Torres Strait Islanders - Marriage and Family

Marriage. Courtship was traditionally initiated by the prospective wife, who expressed her interest in a young man by sending him a small gift—usually through his sister. Should the boy be interested, the girl's parents would eventually involve themselves in negotiations with the boy's family to set the bride-price. Upon the payment of the bride-price, the bride would simply be brought to the camp of her new husband where she would build a fire and begin the responsibilities of wifehood. While there appears to have been no formal ceremony, a community feast and dance such as generally accompanied all major life-cycle events would be held. Island custom permitted polygyny, but it was generally only the most successful of leading men who were able to afford the multiple bride-prices that polygynous marriages required, and with Christianity the practice was ended. Postmarital residence was initially with the family of the groom, but after the birth of children the young family would generally establish their own household and were free to live wherever they chose. Divorce was and is frowned upon, but it did and does occur.

Domestic Unit. The traditional domestic unit minimally consisted of a nuclear family plus one or more dependent relatives of the grandparental generation, and this pattern constitutes the general rule on the islands.

Inheritance. Traditionally, land rights, magic spells, and fetishes were inherited by sons for the most part, although a daughter might be permitted a small plot of land upon her marriage or might even inherit the whole plot in the absence of brothers. Women's lore passed from mother to daughter.

Socialization. In earlier times, mothers taught their daughters their future roles and responsibilities as wives and mothers by the simple expedient of enlisting the girls' help as the mothers went about their daily tasks. Young boys were largely free of such responsibilities. Female initiation occurred at puberty, and involved seclusion with a paternal aunt who provided assistance and instruction. Male initiation ritual was more elaborate—boys were secluded in pairs under the tutelage of a maternal uncle for up to three months during which time they underwent dietary taboos and were instructed in proper adult male behavior, as well as undergoing physical ordeals that were intended to transform them into men. A Central feature of male initiation was the introduction of the boys to the chants, lore, fetishes, and sacred masks of the culture heroes. For both boys and girls, initiation rites marked the transition from childhood to adult status.

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