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First Nations Systems Thinking

Across First Nations communities in Australia are unique and distinct cultures that centre many different types of knowledges. These knowledges are often referred to as ‘knowledge systems’ and have ensured First Nations communities have lived in balance with the land, other communities and the natural environment for over 80,000 years. One consistent way of thinking, being and knowing that exists across First Nations communities is systems thinking, which is applied in many different areas of life.


Systems thinking is to view the natural environment, human relationships and non-human relationships with a systems lens. When First Nations communities think in systems, we are seeing how interrelated parts of an ecosystem or set of knowledges relate to one another and are continuously shaped by these interrelationships.  

Imagine putting on a pair of sunglasses that allow you to see not one stand alone element, but the element and how it relates to everything else. 

When we see the world with a systems lens we are seeing how an action or change to one element of a system can impact many other interrelated parts. First Nations individuals and communities recognise the impact each moment in time can have on other people, non-human beings and Country. This extends beyond linear time, to impact generations in the past, our Ancestors and future Ancestors as well. 

Systems thinking impacts not only the way we see the world but the way we live with each other  and Country. Examples of this way of thinking can be seen through First Nations leadership in areas such as sustainability, knowledge sharing, community wellbeing, land management and social change. 

“When we consider knowledge systems from a First Nations perspective, we are looking at many interconnected relationships or pieces of knowledge that overlap and interact with each other without conflict. This is often referred to as kinship or balance.” - Bundjalung, Thunghutti and Muagal man Leeton Lee (Southeast Queensland Regional Coordinator of Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation).

Systems thinking is shown in the way we have existed with Country, and the way we live consciously to ensure future generations can thrive within many interconnected relationships. 

Systems thinking is a term that has been colonised by Western disciplines of social change and systems change theory since 1987. It is important to remember that First Nations communities are the original systems thinkers, and we continue to exhibit deep knowledge in the way we apply systems thinking to the way we analyse, act and communicate. Our communities continue to demonstrate innovation and leadership in this area, with many non-Indigenous organisations and individuals looking to us for solutions to the most pressing global challenges that systems thinking will unlock.


Image from Leeton Lee, during a Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation burn.


When we consider systems thinking, there is another concept that is central to understanding the way many First Nations communities exist in relationship with one another and the land. Relationality underpins all First Nations cultures, and explains why maintaining relations with people, the natural environment and knowledge is integral to the continued strength and wellbeing of our communities. 

Relationality refers to the relationship between everything and the strength of each of these relationships. Through relationality we know that everything is interconnected and shifting in a non-static way. 

“Look at the application of fire on Country. Fire knowledge is applied to a diverse range of ecosystems to enhance and support things like foods, medicines, germination and activation of seeds and grasses, resources, habitat, water quality, breeding cycles, and maintenance of ecological diversity that delivers benefits across all of these areas.” - Leeton Lee.

In the unique law/Lore that many First Nations people follow, relationships are at the centre of everything. This is why family and kinship relationships are integral to our cultures and why community relationships are the foundation of many of our lives. We know that relationships are what bind us and guide us to thrive in relationship to each other and Country. 


When we think about the way an action or shift in one place can impact something else that it is in relationship with, we are using systems thinking. This thinking can be applied to First Nations intergenerational ways of thinking, being and knowing. 

When a First Nations person chooses a particular path or action, we often think about the impact this would have for the next thousand generations. Living within a colonial context makes this way of thinking and being challenging, but the knowledge and cultures we have grown up sharing from one generation to the next teach us to think beyond the current time we sit in and to think beyond ourselves. 

“First Nations peoples will consider the implications of our actions for future generations and there are strict rules around the timing of fires so that all living things are supported.” - Leeton Lee.

Systems thinking is a complex concept that is embedded across First Nations cultures, knowledges and Laws. It is a way of thinking, being and knowing that underpins the knowledge that has ensured our communities have not only survived but thrived for over 80,000 years. 

Systems thinking is central to understanding the way we have lived as well as holding answers to many of the global challenges we now face. To embed systems thinking across Australia, we need First Nations people to be at the centre of driving this. As the original systems leaders, there is no systems thinking without First Nations people and knowledge. 

“To move forward we must support getting Traditional Owners back on the land practicing culture at every opportunity and respect the knowledge systems that have been perfected over thousands of years. Our knowledge systems intersect with an understanding of equal value and without bias.” - Leeton Lee.

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