Picture this… you are at church chatting with a group of local ladies. The group is discussing some ladies who have gone away to Darwin for a Bible College program. You want to mention one of the ladies who has gone, but you can’t remember her name. You ask the lady next to you what Winnie’s grandmother’s name is. ( I often learn the kid’s names before the adults) All you hear is silence. You look up to see if she heard you. She looks like she heard… but yet, no answer. Not even any indication that she is considering the answer, shows on her face. Just nothing. Silence.
What would you make of the situation? You know she’s not deaf because she was hearing you quite easily prior to the question. Why wouldn’t she answer you?
I surrendered to the silence and decided to ask the lady on the other side of me, what Winnie’s grandmother’s name is. She happily told me that her name is Margaret. As soon as her name was spoken, the first lady joined back into the conversation informing me that she (Margaret) is her poison cousin.
She said this so matter of factly, assuming I guess that I understood not only her silence but also what a poison cousin means. I had a basic idea, but not really any understanding of the complexities of the term. In aboriginal families there are certain relationships which need to be avoided. These include son-in-law / mother – in – law connection, and poison cousins. Your poison cousin should not be spoken to or even named. You should not spend time with this person or be too close physically with them, such as in the same room.
The more people I talk to about these relationships, the more confused I get. But the basic premise seems to be that a poison cousin is someone to keep at a distant to preserve important relationships. For example one lady explained to me that in order to keep her marriage strong, she was not to associate with any other men other than her husband as much as possible. But her brother in laws were poison relationships and so they could not be associated with at all.
A friend referred me to a book that explained things a little further. It’s called “Whitefella Culture” by Susanne Hagan and says…
“Avoidance between certain relatives
All Aboriginal groups have the taboo relationship between a man and his mother-in-law. Sometimes this taboo is extended to the woman’s brothers and her husband, and usually includes some degree of respect/avoidance of all women classified as mother-in-law in the kinship system. The taboo generally means that people are not allowed to speak or touch directly. It may mean total avoidance of the other’s presence. Groups vary in how closely they observe this taboo and in how much they expect outsiders to conform.
Other social taboos are found only in certain areas or among certain groups, eg. avoidance between adult brothers and sisters in Arnhem Land and other northern groups, avoidance between brothers in some desert groups, and, in some areas, avoidance between brothers-in-law.
The most important thing is to be aware of these taboos and whom they affect. Then you won’t be expecting the wrong people to be working together or travelling together in the same vehicle. These taboos can apply to children also, so white teachers should learn about them from an Aboriginal adult. Such avoidances may seem awkward to white people, but Aboriginal people will often work out a way for the avoidance to be overcome when necessary.”
You begin to imagine the impact these avoidance relationships might have in daily life here. It complicates employment, restricts who a nurse can treat and even adds some extra complications for the MAF pilot. Rachel (the other MAF pilot stationed here in Numbulwar) told me about one day where she had a plane full of passengers. The weight of the people in each row of seats had to be calculated very carefully to allow the correct balance for the plane to take off correctly. After some serious calculations, she had it solved. She knew exactly where each passenger needed to sit to balance the plane. But as she began asking the passengers where to sit, it became apparent that there was a problem. Amongst the passengers there was a poison relationship which needed to be addressed. Ideally that means one person in the relationship sits next to the pilot and the other in one of the rear rows. Rachel needed to put aside her original plan and start her calculations again to suit both the plane’s balance, but also the relationship needs of her passengers.
At playgroup i have found myself getting tripped up by these relationships too. By asking someone the name of a child or parent for the rolls, I am often met with silence. When doing an activity, like pasting, you need to be careful which adult you ask to help a child, as that may be a poison cousin of theirs.
While it is easy to see the way these relationships would make life difficult, for me this also shows the fingerprints of God upon this culture. I find it fascinating to see how cultures have inbuilt ethics and morals that protect what’s important, in this case the family structure and marriage. This is just one of the cultural traits of the people of Numbulwar, that we seek to understand and observe, so as not to offend.