Understanding The Role Of First Law In Our Country

First Law are the guiding principles that First Peoples generated over aeons to govern the diverse bioregions within the land mass currently known as Australia.

Indigenous First Law

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

I invite everyone that is reading this to explore and understand the value of First Law in our rugged but fragile continent. First Law teaches us about our interdependence with Country, to care about things beyond what is simply just human, and to create justice for all species.

In the North West the monsoon is building again, and from the decking of our old town house, between the backyard fronds brushing against the sea breeze, I can make out the mountains of humid cloud painted in hues of orange and pink by the late afternoon sun. I can hear the distant murmurs of thunder travelling the landscape, and the chorus of thirsty green tree frogs that feel it too — the rain is coming, and wet season is almost here.

In the Kimberley it is impossible to ignore the reality that water is life, and across the great plains, inland through to the hill country and catchment, this enduring connection and deeply spiritual interdependence of water and life draws together endlessly unique species, all converging along the mighty Martuwarra (Fitzroy River).

As a descendent of this River, I have been raised to recognise the ways in which it is our waterscape that has informed and sustained our values, identity and survival across countless generations, establishing forms of governance that emerge through a deeply informed awareness of, and responsibility towards, the bio-diverse systems of life that interweave the River Country.

In recent years, somewhere between my time studying in academic institutions and my time spent on Country, I have been afforded the chance to reflect and consider the core implications of First Law and the consequential scale of its insight and representation.

My brother and I grew up on Country or in the back seat of a Pajero moving through Country — we would watch the ecology change, the trees moving faster than dotted white lines. We were home schooled, predominantly in our Bush House, on an outstation with a handful of buildings, plains of red dirt with large old boab trees, and a small billabong you could walk to, but not swim in. Not understanding then the privilege we had, as not only did we know Country, but both of our parents were First Nations academics. People who spent their time and energy working for community and cultural development and had actively decided to opt out of the prescribed system,  and to invest in the region, race, and us.

When I thought I was old enough to test my independence, I asked to go to boarding school, and at the age of eleven I moved 5000 kilometres away, where I was then accelerated two years. Although I had a positive start to the system, I chose to leave before completing year eleven. This wasn’t the failed process most would assume, in actuality I had discovered that it was faster to go through TAFE to enter university. I went on to complete a Bachelor of Commerce. I am in the final semester of the Juris Doctor of Law. And I have already received a contract for a Doctor of Philosophy fellowship with The University of Sydney’s Law School, where I will focus on researching, legitimising, and communicating First Law.

First Law, law of the land, is place based governance. Meaning, it stipulates the conduct essential for that particular place; the geology, the plants, and the environment as a whole. First Law are the guiding principles that First Peoples generated over aeons to govern the diverse bioregions within the land mass currently known as Australia. It is the body of laws responsible for maintaining respectful and reciprocal relations between and within First Nations, and between the human and non-human family.

First Law in Australia differs markedly from its colonial counterpart. First Law principles are not expressed in terms of external rules, policies, and procedures by government to influence individual and societal behaviour through fear.

First Law is applied through multilayered stories that impart values and ethics, thus they represent a comprehensive ethical framework that defines the codes of conduct necessary for maintaining a peaceful, thriving, and co-operative society — an immersive and poetic interdependence of people to place.

Martuwarra First Law includes Warloongarriy (River Law) and Wunan (Regional Governance Law for trade, ceremony moving through the landscapes and sharing diverse cultures).

The Warloongarriy Songline governs the Martuwarra, from the top of the catchment to the bottom, it maps from where the first man Woonyoomboo travelled the landscape, planting majala, naming the birds and fish, giving meaning to Country.  First Nations along the River share this common songline and it sets out the communal and individual rights, relationships and responsibilities of each group. Through ceremonial songline the law is passed on to each emerging generation, physicalised by rituals of spirit through song, dance and story.

Art, science, and philosophy create our reality, and these values are formed from a young age.

When I was little I was given a jadiny, a totem, a duty of care relationship with crocodiles. Different people are given different plants or animals to connect with. This removes the hierarchy by showing you, that you are equal to and should protect a non-human being. This maintains a balance in society, with the aim of continuing the wellbeing and sustainability of everything. It is about we, not me, it is about collective guardianship to protect everyone not just you, unlike western law, colonial law, the law of man, which was designed to protect individuals, what they own or possess.

Colonial law, the law of man, has had time enough to prove how it benefits everyone — instead, we have all witnessed the disparity it creates, and the abuse. Colonial laws are imposed over First Law with the intent of extracting private wealth at the expense of the diminished quality of life and wellbeing of those already living with Country.

It must start to work alongside First Law to ensure we all thrive. The alternative, climate change or chaos, is approaching because we have not lived in a symbiotic relationship with Country.

If we do not survive this, Country will continue on without us — it will once again develop the law of the land.

Marlikka Perdrisat is Nyikina Warrwa and Wangkumara Barkindji woman. She is a digital storyteller and researcher with the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, and employed with Gilbert + Tobin an award-winning Australian law firm.

All photos supplied courtesy of the author.