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Australian Aboriginal avoidance practices

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Title: Australian Aboriginal avoidance practices  
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Subject: Australian Aboriginal culture, Sociolinguistics, Koori, Etiquette by region, Taboo
Collection: Australian Aboriginal Culture, Etiquette by Region, Sociolinguistics, Taboo
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Australian Aboriginal avoidance practices

Aboriginal avoidance practices refers to those relationships in traditional Aboriginal society where certain people are required to avoid others in their family or clan. These customs are still active in many parts of Australia, to a greater or lesser extent.

Avoidance relationships are a mark of respect. There are also strong protocols around avoiding, or averting, eye contact, as well as around speaking the name of the dead.


  • Avoidance of members 1
    • Son/daughter-in-law and mother-in-law 1.1
    • Brother—sister 1.2
    • Sexual relationships 1.3
  • Avoidance of naming the dead 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4

Avoidance of members

In general, across most language groups, the two most common avoidance relationships are:

Son/daughter-in-law and mother-in-law

In what is the strongest kinship avoidance rule, Aboriginal custom throughout Australia bans a person from talking directly to their mother in law or even seeing her. The relationship is one of respect, but avoidance. A mother-in-law also eats apart from her son-in-law or daughter-in-law and their spouse. If the two are present at the same ceremony, they will sit with their backs to each other but they can still communicate via the wife/husband, who remains the main conduit for communication in this relationship. Often there are language customs surrounding these relationships.[1]

This relationship extends to avoiding all women of the same skin group as the mother-in-law, and, for the mother-in-law, men of the same skin group as the son-in-law. The age of marriage is very different for men and women with girls usually marrying at puberty while a man may not marry until his late 20s or even later. As mothers-in-law and sons-in-law are likely to be of approximately the same age the avoidance practice possibly serves to circumvent potential illicit relationships.[1] It has also been suggested that the custom developed to overcome a common cause of friction in families.[2]


This usually takes place after initiation. Prior to this, brothers and sisters play together freely.

Both these avoidance relationships have their grounding in the Australian Aboriginal kinship system, and so are ways of avoiding incest in small bands of closely related people.

There are many other avoidance relationships, including same-sex relationships, but these are the main two.

Sexual relationships

Once children are older, they are viewed as potential marital partners and their sexual behavior becomes one of strict avoidance until married. Permanent relationships are prescribed by traditional law and often arranged before birth.

Same-sex relationships are viewed in the same light as incest or "wrong" marriages (i.e., to a partner of their own choice or wrong skin group) which carry the same penalties as a domestic crime against the community. However, intimate bodily contact between women regardless of marital status is not considered sexually suggestive but affirmation of friendship and a "right to touch". Touch is particularly important when women tell jokes or discuss matters of a sexual nature. In these circumstances behavior such as "nipple tweaking" and "groin grabbing" are seen as signs of friendship.[1][3]

Avoidance of naming the dead

Traditionally, this meant avoiding referring to the dead person by name directly after their death as a mark of respect[4]—and also because it is considered too painful for the grieving family. Today the practice continues in many communities, but has also come to encompass avoiding the publication or dissemination of photography or film footage of the deceased person as well. (Many Australian television programs and films include a title card warning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to "use caution viewing this film, as it may contain images or voices of dead persons", presumably out of respect for the cultural beliefs of said viewers.)

The avoidance period may last anywhere from 12 months to several years. The person can still be referred to in a roundabout way, such as, "that old lady", or by their generic skin name, but not by first name.[4] In some Central Australian communities, if for example, a lady named Alice passes away, that name must be avoided in all contexts, so even Alice Springs needs to be referred to in conversation in a roundabout way (which is usually fine, as the Indigenous name can be reverted to). Those of the same name as the deceased are referred to by a substitute name during the avoidance period—Kuminjay is used in the Pintubi-Luritja dialect. Galyardu appears in a mid-western Australia Wajarri dictionary for this purpose.

This presents some challenges to indigenous people. In traditional society, people lived together in small bands of extended family. Name duplication was less common. Today, as people have moved into larger centres, with 300 to 600 people, the logistics of name avoidance have become increasingly challenging.

Exotic and rare names have therefore become very common, particularly in Central Australia and desert communities, to deal with this new challenge.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Aspects of Traditional Aboriginal Australia AIJA Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Benchbook for Western Australian Courts
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Transgressive sex: subversion and control in erotic encounters", Fertility, Reproduction and Sexuality, Vol. 13, Berghahn Books, 2009. pp. 214–216.
  4. ^ a b "Australian findings on Aboriginal cultural practices associated with clothing, hair, possessions and use of name of deceased persons", Pam McGrath and Emma Phillips, Research paper, International Journal of Nursing Practice, Vol. 14, Issue #1, pp. 57–66
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