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Family Matters article

August 1993


This article presents a collection of papers on family life amongst Torres Strait Islanders. It begins with a paper by Paul Ban, a consultant engaged by the Torres Strait community, reviewing the traditional adoption practice of the Islanders, followed by a discussion of the legal recognition of customary adoption. Adoption involves the permanent transfer of a child from one extended family member to another. The next paper briefly describes the history of Torres Strait Islanders since European contact, their traditional culture and languages and the geography of the Torres Strait Islands. The final paper by Steve Mam, McRose Elu, Ivy Trevallion, and Allan Reid, uses the coconut palm tree as a metaphor for Islander family life. Each part of the tree is used to describe a principle such as the roots of the tree signify the foundation and heritage of family life and the leaves of the tree depict the extended family.

Torres Strait Islanders are indigenous Australians who have had a low profile in the wider Australian consciousness until the Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court on 3 June 1992. Eddie Mabo was a Torres Strait Islander originally from Murray Island in the Torres Strait, and had won a case against the Queensland government in which he and two other plaintiffs were legally recognised as the traditional owners of their land.

The media has chosen to focus on the impact of the dismissal of Terra Nullis on the mainland Aboriginal community and the impact of the decision for Torres Strait Islanders has received little coverage. This article is intended to help readers understand some of the traditions and customs of Torres Strait Islanders regarding their family life.

The first part is by a white social worker, Paul Ban, who has spent a number of years working with Torres Strait Islanders to help them gain legal recognition of their customary adoption practice. The second section is by three Torres Strait Islanders and a Pacific Islander, Steve Mam, McRose Elu, Ivy Trevallion and Allan G. Reid, who are part of the team involved in the customary adoption recognition project.

Torres Strait Islander customary adoption

by Paul Ban. Project Consultant, IINA Torres Strait Islander Corporation

One of the customs which has been maintained by Torres Strait Islanders is that of their traditional adoption practice. The custom is widespread throughout the Islander community, as it is in most Pacific Island cultures.

The word 'adoption' was originally used by anthropologists to describe the Pacific Island custom of a permanent transfer of a child from one extended family member to another. This term was applied to differentiate permanent care from temporary arrangements where children were likely to be returned to their original parents. While the permanence is similar to that intended by adoption in the Western world, the motive for adoption is far more complex than simply the product of infertility and children born out of wedlock.

Some of the reasons which may be behind a customary adoption for Torres Strait Islanders are:

  • to maintain the family bloodline by adopting (usually) a male child from a relative - this is linked to the inheritance of traditional land in the islands;
  • to keep the family name going by adopting a male child from a relative or close friend into the family;
  • to give a family who cannot have a child due to infertility the joy of raising a child - a married couple may give a child to either a single person or another couple, and 'relinquishment' is not restricted to single parents;
  • to strengthen alliances and bonds between the two families concerned;
  • to distribute boys and girls more evenly between families who may have children of only one sex;
  • to replace a child who had been adopted out to another family - this may occur within the extended families;
  • to replace a child into the family once a woman has left home so that the grandparents would still have someone to care for;
  • to provide company and care for an older relative, usually an older child.

In Torres Strait Islander culture, people are considered greedy if they have too many children and do not share them with others. The underlying principle of Torres Strait Islander adoption is that giving birth to a child is not necessarily a reason for raising the child. The issue of who rears the child is dependent on a number of social factors, such as those listed, and is a matter of individual consideration by the families involved. Customary adoption involves all Islander families in some way, whether children have been adopted in or out of the family. The children are never lost to the family of origin as they have usually been placed with relatives somewhere else in the family network.

Legal recognition of customary adoption

It is difficult for non-Islanders to understand the subtleties and complexities of Islander adoption, and on initial consideration it is difficult to understand why State and Commonwealth laws would have any involvement or impact on this custom. Traditional adoption occurs only within the Islander community, both on the mainland and in the Torres Strait, and is a private matter between the two families. However, as most Islanders live on the mainland and have to deal with Government institutions, a number of problems have arisen.

Dying without a will

If an islander has a traditionally adopted child in the family as well as natural children and dies without a will, complications can arise. As most Islanders do not make wills and as adoption is widespread throughout families, such complications occur often. A traditionally adopted child is not legally considered part of the family, so that when the State Government, through the Public Trust Office, has to distribute the deceased's estate, the adopted child is not eligible for any inheritance. This has caused friction within families and a general frustration over the non- recognition of the custom.

Change of name on birth certificates

The only way children can legally have their birth certificates altered to show their new family name and the name of their new parents is by adhering to the procedures of State adoption legislation. Under Islander custom, an adopted child becomes a full member of his/her new family and takes on the family surname. In traditional times this was understood as an oral arrangement by the community and there was no need to write it down. The child simply was called by his/her new name and the Islander community acknowledged this. However, as birth certificates are used in mainland Australia to prove one's identity, Islanders who have been adopted are finding out that the name they have been using and the identity of their parents are not what they thought they were.

This leads to the complex issue of telling a child that they are adopted. In Western society, adoptive parents are encouraged to tell a child of their adoption at as young an age as possible. However, in Torres Strait society it is not customary to tell a child about their adoption, but rather the child finds out about their status in adolescence when they are considered ready to comprehend the information. No fuss is made of the adoptive status and it is considered traditionally to be a private subject that should not be openly discussed.

The confusion among Islanders regarding their identity and their name arises when birth certificates are needed to be produced for such things as schools, sporting clubs and driver's licences.

Disputes over the care of adopted children

Although the intention of customary adoption is for the family who receives the child to care permanently for the child, there are occasions when the child is not adequately cared for by the adoptive parents. In traditional times, a family meeting would decide on where the child should live and a traditional adoption could be dissolved if necessary. As most Islanders live on the mainland and are more scattered than when living in the Torres Strait, it is far more difficult for traditional dispute resolution methods to be used. As customary adoption is not legally recognised by State and Commonwealth laws, the adoptive parent does not have any legal status. This has been the cause of problems for Islanders when the original family may decide they want to have their child back and there are no traditional structures to resolve the dispute. It has caused insecurity amongst Islander adoptive parents as they are aware that the 'white' laws are not in their favour.

Since the change of Government in Queensland at the end of 1989, Islanders have been given the opportunity to present their case for recognition to the Queensland Government. After initial interest was shown, it took almost three years before financial assistance was given to Torres Strait Islanders to consult with their own community regarding the changes needed to legislation and Government policy and practice.

The Torres Strait Islanders have retained the author as a consultant to travel to Islander communities and document their issues and recommendations. A report will be prepared towards the end of 1993 and, after being endorsed by the communities visited, will be presented in a ceremonial form to the Queensland Government.

The author is supported in this project by being part of a team with three Torres Strait Islanders and a Pacific Islander. This team has spoken at a number of Islander and non-Islander conferences, the last being the National Family Court Conference in Sydney in July 1993.


This article on Islander traditional adoption, and the following description of the Islander family life, have attempted to provide some understanding of the culture and customs of Torres Strait Islander family life.

It should be evident to non-Islanders that Islanders retain a strong sense of identity by preserving their place within their family network. The author's work with Torres Strait Island people has been to help them to maintain their family structures by seeking appropriate legal recognition from State and Commonwealth Governments.

Torres Strait Islanders and the Torres Strait

by Paul Ban

Torres Strait Islanders are of Melanesian background and have their homeland in the Torres Strait, which is approximately 10os and situated between the tip of Cape York and Papua New Guinea. They number approximately 25,000, with the majority of Islanders living on the mainland of Australia, particularly Queensland. Of the 5000 or so Islanders living in the Torres Strait, approximately half live on Thursday Island, the commercial centre of the Strait, and the other half are distributed between the 14 inhabited islands throughout the region.

Following European contact, initially by explorers and then by the London Missionary Society in 1871, Torres Strait Islanders have always remained on their homelands and their culture and traditions have continued relatively intact. Torres Strait Islanders were able to incorporate Christianity into their existing social organisations, with island chiefs becoming church leaders. The hierarchal structures that controlled social and religious life adapted their pre-contact mode of operating to the new influences brought by European contact. The overall effect of these two factors has been that Islanders have not experienced the negative impacts suffered by Australian Aborigines which resulted from dislocation from their traditional lands and the attempted extermination of their race and culture.

The Islands of the Torres Strait are divided into the following four main regions: the Eastern Islands, which are volcanic in origin, have rich soil and rise sharply from the sea; the Central Islands, which are flat sandy coral cays; the top Western Islands, situated next to the coast of Papua New Guinea, which are low-lying mangrove islands; and the Western Islands, which are remnants of the Australian Great Dividing Range and consist of old volcanic rock and have scrub vegetation.

Eastern Islanders speak their own traditional language known as Meriam Mer, while Western Islanders speak Kala Lagau Ya. Islanders use Creole, or pidgin English, to communicate with each other and with non-Islanders. While English is widely understood and taught in the Torres Strait, most Islanders use English as a second or third language.

Although the majority of Islanders live on the mainland of Australia, they maintain close ties with the Torres Strait and regularly travel back for significant social and family occasions. This constant interaction and connection to the islands has allowed Islanders to maintain their customs and traditions (with some modifications) on the mainland. It has only been since World War II that Islanders have been allowed onto the mainland, so consequently the influence of white Australian society has only been recent.

The coconut palm tree: a metaphor for Islander family life

by Steve Mam, McRose Elu, Ivy Trevallion and Allan G. Reid

This is the presentation on Islander family life given to the recent National Family Court Conference in Sydney last July. The use of known physical objects as metaphors for describing abstract concepts is a common Islander method of expression.



The roots of the coconut tree represent the basis of existence for Torres Strait Islanders, out of which arise the seed (refer Stage 9) of future generations. In the same way that the coconut tree depends on its roots to provide stability and an anchor in time and place, Torres Strait Islanders depend on their ancestral roots to 'fix' their existence in humanity through their particular traditions and customs.

The principle: foundation and heritage


The roots of the coconut tree are the foundation of Torres Strait Islander life and it is the strength and integrity of those roots that give continued existence to the coconut tree. Should the roots be 'undermined' or 'neglected' in the broadest sense of the words used, the rest of the tree will fail and ruin will follow.


The past, present, and future parents of Torres Strait Islander existence are embodied in the roots of the coconut tree. As noted above, should the tree fail, then those principles of honesty, charity, and strength passed on from generation to generation will cease to be transferred.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Kupai/Apa kuik Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Wer/Taba/Gabge (Baupamaret Li) The Meaning: Lineage

Section of tree

The roots of the coconut tree are in that section representing HERITAGE.


Provided that the roots of the coconut tree are strong, the trunk of the tree shall also be strong and be the conduit for the sap - or 'spiritual energy' - to pass back and forward between the upper and lower parts of the tree. The trunk is the vital channel connecting the upper and lower parts of the tree together. The two senses noted in the Principle below work together in the trunk.

The principle: intimate union of male and female - husband and wife

Intimate union of male and female

In a 'fundamental' sense, the union of opposites gives rise to offspring, and is a continual process underlying the spiritual existence of Torres Strait Islanders. It can be seen in such 'pairings' as earth and sea, life in the physical and life in the spiritual. The synthesis of opposites through the process of intimate union and its outcomes are evident in the dynamics of traditions and customs particular to Torres Strait Islanders.

Intimate union of husband and wife

In a 'physio-psycho-emotional' sense, intimate union of the husband and wife give rise to children. In the traditions and customs of Torres Strait Islanders, strength and virtue are the requisite components, and should these not be present during the act of intimacy then the 'translation effect' will not be complete between origin and insertion. This in turn will affect the offspring of that union.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Gamu Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Gem The Meaning: The body

Section of tree

The trunk of the coconut tree is in that section representing TRADITION.


As with most indigenous peoples throughout the world, the extended family is an environment enjoyed, having a clearly defined structure. The key-word is relationships and in a defined structure has prominence. The word 'economy' comes from the Greek composite 'oikinomos', literally meaning 'household rule'. In this sense, relationships between members of the extended family (the microcosm of economy) are subject to strict rules, with 'place' having jurisdiction. Should that jurisdiction be denied free reign, multi-culturalism (the macrocosm of economy) is without expression. This is as true of Torres Strait Islanders as it is of all other peoples.

The principle: the extended family

The extended family environment of Torres Strait Islanders is rich with the practice of Traditional Adoption, a popular term that does not give sufficient meaning to that traditional practice. The child given by one set of parents to another set of parents, via the strictures of relationships, is a practice involving the total personage of the 'giver', the 'given', and the 'given to'. As with the leaves of the coconut tree which are on display to all, relationships between the extended family, according to tradition, custom and practice, are on display to all and in this sense are exposed without shame.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Buai Mabaigal Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Nosik Eprau Wi / Nosik Esau Wi The Meaning: People of the Tribe/Clan

Section of tree

The leaves of the coconut tree are in that section representing CULTURE.


At the apex of the coconut tree the new shoot grows, and when matured fans out into new leaves. The new leaves when encased in the shoot itself is akin to the embryonic state of childbearing, and, when sprouting, is akin to the birth process. As noted with the trunk of the coconut tree and its relationship with the roots of the tree, should the sap have unimpeded flow to the new shoot it can be reasonably expected that the leaves, when sprouting, will be void of complications.

The principle: siblings

Siblings are an important factor in the lifestyle and culture of Torres Strait Islanders. The siblings are those 'assets' of the 'microcosm of economy' noted at Stage 3, and are not deemed negotiable instruments by the Elders or any other sector of the community. Neither are they seen as 'trade' in the Western perspective, when complexities of cultural obligations inherent in relationships in terms of household rule, noted at Stage 3, have prominence in the practice of the giving of children by one set of biological parents to another set of parents in the extended family.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Kazil Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Omaskir The Meaning: Children

Section of tree

The trunk of the coconut tree is in that section representing CULTURE.


Surrounding the new shoot are tiers of leaves whose geometry is different from that of the main body of leaves on the tree. These leaves grow vertically and in a circular pattern around the new shoot. In that sense they are seen by Torres Strait Islanders to be sentinels of the new shoot, though one can only speculate on their actual function in relation to the rest of the tree.

The principle: the teachers

This tier of leaves are the aunts and uncles of the siblings. In the traditional moiety system of Torres Strait Islanders, there is a special person for each child who functions as the 'external teacher' as distinct from the biological parents who function as the 'internal teachers'. These teachers are on constant alert throughout the growth of the children, attending to their physical skills, their mental and emotional skills, and their spiritual skills. This tier is an important function in the 'household rule' referred to in Stage 3.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Wadhumal and Ngoibathal Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Erwer Le The Meaning: Uncles and Aunts (respectively)

Section of tree

The first tier of leaves of the coconut tree are in that section representing CULTURE.


Surrounding the first tier of leaves, which are arranged in a circular pattern around the new shoot, is a second tier of leaves. These leaves have the same geometry as the first tier and are also seen by Torres Strait Islanders to be sentinels of the new shoot and the first tier of leaves. On the coconut tree surrounding the new shoot are other tiers of leaves around this second tier and it is not generally known whether their numbers are fixed or vary according to season. However, they are considered by Torres Strait Islanders to be part of the 'sentinel system' referred to earlier and are seen in the same manner.

The principle: guardians of knowledge and culture

This second tier of leaves functions more remotely in relation to the growth of the siblings than does the first tier of leaves surrounding the new shoot. They are the Elders of the community from whose number is chosen the principal Elder known as the Mamoos (pronounced mah-moose). By virtue of their age, the Elders are considered the wise ones of the community whose collective wisdom oversees the everyday existence of Torres Strait Islanders. They are the ones to whom younger Torres Strait Islanders (including the 'first tier of leaves') turn to when seeking specific knowledge about the dynamics of land matters (for example, agriculture), sea matters (for example, species of marine organisms and their cycles), and air matters (for example, weather patterns and navigation through the movement of celestial objects). They are the repository of tradition and culture, and their knowledge is fed back into the community through a complex system of communications.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Kayadhal and boebathal Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Arer/Kaied The Meaning: Grandparents and Great-grandparents

Section of tree

The second tier of leaves of the coconut tree are in that section representing CULTURE.


Coconuts are the result of fertilisation of the flower which produces the fruit and, in whose existence is also the seed of new coconut trees. In the cycle of life, they bear the physical evidence of the sap of the tree. As the fruit of the tree, they are the end product of a complex process which has translated the sap - a potent mix - into flesh and liquid which can be assimilated readily without undue discomfort.

The principle: the individual and people

The simile employed here is that the fruit of the tree (the individual and the people) is the material evidence of the transformation of sap (spiritual energy) via the effect gained through channelling the trunk (Stage 2) into easily assimilated flesh and liquid (the interactivity of individual to individual and peoples to peoples, again along the strictures of 'household rule' described at Stage 3). Generally speaking, indigenous peoples think along the lines of the 'collective' while 'westernised/civilised' peoples think along the lines of the 'individual'. In the 'household rule' referred to earlier, in particular to 'relationships', the collective has prominence but the individual has his/her needs fully met. This is achieved in complex ways and there is not the loss or deficiency in the bi- directional transit moment of individual and collective, as is common amongst peoples who think along the lines of the 'individual'. This is one reason contributing to the almost total lack of criminal activity in traditional Torres Strait Islander life.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Mabaigal Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Le Uridili The Meaning: Peoples

Section of tree

The bunches of coconuts of the coconut tree are in that section representing CULTURE.


The leaves of the coconut tree having completed their function of photosynthesis for their host (viewed from the perspective of the individual) simply fall to the ground and are strewn around the trunk, according to their departure and trajectory of fall (viewed from the perspective of the collective). With respect to the process of bio-degradability, their component parts (amino acids, nitrogen etc.) are absorbed into the ground with the nutrients going back to the roots of the tree for further assimilation into the growth of the tree.

The principle: old people (ancestors/lineage) reproduction after rejuvenation

Old people having realised their function of maturity (refer Stage 6) pass on from this physical life and join their ancestors in their spiritual life hereafter. Ancestral worship figures strongly with Torres Strait Islanders, and the function of the ancestors as guides are much the same as the function of the grandparents and great-grandparents (refer Stage 6). The 'veil' separating physical life from existence outside of physical life is far less distinct and far more permeable than that experienced by non-indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the collective knowledge and wisdom of the grandparents and great-grandparents in their living state are absorbed into the collective 'resource bank' (the roots of the coconut tree - refer Stage 1) when they pass on into death. Hence, the process of rejuvenation occurs once deresolution is completed with the 'roots' (refer Stage 1) in a fecund state for reproduction (refer Stage 9).

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Umau bathay Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Adgiz/Lugiz The Meaning: Dead leaves

Section of tree

The dead leaves of the coconut tree are in that section representing HERITAGE.


Once the coconuts have reached prime maturity they simply fall off the tree to the ground below and assimilate into seed form for new growth. They take with them from their host the accumulation of sap and nutrients received (processed and prepared while with their host) and a new coconut tree grows, perpetuating the cycle of that genus. It is, however, interesting to note that coconut trees are not usually seen growing in clusters. Whether this is because of natural conditions with an inherent mechanism inhibiting growth until ideal conditions present themselves or because of artificial reasons (for example, being moved by humans) is not known.

The principle: offspring/new generation

The falling coconuts represent offspring and new generation in a slightly different sense from that described in Stage 4. Offspring and new generation in this sense means the perpetuation of tradition, custom, culture and practice. Refer to Stage 9.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Kaine makuik Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Kerkar Nosik The Meaning: New generation

Section of tree

The falling coconuts of the coconut tree are in that section representing HERITAGE, CULTURE, and TRADITION.


Around the trunk of the coconut tree are growth rings which are easily seen. They look somewhat like the rounded sides of 'doughnuts' when stacked on top of each other. They are used by Torres Strait Islanders when climbing the tree to pick coconuts or to produce alcoholic beverage. This beverage is produced by manipulating the new shoot in order to trap the flow of sap normally circulating the shoot.

The principle: recording of history (visual and aural)

Torres Strait Islanders use the individual growth rings, or collections of them, to fix a record of an event into place. This event could be anything from a natural disaster or phenomena, the passing of a loved one, a social event (for example, initiation ceremony), or the practice of biological parents passing their child on to another set of parents. They are visual records seen and understood by those having the 'key' to read the records. They are 'aural' records in that the close relationship Torres Strait Islanders have with their environment is such that the harmonics of nature is audible and legible to initiated persons with that understanding. Much of this aural record is blocked out by unnatural sounds (for example, the passing of a jet aeroplane or the hum of an outboard motor), the physiological effects of Western diets, and in a not so insignificant way the disruption of traditional law through the overlay of British law. All contribute to a disturbance of the harmonics noted earlier and a displacement effect to the reception of aural records by Torres Strait Islanders.

Language name

Kala Lagau Ya:(Western Island) - Kasimay thabal Meriam Mer: (Eastern Island) - Mir Ditar/Detaut Atai/Obatai The Meaning: Growth/Age

Section of tree

The growth rings around the trunk of the coconut tree are in that section representing TRADITION.