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Indigenous Australians: Background to Naming

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This page attempts to provide a basic understanding of the principles of kinship and naming within the Australian Indigenous communities to assist those working with Indigenous Australian profiles. The issues involved are complex and vary across the different Indigenous Language groups / Nations. Torres Strait Islander communities are different again. It is not our intention to in any way misrepresent these culturally significant issues or to oversimplify cultural and naming practices that vary widely across the Indigenous Nations. The Indigenous Australians Project welcomes members who would like to work on this page to improve the information documented.

Naming in Indigenous Communities

Kinship is the social foundation of Indigenous society. Clans live within Nations (see AIATSIS map) as subgroups of that Nation. There are levels of kinship within each Clan, and people may belong to several groups. The names used in the Indigenous community reflect their kinship ties and group membership and responsibilities. [1]

Indigenous Names and Family History Research

There are significant challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people researching their family history. [2] [3]

Specific issues, including:

  • Early records of indigenous people, where only 1 or a couple of names were documented, but it is unclear what type of names they were.
  • Documented records of a person, who may only be referred to as, say, 'Aunty Lizzie' or King George', or a nickname like 'Billy Boy'
  • Changes of name eg. due to adoption, or being part of the stolen generation, name changed by an employer
  • Spelling variations
  • Birth may have been registered by a non-Indigenous person, so the name on the birth record doesn't reflect the Indigenous name.

AIATSIS - Talking Names

The 'Talking Names' modules developed by AIATSIS are primarily for the use in library indexing and headings. The general rule is 'Choose as the basis of the heading, the name by which the person is commonly known'. The modules go through rules relevant to heading and indexing of different types of names, many of whom may not have a known or identifiable first name and surname, eg Aunty Mary, King George. [4]

Glossary of Terms

Clan - this generally refers to subgroups of a nations. For instance the Eora Nation refers to the Aboriginal people who lived in the Sydney region. The Gadigal clan is one of 29 clans that make up the Eora Nation. [5] Sometimes language groups can be referred to as clans. [6]

Indigenous Nation - this refers to the Language, Tribal or Nations groups that make up the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. [1]

Kinship Name - skin name, moiety and totem are all types of kinship name. The form of kinship names vary across different Nations. According to the Australians Together websit, the first level of kinship is moiety, the second is the totem, sometimes a totem to represent Nation, clan and family group, as well as a personal totem. The skin name indicates the person's blood line. [7]

Matrimoiety (and semi-matrimoiety) - membership of a kinship group based on rules relating to the kinship group of the mother. [8]

Mob - Used by Aboriginal people to refer to their people from a particular place or country. It can refer to family, clan or broader nation/country. [6]

Moiety - is another system of social group. It may exist separately to skin names, or in conjunction with skin names [9]

Nickname -

Patrimoiety (and semi-patrimoiety) - membership of a kinship group based on rules relating to the Kinship group of the father. [8]

Skin name - the Skin Name reflects the social organisation and family relationships within a community. Skin names will often confer roles and obligations within the community, and is often given at birth. [9] [4]

Totem - this can be an object, usually in nature, that is adopted as a family or kinship emblem. Sometimes it can be a personal totem, or a personal name, given to an individual at birth. [10]

Totemic Custodianship - a personal name can inferring totemic or ceremonial obligations, roles etc.

Traditional Name -

Tribal Name -

Tribe - this is a generic term, which can sometimes be an alternative name to Nation or Language group. [1] and at other times an alternative name to Clans. [5] 'Tribe' is often a European term, and not the preferred terminology amongst Indigenous people. [6]


Upambura Tjapaltjarri

Upambura - tribal name later translated as 'Possum', inherited from his grandfather. Some other family members also inherited this name
Clifford - personal name which he started using in his teens or twenties
Tjapaltjarri - a kinship name, in this case a semi-patrimoiety

Nugi Garimara

Nugi - name given to her by her mother (Mardu name)
Doris - European first name
Garimara - Kinship (skin) name
Pilkington - name of her partner.


University of Sydney, National Centre of Cultural Competence. Aboriginal Kinship Presentation.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020.AIATSIS map
  2. AIATSIS. Finding Your Family. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020.Finding your Family and Indigenous Names
  3. AIATSIS, Family History Unit. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020.Indigenous Names
  4. 4.0 4.1 AIATSIS Talking Names. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020. Module 2 Talkin Names
  5. 5.0 5.1 Barani: Sydney's Aboriginal History Website. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020. Aboriginal Groups in the Sydney Area
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Deadly Story Website. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020.Mob, Clan, Tribe, Language Group
  7. Australians Together website. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020.Kinship
  8. 8.0 8.1 Wikipedia Article. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020.Warlpiri people - Kinship
  9. 9.0 9.1 Central Land Council. Australia. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020.Kinship and Skin Names
  10. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Website. Accessed on 15 Jan 2020. Language Totems and Stories

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Hi Gillian, I know that this is still in draft, but thank you for taking the time to create it!

I cannot see that it is already linked from the Indigenous Australians Resource Page and wonder if that might be useful?

posted by Peter Jones