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Kinship underpins the social protocols in Indigenous communities

Kinship has an important role in Indigenous society. As a GP, it is helpful for you to understand some of its basic principles and how they may impact the medical treatment you provide.

“When I work in Indigenous health I get so much out of it, from meeting my patients, from a cultural perspective, from a learning perspective.”

Dr Cameron Halliday

GPTQ registrar

What is kinship?

Kinship is a system that governs social interaction between Indigenous people. It covers many aspects, including roles and responsibilities, and dictates who can speak to whom within an Indigenous family network.

As a GP, it can be daunting to grasp the many intricacies involved in the kinship system. But being aware of some of the protocols involved will assist you. Remember, help is always on hand from an Aboriginal Health Worker or community Elder.

Some features of the kinship system:

  • offers a sense of belonging to a wide group (relatives, extended family and wider community)
  • differs by location: what applies in one community may not apply in another
  • evolves to adapt to rural and urban settings but is always present
  • links an individual’s identity to their role in their family
  • uses a skin name to indicate which section of a community a person is from. The skin name is given at birth and is based on parents’ skin name.

One of the central tenets of the kinship system is the high value placed on belonging to a group. You might find that when meeting for the first time, some Indigenous people seek common ground by asking each other about familial relationships. In your work, it may be useful to share your family history with your clients. It may help in ‘placing’ you, leading to a greater understanding, which could increase compliance to treatment.

Family relations

In conversation, you may notice Indigenous people refer to one another using terms such as ‘brother’, ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ rather than using first names. This is because within an Indigenous family, those roles define the person.

Generally speaking, Indigenous people of the same sex and sibling line are referred to in the same way. For example, your father’s brother is considered your father too. Your mother’s sister is your mother too. When the relationship crosses between the sexes, the relationship name changes. Your father’s sister is your aunt and your mother’s brother is your uncle.

Grandparents play an extremely important role in Indigenous communities too. Many act as primary caregivers to their grandchildren. Child rearing is also shared by other family members.

Avoidance protocols

Socially, some Indigenous people ‘avoid’ certain family members. It’s not a form of disrespect or dislike. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. When working with Indigenous clients, it’s essential you are aware of this. It may explain why some people refuse to be in the same room or at a meeting together.

An example of this avoidance is the relationship between a brother and sister. In some communities, opposite sex siblings are not allowed to touch or talk to each other. Each person must use an intermediary to communicate.

When you speak to an Indigenous family, ensure that you’re speaking to the right person within that family’s kinship network. If not, important information may not be relayed to other family members, as it is not allowed. Aim instead to set up a family consult rather than an individual client meeting.

Elders as helpers

Elders have always played a vital role in Indigenous families and continue to do so today. Often, they are the primary decision makers for Indigenous families. If you’re ever in doubt about a particular situation, consulting with an Elder is a great way to obtain information. However, always remain respectful of an Elder’s position.

We’ve only brushed the surface of the Indigenous kinship network. There’s much more to learn. A great way to do this is by taking up an Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) post. Visit our Indigenous Health page to find out more.

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