton (2003:178) notes, as customary law resides within the kinship structure, this assertion of rights on country is itself an instance of customary law.

In order to understand this more clearly, let us consider that, in the precolonial central Murray riverine society, the choice of marriage partners and other seminal relationships was highly structured by moietal and totemic associations and the formal and informal relationships formed by family and estate groups upon which ceremonial and trading activities depended. Hence, it is reasonable to surmise that traditional marriage choices and formal associations between family and estate groups were highly prescribed.

This does not mean that there were other relationships within the traditional social structures by which rights could not descend; it merely means that these more attenuated relationships were rarely the vehicle through which rights did descend in a society where the full skein of traditional relationships remained intact. For instance, whereas in the precolonial context the descent of rights would occur through conventional prescribed relationships, in the colonial context many of these choices would be unavailable due to rapid depopulation and the forced removal of Aboriginal people from areas of traditional occupation. However, as is fiercely attested to by the contemporary Aboriginal people of the region, these rights and interests to, and on, country did indeed continue to descend and, furthermore, they descended in a manner consistent with the underlying logic of the previous precolonial structures.

In order to understand how this may be the case, we can turn to the different pathways by which rights and interests may descend in the region today. Accordingly, in contemporary central Murray riverine society, as in much of south-eastern and south-western Australia, rights and interests to, and on, country no longer descend through patrifiliation but may descend simply through the mechanism of filiation (Sutton 2003:210). This means that the descent of rights and interests is no longer gender specific and that the distinction between rights, interests and obligations regarding country, and those pertaining to ceremony and spirituality, is effectively no longer operable (Sutton 2003:217). Thus where once there would have been rafts of rights and interests attached to association with certain sites, totems and ceremonies (such as those concerning initiation in the contemporary Pilbara region) sitting alongside other bundles of rights associated with conception, filiation and location, this level of delineation is no longer necessary in the contemporary period. This is because people's relationship to each other and to country is no longer mediated by moieties, totems and structurally defined relationships and gender roles. Indeed, one only need consider the practice of 'welcome to country' to understand men and women are considered equally able to perform this duty on behalf of their families, their communities and their people (notwithstanding the discussions that are still had concerning this matter within the Aboriginal communities of the central Murray riverine).

Here, it should be noted, I am not making a case for a complete absence of gendered knowledge. I am, however, arguing that non-gendered filiation has allowed the numerically depleted communities of the region the flexibility necessary to retain rights and interests in relation to country in a way that would not have been probable in the precolonial era because it would not have been necessary. Of equal importance is the fact that the underlying logic remains the same even though the mechanism for descent has been altered. In other words, the mechanisms (such as filiation and identity) for the descent of rights and interests to, and on, country are still bound within the extended family unit.

Thus, whereas one formerly could only inherit transferable primary rights to country through one's biological or social father, one can now inherit this kind of right from either parent and transfer it to a child of any gender. However, this absence of a meaningful gender distinction in the mechanisms for the descent of rights and interests to, and on, country has changed the nature of the key jural institutions in central Murray riverine society. Whereas once the exclusively male-dominated estate group was the central institution wherein decisions concerning country and people were made, the absence of gender specification in descent pathways has acted to make the extended surname group the normative political institution while at the same time altering the nature of the authority structure within these political institutions to allow for women to become prominent decision makers for their families.

Families of polity in north-western Victoria

The families of polity concept, as employed by Sutton, provides an appropriate model by which to understand the transformation from precolonial to contemporary social structures within central Murray riverine society. As alluded to above, these families of polity invariably consist of one or more surname groups or, alternatively, cognatic descent groups (Sutton 2003:212) within the region. As Sutton notes, families of polity serve both as 'major forces of cohesion and mutual support in post-classical Aboriginal society', as well as 'an arena in which political conflict tends to be concentrated' (Sutton 2003:208). Families of polity are also jural publics, as described by Burke (2010:64), in which are vested obligations and responsibilities, much like the estate groups from which they have evolved.

However, these surname groups differ in one important way from the estate groups from which they have been adapted. This difference resides in the logic for recruitment regarding estate groups and surname groups, even more so than the mechanisms for recruitment. Importantly, where estate groups depended, to a large extent, upon ancestral beings through which rights and interests descended to the entire group, contemporary surname groups point to common descent from historical antecedents, or ancestors, as the primary criteria for membership eligibility.

Thus in the central Murray riverine it is common for aggregations of surname groups identifying with ancestors of the same historical language group, or historically from the same area, to consider themselves as constituting language groups such as is found in the historical record. However, these aggregations are more accurately described as structural adaptations of precolonial estate groups rather than as the vestiges of whole language groups that would have contained many different estate groups.

Again, as Sutton (2003:210) notes, these families of polity:
form major structural elements of public life in Aboriginal society
and do not belong merely to a domestic or private domain. They persist
over long periods, and thus have many recognised deceased members who
are not merely remembered but who continue to form powerful reference
points in determining how their living descendants establish rights
and interests in traditional forms of cultural property, including
identification with country.

Importantly, fieldwork data from the region suggests that these families of polity may consist of more than one surname, or cognitive descent, group and this seems to stem from the ability (and eligibility) of individuals to participate in multiple families of polity through their descent from different ancestors associated with different places. For instance, one might be identified as a member of a family of polity in one region or area through descent from an ancestor from one's father's family while also being identified as a member of another family of polity in a different area through descent from an ancestor from one's mother's family. Indeed, Sutton (2003:190) calls this 'double descent' and defines it as a mechanism in which a person may inherit rights and interests from both parents. He is careful to distinguish this from Lay ton's notion of ambilineal descent (Lay ton 1983), in which a person may inherit rights and interests from either parent. This assertion is based on the results of fieldwork that has identified a number of smaller groupings with families of polity in the central Murray riverine, which I had first thought merely to be smaller units of families of polity operating with a degree of independence within the overall structure. This would be consistent with the notion that families of polity are political arenas if it were not for the fact that these smaller groupings have revealed themselves to be a part of other families of polity, which, in different contexts, have primary association with other parts of the region. Thus I believe what I am observing is an overlapping of jural publics on a family, rather than an individual, scale.

Further to this, the fluid nature of intra-family of polity politics provides members with many opportunities to assert different identities within these structures by emphasising different kinship connections at different times and in different contexts. By this I mean that where disputes arise over rights and interests to, and on, country within families of polity, people do not always cleave to their closest kin. Rather, they may sometimes side with more distant relatives against their own immediate family and, by doing so, emphasise a more attenuated kinship connection for political purposes.

This further establishes families of polity in the central Murray riverine as truly political arenas in which, as noted above, political conflicts tend to be concentrated. Importantly, this concentration of political conflicts does not, in many cases, lead to a resolution of conflict. Rather, many times conflict seems to be dispersed over different contexts and different oppositional configurations to a point where the social actors engaged in those conflicts find themselves aligned with kin in one conflict but opposed to them in another. Indeed, multiple conflicts of varying degrees of intensity are ongoing concurrently at any given time; families of polity constituent members tend not to disassociate themselves from each other across all contexts but rather navigate these extremely complex situations with great skill and diplomacy for the most part. Where conflicts have proven intractable to either resolution or dispersion, oppositional groups within families of polity structures have usually found a collective focus on an external group or organisation with which to restore a sense of solidarity in the face of what is perceived as a larger threat.

Thus the families of polity in the central Murray Riverine are deeply connected through ties of kinship and through a shared regional identity based on the precolonial central Murray riverine society. In concert with, and indeed perhaps because of, the overlapping nature of families of polity in the region as jural publics, the ethnohistorical record shows us that there was much concourse between the various groups (often described as language groups) along the central Murray riverine. Additionally, the oral history of the families of the region suggests a strong connection between families.


There are many reasons why the kinship structures of the contemporary groups along the central Murray riverine are structurally different from those of the precolonial era. From the evidence to hand, it appears that the rich riverine environment supported many large groups of Aboriginal people, who, while distinguishing themselves from their neighbours by dialectical and other fine differences, were connected to each other by a complex skein of relationships. Indeed, this skein of relationships not only spanned the region but connected the people of the central Murray riverine to those of the lower Murray in terms of trade, ceremony and marriage.

Furthermore, it is my opinion that this skein of relationships historically linked the different groups of the region so closely in law and customs as to warrant description as a cultural bloc, or normative society. It is also my opinion that the contemporary people of the region, descended from the groups referred to in the ethno-historical record, continue to form a cultural bloc along the central Murray riverine even though the structural organisation of their society has necessarily been adapted to changed circumstances.

Clearly, depopulation, loss of access to land and resources, institutionalisation and attendant attrition of cultural nuances were all causal factors with regard to the structural adaptations forced on central Murray riverine society. However, rather than signalling the systemic collapse of that society, these deprivations were countered through the utilisation of previously little used but equally valid pathways for the descent of rights and interests on country. In other words, the Aboriginal people of the region began to connect with each other through relationships that would have seemed too attenuated to be practical in the precolonial period, yet were (and are still) considered by the contemporary groups to be legitimate pathways for recruitment and entitlement as traditional owners within the region.

This newfound flexibility has altered the social structures of central Murray riverine society. Where once existed a 'classical' formation defined and mediated by patrifiliation and matrimoieties, there now exists a non-gendered form of patrifiliation within which the phenomenon known by Sutton as 'double descent' is a legitimate pathway to rights and interests in, and on, country. Additionally, this non-gendered notion of descent has seen the emergence of individual ancestors as the apex from which rights and interests descend and corresponding near total diminishment of the relevance of ancestral beings in that role. This adaptation has had the further effect of promoting jural cognitive descent or 'surname' groups, known as 'families of polity', which have altogether replaced the ancestral being-focused estate groups of the precolonial period.

Finally, I have argued that these families of polity, so engaged with each other throughout the entirety of the colonial and assimilation eras, are indeed participants in a cultural bloc encompassing the whole of the central Murray riverine region. As such, we can see this underlying cultural bloc as a system that has survived as a system of cultural knowledge even though many facets of its external structure have been altered significantly by the advent of the massive and destructive levels of change inherent in the processes of British colonisation.


(1) Sampi v State of Western Australia, WAG 49/1998.

(2) For an exposition of this, see Peace 2001.

(3) The work of Luis Hercus, in particular, comes to mind. For an example of her work, see Hercus 1986.

(4) I note here that the genealogies and fieldwork referred to are subject to strict legal privilege as they are the product of ongoing native title claim research.


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--and L Fison 1883 'From mother-right to father-right', Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 12:30-46.

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Pardoe, Colin 1998 'The cemetery as symbol: the distribution of prehistoric Aboriginal burial grounds in southeastern Australia' in Tim Murray (ed.), Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.

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Letter from ALP Cameron to AW Howitt, Balranald, 8 April 1882, Museum of Victoria Manuscripts--Howitt Papers, XM115.

George E Loonus, Euston Station to R H Mathews, 5 August 1898. MS 8006, series 2, folder 7, Robert Hamilton Mathews Papers, Correspondence, 1893-1918: New South Wales 1894-1908, National Library of Australia.

Michael P O'Kane

Native Title Services Victoria

Dr Michael P O'Kane has been employed at Native Title Services Victoria since 2011 where he holds the position of Senior Anthropologist. Michael has worked with remote area Aboriginal communities throughout northern and Central Australia and on native title and Traditional Owner Settlement Agreement claims in eastern, central, western and north-western Victoria. He has also worked as a consulting anthropologist in native title in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. He has had extensive field experience in Australia and in the Republic of Ireland. Michael has worked as a tutor, lecturer and research fellow at La Trobe University, Monash University, The University of Melbourne and Victoria University.

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Author:O'kane, Michael P
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Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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