When I was a child my Dad explained to me who everyone was in my family, and my Mukai taught me how to behave with them all. Knowing where you 'fit' is really important, as it tells you what your responsibilities are, who you can marry, and how you should talk with each other. Some relations I can't have a direct conversation with at all. These laws were designed to avoid conflict and keep peace and harmony in the clan.
This is why, when we meet someone for the first time, we first work out our relatedness. The Guugu Yimithirr greeting Wanhtharra wanthaalngan nyundu? asks where a person's homelands are, and this kicks off the discussion. When we understand how we're connected, the information is passed on to others by way of introduction.
"He is a cousin through my mother's side that comes from the north, and she had four cousin sisters, one of whom is the mother of this man's father."
This way each person knows what language to use, or whether they need to stop the conversation immediately because it's thabul (taboo) to talk with one another.
Some family members, like my Guman-ga, I have a Joking Relationship with. This means I can talk about anything at all, joke, tease, and generally not have to watch my tongue. I can also have a Joking Relationship with a stranger if, after we've worked out our kin connections, he falls into the same category as my father's father. Then there is guugu dhabul, or Brother-in-law language, which is soft and slow and very respectful. It isn't a totally different language, but has special words - like euphemisms - which have to be used instead of 'straight out' words. This language is used when talking with my brothers-in-law and other people who fall into that category in my extended family.
It is thabul to talk with my parents-in-law. I can't hand food directly to them, I can't look at them directly, and if I need to ask them something I have to do it through my wife. I certainly wouldn't dream of sitting down and watching the footy with them, and once, when I had to tell my father-in-law something important, I sent him a letter even though he lived next-door! I mustn't even say their name in conversation with somebody else - I use ngathiina (father-in-law) and biwul (mother-in-law) instead. These laws of respect are called than-gun.
Today these respect relationships still exist, despite some of the younger generation thinking they are old-fashioned. My daughter thinks they are 'hooey', but if I visit her house, her partner will leave the room or sit with his back to us while he watches television. Non-Indigenous people could interpret this behaviour as being rude, but in fact he's honouring the laws of than-gun. And if I need my daughter to do something for me and want to avoid a debate, I won't ask her. Instead I'll ask her partner, as out of respect for me he'll make sure it gets done!
More stories about Willie's family:
Mala - The Specialists
Photo courtesy of Kathi Gibson