On our Rainbow Serpent Tour we visit my clan's ancestral Birth Site - a very special place which reminds us of the importance of family - and I'm sometimes asked why Aboriginal children have so many 'uncles' and 'aunties'. One of the reasons is that there just aren't the words in English to explain our extended family and the responsibilities of each person within that group. So I thought I'd share this knowledge with you, starting with the people who were very important for me when I was growing up.
Bipa (D1) and Ngamu (M1)
These are my birth parents. My Dad's responsibility was to be hunter and provider for his children. My Mum's responsibility was as gatherer of bush foods, and to look after us when we were tiny. When I grew older, then I went to live with a second mum and dad, also called Bipa and Ngamu, who were chosen by the family.
Bipa (D2) and Ngamu (M2)
When my voice changed it was a sign that I'd reached puberty, and I went to live with my second Mum and Dad. They looked after my worldly needs, making sure I had food and clothes, and that I stayed healthy and safe. If I wanted anything in material terms, then I had to ask them - I wasn't allowed to trouble my birth parents. Once I was with my second Mum and Dad, I could no longer converse closely with any of my sisters. If I really wanted to talk to them, then I could do, but only from a distance.
My Gami are my same side grandparents - this means my mother's mother, or my father's father. They shared in the responsibility for bringing me up.
Guman-gaMy Guman-ga were chosen by myself. I had to choose one male and one female from my grandparents' brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, on either my father's or mother's side. The choice was very important, as I could speak to them in absolute confidence about any matter at all. I could ask them about taboo subjects, like sex, and who I could and couldn't mingle with. They would suggest possible marriage partners for me too. These weren't subjects that I could bring up with my birth parents, as it would be extremely disrespectful.
Mukai, Yaba and GaanhaalI had two Mukai who were my birth parents' eldest brother or sister, and they were responsible for maintaining discipline and respect. They were like mentors who would nurture and guide me so I chose to do the right thing. They would tell me about special places, such as birthing and burial sites, and bora, and explain why I had to respect these places. And they would tell me who I could and couldn't mingle with. They were helped by Yaba, my eldest brother, who would keep a watchful eye on me so I didn't misbehave, and Gaanhaal, my big sister, who was "She Who Must Be Obeyed!"
How it is today...
When the Mission came, this extended family support group was broken down, and the responsibilities of each family member undermined. You still hear old people say "Where has the respect gone?" and that's because respect is not always built into today's family structure. Suddenly birth mothers and fathers were expected to take on all the responsibilities themselves, and it was too much for them. Alcohol and drugs also did irreparable damage, as you can't respect your Mukai, Yaba and Gaanhaal if they're sitting next to you in the drinking circle, so in some families discipline was no longer maintained.
But even though we live in nuclear family units now, the kinship structure hasn't been totally lost. I still recognise the members of my extended family by their kinship name; I still talk with my Guman-ga when I have a problem I want to talk through, and my grandchildren still have to watch out for their Mukai, Yaba and "She Who Must Be Obeyed!"