Relationist Ethos

Relationist Ethos

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The Relationist Ethos is a foundational concept within Aboriginal law, philosophy and culture.  It refers to the idea that we are all in relationship with each other – people are in relationship with land (Country), land is in relationship with all living and non-living beings, people are in relationship with non-human life and people are in relationship with other people – and it is these relationships and the obligations to each other that come with these relationships, that can form a template for human society

The term is particularly associated with the work of Adjunct Associate Professor Mary Graham, Kombu-merri and Waka Waka person.

The following material was shared by Mary Graham, with permission for the Greenprints initiative to reproduce it here.

The Relationist Ethos

Because the land brought us into being and continues to keep us alive and protected, we’re forever obliged to look after it, but it is more than a duty, it’s brought us into the sacred relational, the embedding of ethics, morality, empathy in us, that is, acquiring the condition of being worthy of what is proper.

Foundational Principle To the extent that the Land is the source of the Law, Aboriginal Australia said to the people: “co-operate, don’t compete; share, don’t hoard; attend the consensus; extend your relationships; look after Land and Honour your Sacred sites”. It is a Law, which requires an ahistorical view of time.[1]

The idea and practice of Obligation gives to human society a greater return, for observance and adherence to the tradition, such as – nourishment / health, meaning, a flourishing society, security, protocols and above all, well-being assurance for future generations.


Law of Obligation is attending to and maintaining the custodial stewardship, ethical obligations of looking after Lands, waters and the well-being, cultural, physical and spiritual being and values of all Peoples within our boundaries who have lived in this country for millennia, continue to, and now, live here and practice stewardship obligation to care for all Lands and Peoples.

“Look after Country, look after Kin”. (Old saying)

The Law of Obligation

The Law of Obligation concept and practice defined above emerged out of the relationist connection to land, seeing land as the original inventor / creator of all life, environmental and human which gave rise to a unique civilisational culture, which has its own logic, philosophy, values and notions of social development. This is a society and culture of great age and its ethics encompasses not only appropriate social conduct, social and political structure of society, all knowledge (sacred and otherwise), spiritual obligations, but also includes systems of logic, time and space.

Following is a list (by no means exhaustive) of collective terms of reference relating to Laws of Obligation:

  • The Custodial Ethic: looking after country, looking after kin – Stewardship and Reciprocity
  • Relationalism – Autonomy, Balance, Place and Ethics (Law / Songlines)
  • Primacy of family, especially children, young and old people
  • Formal age and gender recognition, respect and governance structure
  • Non-hierarchical, gendered governance structures with Elders and knowledgeable people as authority
  • Positive group dynamics, conflict management and non-competitiveness
  • Consensus decision making and attending to the consensus
  • Careful management of ego[2]
  • Land has intrinsic moral and spiritual integrity – Land is the central source of the Law / Lore[3]
  • Primacy of Place, identity / relationalism and autonomy as an organising principle
  • Aboriginal system of logic, multi-dimensional time (different to Western and Asian systems)

[1] M. Graham, Indigenous Community Centred Planning (ICCP) Strategy: Scoping Paper (unpublished) 2009

[2] The ego is viewed as a potentially volatile substance to be treated with something like a combination of caring stewardship, referee-like supervision and watchful guardianship.

[3] M. Graham, Aboriginal Notions of Relationality and Positionalism, (Global Discourse. Vol 4. 2014)