Book: The Native Tribes of Central Australia
Author: Baldwin Spencer

The Native Tribes of Central Australia By Baldwin Spencer

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 583
Publication Date: 1899

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This anthropological study of the central Australian tribes is one of the primary sources for information on these cultures. Based on first-hand scholarly study just prior to the twentieth century, Spencer and Gillen describe their complex rituals and belief systems, including initiation ceremonies, kinship, mythology and material culture.

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THE fundamental feature in the organisation of the Central Australian, as in that of other Australian tribes, is the division of the tribe into two exogamous inter-marrying groups. These two divisions may become further broken up, but even when more than two are now present we can still recognise their former existence.

In consequence of, and intimately associated with, this division of the tribe, there has been developed a series of terms of relationship indicating the relative status of the various members of the tribe, and, of necessity, as the division becomes more complex so do the terms of relationship.

In the tribes with which we are dealing we can recognise at least two important types which illustrate different grades in the development of the social organisation. The first of these is found in the Urabunna tribe, the second in the Arunta, Ilpirra, Kaitish, Waagai, Warramunga, Iliaura, and Bingongina tribes.

The less complex the organisation of the tribe the more clearly do we see evidence of what Messrs. Howitt and Fison have called, in regard to Australian tribes, “group marriage.” Under certain modifications this still exists as an actual custom, regulated by fixed and well-recognised rules, amongst various Australian tribes, whilst in others the terms of relationship indicate, without doubt, its former existence. As is well known, Mr. McLennan held that the terms must have been invented by the natives using them merely for the purpose of addressing each other or as modes of salutation. To those who have been amongst and watched the natives day after day, this explanation of the terms is utterly unsatisfactory. When, in various tribes, we find series of terms of relationship all dependent upon classificatory systems such as those now to be described, and referring entirely to a mutual relationship such as would be brought about by their existence, we cannot do otherwise than come to the conclusion that the terms do actually indicate various degrees of relationship based primarily upon the existence of inter-marrying groups. When we find, for example, that amongst the Arunta natives a man calls a large number of men belonging to one particular group by the name “Oknia” (a term which includes our relationship of father), that he calls all the wives of these men by the common name of “Mia” (mother), and that he calls all their sons by the name of “Okilia” (elder brother) or “Itia” (younger brother), as the case may be, we can come to no other conclusion than that this is expressive of his recognition of what may be called a group relationship. All the “fathers” are men who belong to the particular group to which his own actual father belongs; all the “mothers” belong to the same group as that to which his actual mother belongs, and all the “brothers” belong to his own group.

Whatever else they may be, the relationship terms are certainly not terms of address, the object of which is to prevent the native having to employ a personal name. In the Arunta tribe, for example, every man and woman has a personal name by which he or she is freely addressed by others — that is, by any, except a member of the opposite sex who stands in the relationship of “Mura” to them, for such may only on very rare occasions speak to one another. When, as has happened time after time to us, a native says, for example, “That man is Oriaka (a personal name), he is my Okilia,” and you cannot possibly tell without further inquiry whether he is the speaker's blood or tribal brother — that is, the son of his own father or of some man belonging to the same particular group as his father — then the idea that the term “Okilia” is applied as a polite term of address, or in order to avoid the necessity of using a personal name, is at once seen to be untenable.

It is, at all events, a remarkable fact that (apart from the organisation of other tribes, in respect of which we are not competent to speak, but for which the same fact is vouched for by other observers) in all the tribes with which we are acquainted, all the terms coincide, without any exception, in the recognition of relationships, all of which are dependent upon the existence of a classificatory system, the fundamental idea of which is that the women of certain groups marry the men of others. Each tribe has one term applied indiscriminately by the man to the woman or women whom he actually marries and to all the women whom he might lawfully marry — that is, who belong to the right group — one term to his actual mother and to all the women whom his father might lawfully have married; one term to his actual brother and to all the sons of his father's brothers, and so on right through the whole system. To this it may be added that, if these be not terms of relationship, then the language of these tribes is absolutely devoid of any such.