Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Belshaw’s World: A closer look at Kamilaroi and language

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 16 September 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

Over the last few weeks I have been reading Michael O'Rouke's three books on the Kamilaroi. Michael kindly sent them to me after reading one of my posts on the Aboriginal languages of New England

A Gunnedah boy who went to school in Armidale at De La Salle College, Michael’s writing is informed by a deep knowledge of the country as well as the historical sources.

The first book in the series, Kamilaroi Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century is a local/regional history, but of a very different type to most of those published.

Self-published by the author in 1997, the book is a detailed and painstaking exploration of the life of one Aboriginal language group at and in the period immediately following European settlement.

For those who do not know the Kamilaroi, they occupied a huge sweep of Australia from the Upper Hunter north along the Western Slopes and Plains into southern Queensland. Depending on the exact boundaries, we are talking about an area of more than 80,000 square kilometres.

You will sometimes see the name Gamilaraay used instead of the more traditional Kamilaroi.

Gamilaraay - gamil + array: literally no + having or having gamil for no – denotes a form of speech, the broader language spoken by the Kamilaroi as a whole. Even here, Gamilaraay could be used to describe the language (that speech which has gamil for no) or, by implication, its speakers (those who use gamil for no).

I find it easiest to continue to use the now traditional Kamilaroi to describe the people, reserving Gamilaraay for the language.

Michael's book starts with language.

He explores the ethnographic and linguistic evidence as it relates to the boundaries between the Kamilaroi and surrounding language groups. In doing so, he draws out the way in which names attached to area, to specific local groups, to language, all come together to confuse

He also shows how the distribution of Aboriginal place names adopted by the European settlers can actually help indicate the distribution of groups if you know the underlying language structures.

Michael then explores Kamilaroi social structures and ways of life. This is ethno-historical detective work. Suddenly we see traditional structures and relationships as they stood at a point in time emerging from the mists of the past.

When I first studied traditional Aboriginal life at University all those years ago I saw the anthropologists’ interest in kinship structures as obsessive and eye-glazing.

To some degree I still hold this view and for the same reason. It can interfere with understanding of other aspects of Aboriginal life.

That said, I do not think that you can understand the life of the Kamilaroi without understanding kinship structures.

The three level structure, to use the anthropologists’ terms, of moiety, section and totemic clan provided a framework that integrated all natural phenomena, not just the human population. In human terms, everything had a place and everything was in that place.

I still have to work out how best to explain all this in simple terms that even I can understand. While the principles themselves are simple enough, the way those principles interacted in practice can be quite complicated.

Each man, women or child in the Kamilaroi world belonged at birth to one moiety, one of two sections in each moiety, one of the totemic clans. We know that there were at least sixty-four totemic clans divided between the two moieties.

This structure was expressed in people’s names.

Like all Kamilaroi, the 18th century Kamilaroi war leader, the Red Kangaroo, had three names. There was a personal name that has not survived. Then came his section name, Gambu, marking him as a member of the Gubadhin moiety. Finally, there was a totem name, Ganur or Ganura or “red kangaroo”.

Kinship was central to Kamilaroi life.

A person coming into a strange group for trading or ceremonial purposes was always allocated a kinship position if one was not already held. The kinship structure allowed all people including strangers to be allocated a formal kinship place.

The language used by Aboriginal people today – brother, sister, auntie, uncle – link back to these previous structures because they express relationships in formal kinship terms independent of actual blood ties.

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