Family and kinship

Family and kinship

Aboriginal kinship and family structures are still cohesive forces which bind Aboriginal people together in all parts of Australia. Traditionally the Aboriginal family was a collaboration of clans composed of mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers, cousins and so on. In today’s terms it is known as an extended family . For Aboriginal people their family provides psychological and emotional support which is important to their wellbeing.

Aboriginal family obligations, often are seen as nepotism by other Australians,  and are not strictly nuclear families. The structure of Aboriginal families reflects cultural values and involving kinship responsibilities.

For Aboriginal people kinship and family are especially import. Aboriginal people have family and kinship responsibilities that are not typical of non-Aboriginal families.

Aboriginal people get things done through working through their family and kinship structures.


The effects of this are:

Aboriginal clients

  • May feel obligated to share material/resources support with family members
  • May not feel comfortable to speak out or go first in group meetings if they are the only Aboriginal person at a meeting or Elders are present.
  • Expectation that Aboriginal Workers are accessible after hours

Aboriginal workers

  • May feel obligated to work with clients out of hours if they are part of their community or kinship group
  • May feel obligated to share their resources with family members
  • May see clients in a holistic way (without many of the functional boundaries that European/Western culture has).

Aboriginal management committees;

  • May not see a conflict of interest if members of a kinship group are on the Management Committee and are also clients of the service.




Implications for service providers when working with Aboriginal families

1. Workers understanding of the concepts of ‘family’ and ‘kinship’

It is important for Workers to have an understanding of the concepts of ‘family’ and ‘kinship’ as they exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The traditional Indigenous family structure is significantly different to the Western view of a family unit. Where as many non-Indigenous people live within a nuclear family unit, Aboriginal people value an extended family system, which often includes quite distant relatives. In Aboriginal society family is an integral part of a person’s life. It is your extended family that teaches you how to live, how to treat other people and how to interact with the land.

When working with Aboriginal people you may find that they rarely call their family members by name, instead they use relationship terms such as brother, mother, aunt or cousin. It is useful to have a general understanding of the Classification System of Kinship, whereby Aboriginal people of the same sex and the same sibling line are basically identified as the same, so when one has a child they both become mothers or fathers. For example, two sisters are identified as the same and if one has a child they both become mother. This ‘kinship’ system establishes how all members of a community are related and what their position is. For more detail on Classificatory Kinship Systems

Today there are many Aboriginal families in both rural and urban communities that retain some level of the ‘kinship’ system. For example, you may hear an Aboriginal person ask another Aboriginal person, “Who’s your mob?” They are asking where do you come from, where do you belong and who are your family?

In contrast to western society, Aboriginal peoples place great value on belonging to a group and conforming to the obligations and responsibilities of other group members. A sense of belonging is integral to the Aboriginal culture and enables them to connect to their land and their people. With such a strong sense of ‘family’ and ‘kinship’ Aboriginal people like to identify themselves by their familial relationships. For example you may hear an Aboriginal person ask another Aboriginal person, “Do you know Joe?” They are often looking for some common ground and ‘kinship’ system they fit into. It may also be useful for a non-Aboriginal worker to use this strategy and share personal information about yourself. e.g. Where you come from and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities you may have worked in.

2. In Traditional Aboriginal society children are the responsibility of not only their biological parents but their entire extended family. I This is still a common practice today. Aboriginal communities have particularly strong family values and raising a child is everybody’s responsibility including their care, discipline and education. Aboriginal families rely on and nurture strong family ties as a means of passing on their cultural beliefs from one generation to the next. Without these relationships children will lose their cultural beliefs and identity.

When supporting Aboriginal clients with their family needs, parenting skills or child-care concerns, it may be useful to connect them with an Aboriginal Worker who can make connections with the wider Aboriginal community to utilize existing skills and knowledge and develop a support network. It is also important to remember that the support and material assistance you provide may be used for the benefit of not only the client’s children but also their nieces, nephews, grandchildren and even children from the wider Aboriginal community. In this case Service policies and procedures may need to be more flexible to meet the needs of the client.  For example; the intake and assessment process could include a question regarding dependents within the extended family.

3. Many aged Aboriginal people have a major role in raising their grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Sometimes they are the main care-giver. Their position in the family is highly respected and their knowledge and opinions are valued and respected. Workers with a support role in aged care may need to consider the additional issues that confront Aboriginal grandparents in regards to on-going care of young children. Making links with pre-schools, child-care services, child and family health workers and family support workers may be useful.

4. Elders have a very important role in traditional and contemporary Aboriginal families. They are often the key decision makers. They teach important traditional skills and customs, pass on knowledge and share personal stories. Aboriginal people have great respect for their elders and their knowledge. The traditional meaning of an Aboriginal Elder is someone who has gained recognition within their community as a custodian of knowledge and lore and who has permission to disclose cultural knowledge and beliefs.

5. In Traditional Aboriginal communities, story-telling is an important aspect of teaching children about life and their culture

In Traditional Aboriginal communities, story-telling is an important aspect of teaching children about life and their culture. The Elders use story-telling to share knowledge about the dreaming, language and lore. For more information on these stories. The ‘Tiddalick’ story is also available and describes a greedy frog who drank all the water in the land, draining the rivers and billabongs, until the other animals were forced to try to get Tiddalik to give up the water.

Story-telling has an important role today in both rural and urban communities. All kinds of modern media are used to share stories and songs, including television, the Web, music, art and books. Sharing this information is important in nurturing Aboriginal traditions and culture and educating the wider community. Within the Human Services sector you may have an advocacy role, where you need to support the rights of your client. You need to be informed of the primary issues that disadvantage Aboriginal families and be able to express this within the non-Indigenous community. You will need to maintain a strong network with key representatives of your local Aboriginal community to facilitate referral for families and enhance access to service.

6. When listening to Aboriginal people talk to each other you may notice that they rarely address each other by name. They often use relationship terms such as brother, aunt, cousin etc. If there is no immediate relationship they may be referred to as somebody’s mother or son etc. Again, their name is rarely used. Personal names are viewed as an integral part of the individual and are always used with discretion (pg 105 Aboriginal Australia). Intake and assessment processes need to include detailed questions concerning family to establish a picture of significant relationships and the extra responsibilities associated with this. Remember to be sensitive in your use of personal names during this process.

7. The ‘Stolen Generation’ is the term used to describe the children that were removed from their families from the early 1900’s through implementation of Government policies. Aboriginal people refer to these children as "taken" or "stolen". It is one of the most significant Government policies to impact on the Aboriginal community and its effects are still reverberating in the Aboriginal community. As a Worker it is important to have an understanding of the effects of this policy in order to challenge the misconceptions of the wider community and the on-going disadvantage that affects many Aboriginal families today.

For more detailed information on the ‘Stolen Generation’ see The Bringing them Home Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997; Full report

The issues associated with the ‘Stolen Generation’ are ongoing for many Aboriginal families. As a Worker in the Human Services sector it is very likely you will support clients who have relatives that were removed as children. They may even have been removed themselves.

Many Aboriginal people are currently dealing with the issues associated with not having their extended Aboriginal network around them as they grew up. Aboriginal adults who were removed from their families as children may experience difficulties with their parenting skills. They may not understand their own identity and culture. This may than lead to difficulties in teaching and connecting their own children with their Aboriginal heritage. It is important to recognise the long-term effects of the ‘Stolen Generation’ and offer support and referral where appropriate. Your local Aboriginal Support Worker will be able to provide you with appropriate contacts within the wider Aboriginal community. ‘Link-Up’ is an Aboriginal organisation that works with Aboriginal adults who were separated from their families and homes when they were children. They provide counselling and support to connect with one’s family, home and culture.

In addition to the issue of the ‘Stolen Generation’ there are also concerns for many Aboriginal children who experienced adoption or fostering practices. It has only been recently that Government policy has recognised the importance of placing Aboriginal children within their own community to keep them connected with their culture. Past Government policies have resulted in inappropriate placements with non-Indigenous families where their Aboriginal culture was largely ignored or misunderstood.

8. As a Worker you need to remember the importance of extended family for your Aboriginal client and your Aboriginal Workers. Family teaches one how to live, respect and how to treat people. These learnings are passed down through the generations by sharing all aspects of their lives including food, money, clothes, homes and child-rearing. This may impact on the Service you offer or on the needs of an Aboriginal Worker in a generalist service. You may find that the material assistance you have just provided your Aboriginal client has been shared with their extended family. You need to recognise that although your assistance may no longer be meeting the direct needs of your clients it is enabling them to meet their familial responsibilities. Aboriginal Workers may also feel obligated to share Service resources with their family members. Aboriginal Workers are members of the wider Aboriginal Community and are at times viewed as the person who can assist in addressing individual and community issues, this expectation can impact on Aboriginal Workers socially and emotionally. As an employer you may need to provide additional support to these Workers to establish their boundaries.

9. In many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities it is offensive to refer to a deceased person by name or to show photographic images of the person during the mourning period, unless agreed to by the relevant family. Mourning periods differ between communities, sometimes the person’s name or image cannot be used for a week or a year, and sometimes it is for an     
indefinite period.

Before using the name of a deceased person or publishing their image, it is
essential to obtain the family’s permission. Many organisations and publishers
are now employing the use of cultural warnings in publications to avoid
causing offence to the families of deceased persons.



Implications for services when employing Aboriginal workers;

Racism in the general community results in wide-spread disadvantage for Aboriginal families. It impacts on their access to employment, housing, health services, education and training.

As a Worker in the Human Services sector you have a role in eliminating racism through education, raising public awareness and challenging misconceptions. As an employer of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers in a generalist service it may be useful to develop a policy whereby all employees will participate in cultural sensitivity training.

As an employer of Aboriginal workers in a generalist service it may be useful to develop a set of guidelines or policies that inform all employees of

  • Significant events such as Acknowledgment of County, Welcome to Country
  • Significant dates such as NAIDOC Week, National Reconciliation Week, National Sorry Day and National Apology Day
  • Respecting Elders
  • Inclusion of an Aboriginal Representative on selection processes
  • Bereavement leave and including extended family members
  • Cultural leave to attend significant events

In regards to the recruitment and long term employment of Aboriginal Workers it may be important to consider that some Aboriginal Workers find it difficult working in mainstream services within the Human Services sector because of the structure associated with their job which often results in a lack of flexibility and support of family commitments. This can lead to difficulties for the Worker when there is a conflict between the expectations of the Service and what their extended family expects.

Services with Aboriginal Workers will need to ensure that a regular topic in professional supervision is how the worker is balancing the family and kinship demands with the workers functional role.

 Aboriginal Workers can often feel isolated in mainstream organisations at times they are called upon by their Employers to represent and comment on Aboriginal issues , this practice whilst meaning to be inclusive and consultative can place Aboriginal Workers in difficult and sometime awkward situations.

In addition Aboriginal Workers can feel isolated in very structured and rigid organisations that do not allow for conversations and or discussion.