“Skin groups tell us who we are. Skin group means that you may become a young brother of an old woman. Skins tell us how to be with one another. For example, a man may not even be in the same room as his ‘mother-in-law’. Through this law, one person can’t go next to another. There are many different types of relations. When one skin group marries another the kids come out as a different skin group. There are cycles that go around again.”
As for other Indigenous groups across Australia, family relationships are the heart of Yawuru life. Everyone acknowledges everyone else by using relationship terms, which do not depend on biological connection. Thus, a person may have many ‘mothers’, ‘fathers’, ‘grandmothers’, ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, across the generations. There are no strangers within Yawuru society.
Yawuru people and their neighbours divide themselves into four kin-groups, called ‘skin’ groups. In common with most of our neighbours, such as Karajarri, Nyikina and Mangala, Yawuru skin groups are Banaga, Burungu, Garimba and Barrjarri. Skin groupings put everyone in a relation with everyone else. A person takes their skin from their mother, and their skin then determines whom they may marry, their role in ceremonies, their responsibilities at funerals and their behaviour towards everyone else.
Through the skin system Yawuru people can establish relationships with people from other groups, even
those with different skin systems. For instance, Bardi have two categories and desert peoples, such as Walmajarri, typically have eight skin groups.
Ideally, Banaga marries Burungu and Garimba marries Barrjarri. If a Banaga man marries a Burungu woman their children are Barrjarri. If a Banaga woman marries a Burungu man their children are Garimba. A Garimba woman marrying a Barrjarri man has Banaga children, while a Garimba man marrying a Barrjarri woman has Burungu children. A Barrjarri person calls all Banaga men of their father’s generation ‘father’.
Most Yawuru people now live in Broome and it is difficult in the modern world, when people mix at school and socially, for older people to enforce these marriage rules. However, the system is suffi
ciently flexible to accommodate diversity, the only absolute taboo being to marry a person of the same skin group, If an alternative marriage takes place, the skin-group of the offspring is determined by their mother’s skin. Our old people know the skin of the antecedents of each family group, so they can always attribute skin to new babies. Skin is important for a person’s role in Yawuru ritual as well as for their relations to other Yawuru people.
Kin terms are still frequently used to reinforce actual and classificatory relationships and as a mark of respect and affection between individuals. Their use sets local people apart from non-Aboriginal people and outsiders.
A female grandparent is called mimi on the mother’s side, and jamuny on the father’s side, whilst a male grandparent is called jamuny on the mother’s side, and mimi on the father’s side. A man’s brother is mambardu or babarla to him and gabarli to his wife, who is gabarli to him and his sister. A man’s sister-in-law is gabarli but also yingalbu, that is, a woman who can be a marriageable partner. He also calls his brother-in-law gabarli.
People may also be identified by gender and age. A full-grown man is wamba, and a little boy jira; a woman is jarndu and a young girl, nganyju. All children are called wuba, and little ones are called jalygurr.
Yawuru people also call each other by their Aboriginal names, given to them by senior family members. Some names are given at birth but not recorded officially.
Bibi = mother; mother’s sister
gugu = father; father’s brother
gaga = mother’s brother
yirrmarda = father’s sister
ngurnu = older sister
marrgardu = younger sister
babarla = older brother
mambardu = younger brother
nganju = girl
jira = boy
jamuny = father’s mother; mother’s father
mimi = father’s father; mother’s mother
jalbi = great grandparents
gabarli = wife; wife’s sister; wife’s brother
yagu = husband; husband’s brother; husband’s sister
yingalbu = wife’s sister