Indigenous Relationality: Women, Kinship and the Law
‘She’—our founding mothers, the first women who have walked this land for millennia, and have birthed and nurtured centuries of our people into existence.‘She’, who has carried our stories and knowledge, so we hold in our hands today our societal values of intergenerational learning, care and responsibility for our land, our families and communities. Embedded within these values are intrinsic lessons of our complex kinship structures and cultural practices. These teach us of collective leadership, collaborative and inclusive decision-making, negotiation and cooperation, the reciprocal sharing of resources, life-long education and the foundational understanding that an individual’s health and wellbeing is intimately attached to the health of our country, our surrounding environments, and our families and communities.(Oscar 2018).
1. Indigenous Kinship Systems
Indigenous relationality is recognized as the life force, and that which supports and nourishes life.With the awareness that one’s breath is shared by all surrounding life, that one’s emergence into the world was possibly caused by some of the life-forms around ones environment, and that one is responsible for its mutual survival, it becomes apparent that it is related to you; that it shares a kinship with you and with all humans, as does a family or tribe. A reciprocal relationship has been fostered with the realisation that humans affect nature and nature affects humans. This awareness influences indigenous interactions with the environment. It is these interactions, those cultural practices of living with a place that are manifestations of kincentric ecology’
In Aboriginal english, the word ‘country’ is both a common noun and a proper noun. People talk about country in the same way they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, grieve for country and long for country. People say that country knows, smell, hears, takes notice, takes care, and feels sorry or happy. Country is a living entity with a yesterday, a today and a tomorrow, with consciousness, action and a will towards life. Because of this richness, country is home and peace, nourishment for the body, mind, spirit; heart’s ease …Country is multi-dimensional—it consists of people, animals, plants, Dreamings, and underground, earth, soils minerals and waters, surface water, air. There is sea country and land country; in some areas people talk about sky country. Country has origins and a future. It exists both in time and through time. As I use the term here I refer to areas of land and/or sea including subsurface and sky above, in so far as Aboriginal people identify all these components as being part of country’.
2. Kinship and Women’s Law
In the old days, the law stories of women lived in the land and held a place in the lives of the peoples they belonged to, but now the law-full woman is diminished… Our stories of women are often sacred and secret, and there is a reason for this, for we can see the danger of women’s stories becoming subverted and becoming something else when they are retold within patriarchal frameworks’.
Bell claimed that the differences in her findings were due to situating and locating herself almost exclusively in the women’s camp, the Jilmi, and being given access to women’s business. Coming from a woman’s standpoint gave a different perspective: ‘[n]ew understandings emerge when women are allowed to speak’ (Bell 1983 p. 230). Bell’s research directly challenged the previous depictions of Aboriginal people that positioned women as having little or less power than men, and led to considerable debate. In the epilogue of the reprinted Daughters of the Dreaming (Bell 1983), Bell concluded that male perspectives of the field continue to be used despite work like hers.Here was a confident group of women secure in the value of their own knowledge and worth, whose self-perceptions begin within their own ritual and social worlds and extended to the wider society. In the attitudes of men and women, it was obvious that the body of knowledge and beliefs about the ancestral travels was shared jointly as a sacred trust, but it was also obvious that men and women had distinct and separate responsibilities for the ritual maintenance of this heritage’.
Aboriginal women’s lives, like that of Aboriginal men, commenced in the spiritual domain, was lived with deep connections to the life forces of all living beings in the earth, sky and waters and finally the life of an Aboriginal woman ended in a return to the spiritual world.Their lives were not ones of drudgery, deprivation, humiliation and exploitation, because of their lack of penis and attendant phallic culture, nor was their self-image and identity bound up solely with their child rearing functions. Instead I found the women to be extremely serious in the upholding, observance and transmission of their religious heritage. Religion permeated every aspect of their lives—lives which are nonetheless full of good humour and a sense of fun’.
The female symbol of the circle also connects to the holistic epistemology, ontology and axiology of Indigenous kinship systems which are also known as the Grandmother or Granny Laws. The following section explores this in more depth.‘Yilpinji is achieved through a creative integration of myth, song, gesture and design against a backdrop of country. The circle, the quintessential female symbol, finds expression in the body designs, the rolling hand gestures and patterns traced out by the dancing feet. Certain yilpinji and health/curing designs are the same, because, as Kaytej women recognise, love, health, and sexual satisfaction are intertwined at the personal and community level’.
3. Grandmother’s Law and Birthing on Country: Kinship and Social and Emotional Wellbeing
The Grandmothers’ Law underpins the Birthing on Country movement (Kildea et al. 2018). The word and concept ‘borning’ is also used as a way of describing the culturally specific process of caring for women through the birth process which is an integral part of Indigenous cultures in Australia and which has been practiced for many thousands of years prior to colonization (Carter et al. 1987). An important part of the movement of Indigenous self-determination within the comprehensive primary health care section, Birthing on Country restores women’s kinship connections to Country with the guidance of women Elders and healers, and affirms the spiritual and cultural empowerment of the birthing process. This cultural practice is defended and supported by the Indigenous women’s group NAICC: National Voice for Our Children, a powerful, community-controlled organization dedicated to protecting children, young people, and families and strengthening self-determination through cultural identity (SNAICC 2019).Grandmother’s Law is one half of Land Law where men and women hold balanced positions with reciprocal responsibilities for maintaining societal equilibrium.Grandfathers look outwardly, protecting the camp. Grandmothers look inwardly, nurturing new generations of respectful, responsible and resilient youth who will ‘look after country’ to benefit both land and people.Reinstating this teaching system within our respective lands develops continuous knowledge of children’s ‘place’ in society and responsibilities as parents.
- they are community based and governed,
- provide for the inclusion of traditional practices,
- involve connections with land and country,
- incorporate a holistic definition of health,
- value Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander as well as other ways of knowing and learning, and
- encompass risk assessment and service delivery and are culturally competent’ (Birthing on Country Position Statement 2016, p. 3).
As has been reiterated throughout this article, such obligations are part of kinship laws which support the flourishing of SEWB, and are expressed through Grandmothers’ Law.The Sun Woman illuminates the future and the future is a return to the beginnings as though we have never left them. Our songs and stories gave us knowledge for survival, to live a good life in harmony with all things. The song law passed from one generation to the next and was taken on by each generation as an obligation and commitment to the spirit ancestors. The original agreements entered into are still alive, as are the obligations to honour them.
[C]ountry is where my people need to be able to draw positive emotions, meaning and purpose, self-esteem and resilience. The land provides what we call in the Bunuba language Ngarranggani. Ngarranggani lies at the heart of our culture; it is timeless, and it is all past, present and future. It is our dreaming, our creator, our kinship, morality and ethics. We are of the land, and to care for and protect the land is to nurture and safeguard our families and our future. This intimately entwined relationship of land, language and culture is common to Indigenous peoples across the world. Language is a vehicle to transmit the cultural strengths I’ve referred to, and to heal our communities and reconcile our nation.
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Dudgeon, P.; Bray, A. Indigenous Relationality: Women, Kinship and the Law. Genealogy 2019, 3, 23. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy3020023
Dudgeon P, Bray A. Indigenous Relationality: Women, Kinship and the Law. Genealogy. 2019; 3(2):23. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy3020023Chicago/Turabian Style
Dudgeon, Patricia, and Abigail Bray. 2019. "Indigenous Relationality: Women, Kinship and the Law" Genealogy 3, no. 2: 23. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy3020023