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The Anmatyerre Kinship System

By Dr Christine Nicholls, Posted Feb 2, 2019

an essay by Dr Christine Nicholls

The term ‘skin-name’ is used in relation to the kinship systems of the Australian Central Desert/Western Desert. The word ‘skin’, which is possibly a corruption of the English word ‘kin’, signals a person’s place in the entire social structure.

There are fixed rules in Anmatyerre/Alywarr (and indeed, all Indigenous Australian) society regarding the ways in which people in particular relationships are permitted to relate to one another, including who may or may not marry each other. Outside of those preferred marriage choices, other unions are regarded as incestuous or ‘wrong skin’, and are frowned upon even in these comparatively flexible days. These rules apply equally to both men and women. The ideal choice for a marriage partner is a man’s second cousin.

In the event of failing to find a suitable marriage partner from such a ‘first choice’ relationship, for example because of a lack of suitable partners with the marriageable age group, a man may marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, i.e. his cross cousin. Such unions are colloquially referred to as ‘right skin’ marriages. However, these days, under the influence of Western norms of ‘romance’ there are increasing numbers of ‘love matches’, much to the chagrin of many of the older people. However, so deeply ingrained is the taboo against incestuous relationships, that even these ‘love matches’ still almost always involve partners within the ‘right’ skin groups, i.e. people who are in the ‘correct’ relationship to one another.

Membership of a particular ‘skin group’ is determined by the skin group membership of one’s parents and forebears. 

In addition, membership of a particular ‘skin group’ is of great relevance to each individual artist’s possibilities for artistic production - there are powerful sanctions against painting subject matter over which other skin groups hold “intellectual copyright’. 

Particular skin groups have the right to painting particular Dreamings, and must refrain from painting subject matter owned by or belonging to other skin groups. These intellectual property rights translate into ‘real’ property rights, that is, land ownership of specific tracts of land, which are always associated with specific individuals or groups of individuals based on the intricacies of the kinship system.



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