The Warlpiri are a group of Indigenous Australians, many of whom speak the Warlpiri language. There are 5,000–6,000 Warlpiri, living mostly in a few towns and settlements scattered through their traditional land in Australia's Northern Territory, north and west of Alice Springs. Their largest community is at Yuendumu and many live also at Willowra, Lajamanu, Nyirrpi, Mt Allen and smaller settlements. Many also live in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. About 3,000 still speak the Warlpiri language. The word "Warlpiri" has also been romanised as Walpiri, Walbiri, Elpira, Ilpara and Wailbri.


Warlpiri people first came into contact with non-Aboriginal Australia in the late nineteenth century. By the time that the Warlpiri people were finally brought out from the bushland, the missionary movement was coming to an end, to be replaced by the community movement, that would give Warlpiri people a permanent homeland. With the later outstation movement of the 1980s and 1990s many Warlpiri people moved out to small communities where they could be close to their own traditional land. At this time small communities such as Nyirrpi were set up.


Warlpiri country is located in the Tanami Desert, east of the NT-WA border, west of the Stuart Highway and Tennant Creek, and northwest of Alice Springs. The main communities in Warlpiri country are: Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Nyirrpi, and Willowra. Many Warlpiri live in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, and the smaller towns of Central Australia.


Warlpiri are famous for their tribal dances. A number of Warlpiri have toured England, Japan, and most recently Russia, performing their dances.


Warlpiris divide their relatives, and by extension the entire population, into eight named groups or "subsections". These subsections are related to kinship, and determine one's family rights and obligations. The following is a brief sketch of how the subsection system relates to genealogy.

The subsections are divided into four "semi-patrimoieties", each consisting of two subsections. One always belongs to the same semi-patrimoiety as one's father, but to the opposite subsection, so that men in a patriline will alternate between those two subsections.

The subsections are also divided into two "matrimoieties", each consisting of four subsections. One always belongs to the same matrimoiety as one's mother, and women in a matriline will cycle through the four subsections of that matrimoiety.

The two subsections in a semi-patrimoiety always belong to opposite matrimoieties, and similarly, the four subsections of each matrimoiety are distributed among the four semi-patrimoieties. Each subsection is uniquely determined by which semi-patrimoiety and which matrimoiety it belongs to.

Female lines of descent in the two matrimoieties cycle through the semi-patrimoieties "in opposite directions". The result is that one's mother's father's mother's father (MFMF) is of the same subection as oneself.

Siblings always belong to the same subsection.

It follows from these rules that one must choose one's spouse from a particular subsection, and traditional Warlpiri disapprove of marriages that break this constraint. The correct subsection to marry from is that of one's maternal grandmother (though of course one seeks a spouse closer to one's own age).

The subsection system underlies all of traditional Warlpiri society, determining how Warlpiris address and regard each other. Two members of the same subsection refer to each other as siblings, whether or not they actually have the same parent. Men in the same subsection as one's father (for example, one's father's male siblings) are called "father", and this practice is often followed even when Warlpiris speak English. In the same way, most of the kinship terms in the Warlpiri language actually refer to subsection (or "classificatory") relationships, not to literal genetic relationships.

Traditionally, the first thing one Warlpiri wants to know about another is their subsection. Warlpiris often address each other by subsection name rather than by personal name, and incorporate their subsection name into their English one, usually as a middle name. When Warlpiris marry Europeans, they tend to extend the subsection system to their inlaws, starting with the assumption that the European spouse is of the correct subsection. Rather distant European relatives may find themselves classified as honorary uncles, nieces, grandparents, and so on. Warlpiris will then try to make sure that further marriages with related Europeans will adhere to the marriage constraint.

The traditional taboo against familiarity between a man and his mother-in-law extends automatically to any man and woman whose subsections are those of man and mother-in-law.

The subsection system automatically prevents incest between siblings and any relatives closer than cousins. Cousins that are children of siblings of the same sex are themselves classificatory siblings, and may not marry; but children of siblings of opposite sex are of the appropriate subsections for marriage, and marriage between so-called "cross cousins" is actually encouraged in traditional society.

The eight subsections are interrelated in a pattern known in group theory as the order 8 dihedral group, D4.


The Warlpiri language is a member of the Yapa (Walpiri for Black person) group of languages, with closest relative Warlmanpa. Most Warlpiri-speakers are bilingual with English. Many also speak one or more of: Arrernte, Jaru, Western Desert Language, Warumungu, or other neighbouring languages. Indigenous sign language is also a component of Warlpiri communication.


*Bell, Diane (1983). "Daughters of the Dreaming", Sydney, Allen and Unwin.
*Meggitt, Mervyn J. (1962). "Desert people. A study of the Walbiri aborigines of Central Australia", Sydney, Angus and Robertson.

External links

* [http://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au/orig/tindale/HDMS/tindaletribes/walpiri.htm SA Museum entry on Walpiri]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.