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Political Environment Of Society

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How do Reciprocity and kinship Structures Maintain Balance in Indigenous Societies ?




Reciprocity can be described as the practice of exchanging things with other persons for mutual benefit, particularly the privileges that have been granted by one organization or country to the other. In case of the aboriginal society, reciprocity is considered as one of the underlying principles. In case of the aboriginal society, reciprocity has been present in the form of the exchange and the trade of tools and food to family and social relationships the political environment of society and the spiritual principles. In case of the aboriginal society, the principle of timelessness is central to reciprocity (Eleanor, 1998). It is believed that the spirit exists for now and also before and the creation is a current event as well as a historical event and in the same way, the law is for now and also for always. Therefore it can be briefly stated that it is the interconnectedness of all the things. Historically, in case of the aboriginal society reciprocity had been a source of cultural, legal and political animosity and within the colonial Australia, it had been a source of mystification (Bill, 1998).

The Australian aboriginal kinship system is considered as one of the most complex systems and it provides the basis of all social interaction that takes place in the aboriginal societies. The kinship system that is present in a particular tribe or language unit controls the interpersonal relationships of that tribe and it also guides the members of the tribe in their interactions with the other members of the tribe (Bourke and Cox, 1998). In this way, kinship system is present in every aspect of the social organization and structure of the aboriginal societies. As mentioned above, the kinship system is an integral part of the aboriginal societies. The members of the tribes are sorted into categories with names that are used by each tried. The relatives in law are generally placed in the same categories as the consanguine relations, although it is possible to give qualifying names to them. Ideally the husbands and wives are related to each other as kin, although it can be in a classificatory sense instead of the real kinship (Bourke and Bill, 1998).


In case of social reciprocity, there are social obligations regarding the others who form a part of the globe and towards the other groups. In case of the aboriginal society, it is conceded that the person has a standing, and identity and the sense of belonging. In the society, a major concept is that of relatedness and due to this relatedness, each person is allowed to know how he is expected to act and to behave with the other persons of the group (Berndt, 1964). In this system, all the persons have a sense of group and personal identity due to which the emotional, psychological and the physical survival is protected and balanced in the society. This kinship reciprocity also extends to the orphans, widows and even to the outsiders and in this way helps in ensuring social equilibrium (Atkinson, 2002).

The kinship reciprocity has significant impact on marriage, trade, rituals and territory. At the same time, it also included the acts like giving gifts, for instance, by a person when tools are initiated and in the same way, other treasured items can also be given as gifts the persons who have initiated him. In the same way, gifts can be given to the family of the future wife on betrothal (Bell, 1998). Similarly, the in-laws can also be given treasured items. In this example, the economic value of the gift is not of much consequence. What matters the most was the act of giving the gift. In this way, the reciprocity helped in strengthening the social bonds. In the same way, the food was also shared in the group, starting with those who have shared the food with the person in the past (Blake, 2001). The moral or the cultural laws were also affected by reciprocity, for example avenging the wrongdoing as some persons were distinguished to get punishment in accordance with kinship and status. Hence, kinship also operated to act as a deterrent among the wrongdoers as at times even that close kin can be held liable for the offenses committed by a person. Social graces and reciprocity also acted as a system of checks and balances which help in maintaining social equilibrium (Bourke, Bourke and Edwards, 1994).



In case of economic reciprocity, there is a relationship involved with the land, ecological sources and other groups. Because the aboriginal people were mainly nomadic people, they have a land and food management system which evolved on the basis of the control exploitation of the natural resources available to these people. With the help of systematic migration, the groups succeeded in living in a reciprocal arrangement with the land (Briskman, 2007). In the different seasons, these groups migrated to other areas, and use the natural resources of that area, generally within a radius of 5 km and later on they moved to another area when the resources of that area were depleted or reached the point of prohibition (Carrithers, Collins and Lukes, (eds) 1985). In this case the point of prohibition can be present in the form of the spiritual law or due to the directions of the elders and one such example that can be given in this regard is that of juvenile shellfish.

Another activity which engendered reciprocity was that of hunting. In this case corporative strategies were used in hunting like using nets for catching a large number of animals or using the manipulative strategies like the encircling of the pray by a large number of hunters and then trapping them (Cowlishaw, 2004). In the same way, reciprocity was present in the eating of the pray. Therefore the structured and the systematic basis on which the parts of the animals would be eaten by which person were based on the rules of reciprocity and kinship.

As the aboriginal people were not involved in conducting systematic agriculture or farming, the anthropologists believe that the adoption of the use of fire by the aboriginal people was a form of firestick farming due to which, it helped in regeneration in a reciprocal arrangement like the burning of large sections of mallee which in turn encourages the replenishment of lerp during the next year. It is also believed that women also actively replenished the environment when they were involved in the process of gathering. For instance, by replanting the yam or the seeds which then could be harvested on the next time when these people were in that area (Crawford, 2001).

Among the aboriginal people, there was intensive trade of food, medicines, tools and weapons which shows reciprocity in the aboriginal economy. People used to exchange these items for the items that they needed (De’Ishtar, 2005). For instances this reciprocity was shown by the groups who were living near water sources and they invited the other groups to feast whenever they got hold of any large mammal like a whale. Generally the other groups were invited with the help of smoke signals.

It has been noted by some of the researchers that the groups that had abundance of particular resources like the yams or the commonly found seats had a distinct advantage as they can trade it with meat. In fact these groups were able to perform risk management whenever there was any danger of a drought. By forming alliances, they were involved in a strategic move for making sure that their reciprocal rights were protected during the times of scarcity (Drury and Voigt, 1999).

Spiritual: A stewardship of the land is involved in case of spiritual reciprocity as the persons who are most connected with the land were also the best stewards of the land. It is commonly agreed by the anthropologists that there was no organized religion among the aboriginal society as the term is understood by the Western society. However, they unanimously knowledge that the aboriginal culture is based on a deep sense of spirituality (Dudgeon, Garvey and Pickett, (eds) 2000). There is a unifying concept of the world, which is lived and in which the religion is not present as an outside entity or system. In its place, the religion is encompassed in the people, language, place and art and music.


At the same time, the culture in the aboriginal societies also encompassed the law, which is not considered to be separate from the civil, moral or the natural law. In reality, interconnectedness was present among all these things. As the law encompasses spirituality, it makes sure that all the people are aware of their responsibilities and relationships with the other people or their kin as well as with their country which includes the landforms, animals and water sources and also regarding their ongoing relationship that was present with the spirits of their ancestors (Farrelly, 2003).

As compared to the other religions, in case of the indigenous Australians, spirituality means a reverence for life. On the other hand, the other religions make certain promises like life after death, nirvana or salvation which is not present in case of aboriginal spirituality. In this case, life has to be lived on the terms of the life along with its joy and suffering. The aboriginal spirituality believes that living itself is the expression of spirituality and as a result it needs to be celebrated (Fortes, 1987).

The totemic relationship needs the the people should be aware of the ways in which they should take responsibility for relationships with species and totemic cites or the sacred site, in landscape and the related with the totemic ancestor. Generally the call made for the land rights of the originals is misunderstood by the colonial society as they were mainly concerned with the land as an economic resource that has to be used for producing a surplus and for gaining capital. Human beings were considered as a part of the systems but they are part of this balance and also a part of the universal reciprocity. It is believed by the people that all the species share the same responsibilities for their young, the old and towards each other and the society (Garroutte, 2003). All these things provide an evidence of the great responsibility and care in the cosmos. It is believed that no distinction is present between spiritual and secular law. The sacred rituals as well as the economic activity are governed by the same law. In this context, the law is considered as highly practical and at the same time the accumulation of the knowledge gained by hundreds of generations (Havecker, 1987).


The role of dispute resolution was assigned to the elders and they also have the responsibility of teaching, giving advice regarding marriage, partnership and they also assumed the responsibility for spiritual matters, sacred objects and different rituals (Hill, 2002).

Political: among the political reciprocity there were the elements of respect and tradition. The one political tool of reciprocity was the use of fire which symbolizes the movement of people. In the same way, through fire, the other people come to know that some persons were moving across the land. In this way it acted as a way of communication and allowed the other persons to know where some of the families were. In the same way, the use of fire also allowed the persons to see the integrity of the landscape that was being maintained. In the same way, the continuity of tradition was symbolized by burning. This was used as a method of showing continuity with tradition or the old people. Reciprocity can be seen in the acts of burning fires. The country was left burning for many days and in this way, the dead people were allowed to hunt first. It was believed that the dead can also close the country which was seen by thick vegetation. The burning of the country also presented a pleasant smell and it was considered to please the gods and also the other human beings (Hiatt, 2006).

In this way, burning was considered as a gift that was given to the land. When the land was not, it was considered as a dereliction of duty. In the same way, overgrowth providing a sign that the land was displaced by date was not the right of everyone to burn the country. Similarly all the land was not suitable for burning. Therefore when somebody burned to the unsuitable land, it was treated as causing pollution by the people who did not honor the land. While some of the land was burnt, but it was not hunted on. Generally this was due to the reason that the land was spiritual or it was the burial grounds of the ancestors. In this way, it can be considered as a form of prohibition. Similarly burning fires was a way through which the people decided their place in the society and the world. It was also a away to bring the past in the future and preserving the tradition (Holmes, 1992).



It is believed by the aboriginal people that they are the stewards of land which is not common among other indigenous communities. Therefore even in cases where co-management policies have been implemented, generally the indigenous intellectual property was either marginalized or appropriated. Due to the considerable history of the outside agencies were trying to assert power on the travel resources and tribal authority, generally the tribal agencies were not ready to collaborate. As is the case with the state, the tribe had to deal with the vagaries of the political environment of a particular time (Isaacs, 1995). Historically, such a situation has resulted in a relationship between the state and the tribe and also the relationship between the tribe and the federal agencies to run hot and cold on several occasions. Some experts have emphasized on the fact that extended family is the basic principle of preservation economic life. Similarly, generosity is still highly valued even today as it was in the traditional way of life. Sharing food resources among the kin, whether they have been purchased or arrested by hunting and gathering, is still the operative force for the reservation residents. On the other hand, the agencies of the government are not forthcoming in recognizing the legitimacy of the aboriginal environmental practices or to include the perspectives of the aboriginals in the planning and management of the natural resources.



Atkinson, J. 2002, Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia, Spinifex, Australia

Bell, H. R. 1998, Men’s Business, Women’s Business: The Spiritual Role of Gender in the World’s Oldest Culture, Inner Traditions International, Rochester, VT.

Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.

Bill E, 1998, Living the Dreaming, in Aboriginal Australia 77, 81 (Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke & Bill Edwards, eds.

Blake, T. 2001, A Dumping Ground: A History of the Cherbourg Settlement, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane

Bourke C and Bill E., 1998, Family and Kinship, in Aboriginal Australia 100, 107 (Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke & Bill Edwards, eds.

Bourke C and Cox, H 1998, Two Laws: One Land, Aboriginal Australia 56,56 (Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke & Bill Edwards, eds.

Bourke, C., Bourke, E. & Edwards, B. 1994, Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane

Briskman, L. 2007, Social Work with Indigenous Communities, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Carrithers, M., Collins, S. & Lukes, S. (eds) 1985, The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

Cowlishaw, G. 2004, Blackfellas, Whitefellas and the Hidden Injuries of Race, Blackwell, Melbourne

Crawford, I. 2001, We Won the Victory!: Aborigines and Outsiders on the North-west Coast of the Kimberley, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA

De’Ishtar, Z. 2005, Holding Yawulyu: White Culture and Black Women’s Law, Spinifex, Melbourne

Drury, N. & Voigt, A. 1999, Fire and Shadow: Spirituality in Contemporary Australian Art, Harper Collins Publishers, Melbourne

Dudgeon, P., Garvey, D. & Pickett, H. (eds) 2000, Working with Indigenous Australians: A Handbook for Psychologists, Gunada Press, Perth

Eleanor B., 1998 Australia’s First Peoples: Identity and Population, in Aboriginal Australia 38, 40 (Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke & Bill Edwards, eds., 1998).

Farrelly, E. 2003, Dadirri the Spring Within: The Spiritual Art of the Aboriginal People from Australia’s Daly River Region, Terry Knight and Associates, Darwin

Fortes, M. 1987, Religion, Morality and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK

Garroutte, E. M. 2003, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA

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Hill, B. 2002, Broken Song: T. G. H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, Random House, Sydney.

Holmes, S. 1992, Yirawala: Painter of the Dreaming, Hodder & Stoughton, Sydney.

Isaacs, J. 1995, Wandjuk Marika: Life Story, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane

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