Bininj Kunwok pilot 2016

Bininj Kunwok pilot 2016

Cultural information

Watch this video where Jill Nganjmirra talks about the skin system. It may help to refer to the chart below as she explains.

If you have trouble viewing this video, click HERE

Like in most Aboriginal groups in Australia, every Bininj is a member of a “skin group” (Anthropologists refer to these as “subsections”). While the skin systems vary in different groups, in Kunwinjku there are 8 different ‘skins’, each one with a female and a male form, as shown in the Vocabulary lesson. Skin group is automatic at birth, but can be assigned to people not born in Kunwinjku society.

A person’s skin group is determined at birth by the mother’s skin group.  People can predict from someone’s skin group the skin group of their mother, or their children or other relatives.

The following chart is one way of organizing this basic information about skin groups, showing who is the first and second marriage choice, which patrimoiety (Duwa or Yirridjdja)  and matrimoiety (Ngarradjku or Mardku) each group belongs to, which group their children belong to. The moieties are also important for ceremonial purposes. 


When a Kunwinjku person is born, the skin group of his/her mother determines which skin group the child belongs to. It is not the same as the mother’s skin group, but has a special relationship to it. So for example, a woman who is Ngalkodjok skin group, will have children who are all Nawakadj or Ngalwakadj skin.

The lines across the middle of the chart show skin groups whose members can marry each other. Even then, not all the people in an “eligible” group would be possible because of other rules about who can marry whom. Note: it is not possible to marry someone from one’s own skin group. Of course, ‘wrong-way’ marriage (or short term affairs) between people from wrong skin groups does occur, but attracts criticism and sometimes serious trouble.

For example, using the chart, it is clear that a Nabulanj man can only marry a woman from either Ngalkangila or Ngalwakadj groups, but not all women in these groups would be eligible, and those who are eligible might already be married.

WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW THE SKIN GROUP SYSTEM (from Kunwinjku Kunwok, 1998)

The skin group names are probably the most important thing to learn in trying to communicate with Kunwinjku people, because they are so absolutely fundamental to daily life:

[1] The most common way Kunwinjku people refer to each other and address each other, is using skin group names. This is true whether in intimate family life or in public. Long term visitors to Kunwinjku communities are likely to be assigned membership of one of these groups. This does not imply any special acceptance of that person, but is simply done so that the person can easily be referred to.

[2] Membership of a skin group determines the group of people who are eligible marriage partners.

[3] Even very young children can deduce from a person’s skin group the skin groups of that person’s parents, children and other relatives. If you can’t do that, you are in a roughly equivalent situation as a person trying to survive in white Australian society without knowing how to use address words like Mr., Mrs., Miss, Dr., Your Honour, mate, madam, sir etc.. It is absolutely basic stuff.

[4] The skin groups also determine ceremonial roles, totems, and other groupings.

[5] Every Kunwinjku person who has tried to teach us the language, has started by explaining these groups.

NOTE: Much of this information has been copied or adapted from Kunwinjku Kunwok: A Short Introduction to Kunwinjku Language and Society, by Steven and Narelle Etherington, (3rd edition) 1998. This is an excellent resource for language learners, and is available for download from (WARNING! 28Mb file). 

Thanks to Steve Etherington for generously allowing to use his resources in the development of this course.


If you have Bininj connections, talk with them about skin names and family connections. You may like to try drawing a small family tree using skin names.

Practise using these phrases (introduced earlier in this unit)

    • Ngudda baleh kunkurlah? = What is your skin name?
    • Ngaye kunkurlah ngardu Ngalwakadj = I am Ngalwakadj (skin)
    • Ngaye kunkurlah ngardu Nabulanj = I am Nabulanj (skin)

QUIZ: Test your understanding of some of the basics of the Bininj Kunwok skin system.


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