Lessons for family and relationships from 48,000 years of history
Image: from the front cover of the book by authorA remarkable community of first nations people has seven key values by which they live, to help ensure good relationships between men and women, adults and children, people and the land. This article is based on a new book which provides first insights into the unique Noongar family history.
by Dr Francesca RobertsonMoort is the Nyoongar word for family. Nyoongar are the first nations people of the Southwest of Western Australia. They have lived there for at least 48,000 years and comprised of 14 nations. The word moort is not just about family – it is a concept that covers a way of living in harmonious relationship with nature and with each other.
Moort was and remains a family-based system of governance. It enabled Nyoongar people and culture to survive and remain on their land through the Great Drought between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago.
The Great Drought was how Australia experienced the last glacial maximum when the northern hemisphere was covered in glaciers as far south as Spain. With all the water locked in glaciers, Australia became so dry that there were few places left where life could continue. How Nyoongar people managed during those ten thousand years is a remarkable feat of intelligence and ingenuity.
Nyoongar people also survived the occupation by British and Irish people. They did this by sticking to their values, and by a combination of resistance and resilience.

At the heart of moort are seven key values which are integrated into daily life
1. KallipKallip is learning and the preservation of knowledge about people and their environment and its systems. The primary reason for kallip is cooperation – to live sustainably within nature’s bounty. Nyoongar people attained intimate knowledge of the land, climate, and all the cycles of which they are a part. Everything is understood in terms of its kinesis – movement through its own life cycle, and the movement created by its relationship with others. As a practical knowledge it informs when various activities such as hunting, fishing, and burning are undertaken. As a spiritual knowledge it holds the story of natural cycles such as the annual cycles of the crying rain that renews colour, and the longer climatic cycles.
2. MoietyMoiety is the use of genetic markers to protect the gene pool. The community is divided into groups and marriage between members of the same group is forbidden. Elders assigned a moiety to each child at their birth. The Nyoongar community has been relatively small and interrelated. Thus it was essential for female elders to know the bloodline of the parents, grandparents and great grandparents to assign the right moiety.
3. Kooboorn (totems)Moiety is acknowledged by the totem given at birth, for example, Manitch (white cockatoo) and Wardong (crow). A second totem may be given in recognition of patrilineal descent. The father and his family are likely to have an area in which they hunt, and for which they have caring responsibilities. The totem is likely to be related to this land, such as a local patch of creek, river, flora, or fauna. There are lifelong responsibilities associated with a totem.
4. Danjoo maam yok winni rak kardip (mutual gender respect)
Nyoongar people were hunter-gatherers although they did also plant grains and yams and undertook aquaculture. As hunter-gatherers men are concerned with hunting and women concerned with gathering. Each responsibility requires two different skill sets. Over thousands of years of practice, each set of skills became honed to the best response for the local conditions. A successful hunter-gatherer economy requires that at the end of the day men and women come together to share the fruits of their labour. A hunter-gatherer life is sustained through trust. Mutual respect for the knowledge and skills inherent in the different labours of men and women was also extended to other areas. Marriage and family is women’s business; land and location is men’s business.
5. Boodiya (eldership)The eldership system concerns a seven-djoowak process. The closest English concept of djoowak is generation, but djoowak is not about the time in which a child passes from birth to adulthood, which in Nyoongar is approximately 19 years. Rather it refers to seven stages of a life history, each stage being 15 years.

Eldership is essentially a form of governance and is founded on three connected elements: differences between women’s and men’s business, mutual respect, and an extended lifespan. In the first phase of life (0-15 years) koolanga is childhood, which has its own recognised stages. As time passes, each generation produces a few people with exceptional abilities and at the fourth stage (45-60 years) someone showing ability may be approached by elders to take on an elder role. Later stages are marked by, for example, djendalak (grey hair) and djendaladi (white hair). In the last few stages advanced age blurs gender distinctions – men and women work closely together to guide the community.
Camp scene Narrogin WA. |  supplied by author an published with permission7. Dalbarbak koolangarra (honouring of children and childhood)Children, as the future of the human race, are very important. They must experience a caring childhood; so childhood is regarded as a special place with its own strengths and vulnerabilities. Children under eight years, are expected to play and get to know the world. Adults want to let them emerge, to see who they are, what their personality is. Each child is a new and unique spirit unburdened by the circumstances of conception or birth.
Children were never punished because of what their parents did.

Today Nyoongar people continue to live by their values and are re-emerging as a proud and vibrant culture.
Finding out about moortThe portrait of moort  and its rich history has only recently been put together by a team at Kurongkurl Katitjin, Centre for Aboriginal Education and Research at Edith Cowan University. The team: 

Dr Francesca Robertson (see below).

Dr Noel Nannup AO, Elder of the Year 2017 was Elder in Residence at ECU. He is a champion of Nyoongar people.

Dr David Coall is a Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science, School of Health Sciences at ECU. Dr Coall is an evolutionary biologist with extensive research and publications on relationships between generations.

Dr Dan McAullay, is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Improving Health Services for Aboriginal Children and Families based at Edith Cowan University. He is a Nyoongar man and a renowned epidemiologist with expertise in the enhancement of health and welfare services and the improvement of ethical research with Aboriginal people.

Alison Nannup, was a Research Officer, Kurongkurl Katitjin, Edith Cowan University. She is a young Nyoongar woman who is also a linguist specialising in Nyoongar language.

Dr Robertson and Dr Nannup have recently retired from ECU and Alison now works at a local language centre.

For more information see Moort—a Celebration of a Traditional and Contemporary Aboriginal Family, Batchelor Institute Press.
About the author:
Francesca was a teacher and a social worker before completing a PhD in 2014. Until her retirement this year she was a Senior Researcher at Kurongkurl Katitjin at Edith Cowan University, WA.
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