Social Connections and Order

by Emily Wheeler


When English settlers first arrived in Australia, they encountered a native population which had previously been completely isolated from the rest of the world. For thousands of years the Aborigine culture was allowed to develop without outside influence. During this time, the Aborigines created and refined a social order which both explained an individual's place within the society, and also defined his position in relation to the natural environment.

The intricate social structure of the Aborigines consists of various divisions of the tribe. These divisions can be either geographical or genealogical. An Aborigine's specific role in special ceremonies is sometimes determined by which group to which he belongs. The divisions are also extremely important in decisions concerning appropriate marriages. The laws governing marriage are very strict and only certain groups are allowed to intermarry.

Each tribe is divided into two separate sections called "moieties".[1] A moiety is determined by genealogy, although sometimes the relationships are so distant that they could be considered mythological. The primary purpose of these groups is as a division of duties during a religious ceremony. Each moiety is responsible for a specific aspect of a ritual. Sometimes before special religious rites, the moieties will camp on opposite sides of a river, symbolizing the division of the tribe. This separation allows each side to prepare for its own unique part in the ceremony.

The tribe is also divided into clans: extended families which are descended through either the mother or father. These families are called "local groups"[2] because of the emphasis on location and territory of the group. The local groups represent the only organized form of tribal government. Each local group is led by a headman. The headman is an elder of the family who is a strong and just leader. All of the headmen in a tribe meet periodically in an informal tribal council. This council is the political power within the tribe, but is not as formal as our familiar forms of government.

Although the Aborigines may seem almost rigid in their social structure, they differ from many familiar western cultures in that no hierarchy controls the tribe. Each individual has a set position in the tribe, but this does not necessarily mean that one group is meant to lead and one is meant to serve the leaders. The pyramid effect, where a small group leads the masses, is not evident in Aboriginal society. So although the social structure seems confining because of its various rules, groups, and divisions, every person is an integral part of the tribe.

From early childhood, the Aborigines are taught to accept their position in the tribe. Girls are encouraged to emulate their mothers. Most often they are given bowls and sacks which they can use to collect berries, just as their mothers gather roots and herbs. Similarly, they give young boys toy spears and boomerangs, teaching them the skills they will one day use as the hunters of the tribe. Often these kinds of games can be dangerous. Frequently boys will, in the heat of battle, injure an opponent. This is used as a lesson, though, in the importance of self-control and discipline.

When the children become young adults, the difference in position between the sexes becomes even more pronounced. Young women are usually married as soon as possible. At a certain age, the young men of the tribe perform certain rites which initiate them into the secret religion of the tribe. Women are not allowed to participate in these special ceremonies. They may only be present during the most general religious rituals. Otherwise, the religion is practiced solely by the men. In some tribes, however, to compensate for this, women have their own special rituals. This promotes a sense of unity among the women.

The Aborigines have great respect for their elders. The older members of the tribe are called "grey hairs"[3] as a sign of respect for their age. The headmen of local groups are the most well respected of the elders. A council of the elders usually solves any problems which arise in the group. This reverence applies only to those elders who are still active and functional in the tribe, however. Those people who have become too old to participate fully in the group are usually referred to as "close-up dead"[4], because they are considered nearer to the spirit world than to the tribe.

The Aborigines believe that spirits "pre--exist".[5] Before a person is born, he exists as a spirit in nature. These spirits inhabit the area of the local group which they will eventually join. This concept creates an intimate connection between the group and the land. It gives the local group a territorial identity which transcends any outside barriers. Even when a group is scattered, its members will continue to return to their territory to die, so that their spirits may return to the same earth from which they originally came. This tie between the people and the land holds the tribe together.

Although most of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia have disappeared as a result of foreign settlement, some groups still hold on to the old traditions. This stubborn refusal to abandon their ancient customs can be attributed to the strong ties which the Aborigines share with their tribe and their land. Thousands of years of tradition are a difficult connection to break. The Aborigines are holding on to their heritage.