Sunday, August 1, 2010

Warning: May contain traces of peanuts

While I’m going about my Saturday morning chores, I like to catch up on some current affairs programs which I have undoubtedly missed during the week. If you watch a lot of SBS or ABC in Australia, you’ll hear and or see, from time to time: Warning! Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned that this program may contain names and images of deceased people.

Every time I hear this I say to myself, I must find out what it’s all about. Because, to be honest, lucky for me, it has all the relevance of a ‘may contain traces of peanuts’ warning on the back of a cereal box.
I am ashamed to say I know next to nothing about the customs and traditions of the Australian Aborigine, which is largely due to the fact that I have never met any, apart from a few over the years that may have been less than quarter cast and well and truly integrated into western/white society. The Aborigine and Torres Strait Islanders account for less than 3% of our population, with most of them living nowhere near me. The extent of my indigenous education is limited to the boomerang, corroboree, woomera, pointing the bone and kurdaitcha man. Also, dreamtime and walkabout, the latter I remember being a favourite activity by the indigenous boarders at my sister's school = wagging school = truancy. Oh, and let's not forget COOEE!

Back to the Warning. Of course one doesn’t have to be a genie-arse to know it must be related to their cultural/religious beliefs...but why?

Apparently it’s part of the ‘Avoidance Practice’, which is literally the practice of avoiding things. I think I’m good at this research stuff!

Traditionally, not talking about, or acknowledging a dead person, is a sign of respect and a way of not upsetting the grieving family. As I suspected! The period of avoidance can last for one to several years, thus discouraging the handing down of names from one generation to the next, which would be kind of awkward, and rarely done, in smaller communities.

So in my case, there would not be:

My Mum Snap

Me Snap

C Snap J

And now, P Snap H

....four generations of Snaps in various forms and is, I think, quite thoughtful and considerate to our descendants wishing to trace our family tree in the year 2179. It doesn’t have to be a ‘male’ phenomenon, what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

L Not Snap J should be forgiven when she asked as a small child. ‘Mummy, when do I become a Snap?’ (dark brown hair included), as if it were some form of gradual transmutation.

Back to the warning. What I didn’t know is that there is an even bigger avoidance rule which falls under kinship laws. Kinship law is complex and detailed (so I’ll just be don’t know squat diddly about it skimming the surface) and a fundamental component of every Aboriginal group in Australia.

It’s common practice to avoid the Mother-In-Law.

YESSSSSSS, I know many NON aboriginal families follow this custom also, but their's is OFFICIALLY official. Under the kinship law the Mother-In-Law does NOT talk to the son/daughter in-law nor eat with them and their spouse (spouse = their own son or daughter). They can only communicate with their blood related off spring in private. Not mention of the ole Father in-law in this picture and I have a sneaking suspicion that he may have been the instigator of this rule, be it centuries ago.

Depending on your own in-law experiences, I bet some of you are wishing you were an indigenous Australian right about now?

This rule is thought to have been hatched to prevent two women (daughter/wife) and (mother/mother in-law) from trying to win the affections of the same man, particularly when the son in-law is near the same age of his mother in-law...and probably to evade any possible hen pecking.

Another kinship avoidance law exists between siblings of the opposite sex. Brothers and sisters are able to play and interact freely up until the time of initiation, after that, it’s avoid, avoid!!!! I’m sure that most of us when growing up would have welcomed this avoidance rule to keep that pesky brother or sister at bay. Particularly if one’s brother is burning off one’s arm hair with a magnifying glass under the hot Australian sun, while one is tanning oneself with one’s eyes closed.

...but not so much later in life when the infantile squabbling and hormonal tirades have died down. This rule is also reputed to having helped in the avoidance of incest in tight knit groups of people.

Are these laws practiced today? From what I can ascertain, NOT MUCH not bloody likely and their erosion has been partly blamed for the increasing problems of violence and incest amongst aboriginal communities. I’m not going to get into politics I largely blame our government for many of the existing problems or personal opinion, but thought this was an interesting topic to explore and share.

What’s even more alarming is the warning I just read on the back of my prune packet: May contain metal fragments, take care to avoid dental damage.

For the love of Pete, is nothing sacred safe?