Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Aboriginal Ethics: Traditional and Contemporary

  • Antonia MillsEmail author
  • Rheanna Robinson
Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_328-2



Aboriginal Ethics were traditionally based on understandings of how relationships with the people within and between different groups and nations and with all the life forms can be created and maintained, with the focus on preserving positive relationships of respect for all life forms. The tradition of respect for one’s own and neighboring Nations was and is part of Aboriginal Ethics for Indigenous peoples on all the continents on earth, including Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and South America. While the Aboriginal peoples in all these different areas throughout the world have their own concepts and practices of Aboriginal Ethics, they were all based on their kin-based societies and the concept that one needs to maintain positive relationships with all their neighbors and all life forms. While we refer to Aboriginal ethical practices around the globe, this entry focuses particularly on Canadian and North American Aboriginal Ethics.

Aboriginal Ethics Are Kin-Based Ethics

Aboriginal or Indigenous peoples on all continents created kin relationships not only in their home territory but with the peoples on all their borders and with all life forms. Aboriginal peoples developed ethical relationships with the peoples on all their borders by intermarrying with these different groups, even when they spoke unrelated languages and had different kin systems; for creating and maintaining kin relations helps create amicable, peaceful, and ethical connection with one’s neighbors. Some Indigenous societies had and have lineages and clans, either Matrilineal like the Navajo and many Pueblo peoples and the Mohawk or Haudenosaunee and many North American Northwest Coast peoples; or Patrilineal like the Plains Cree, or bilateral like the Kwakwakawak. Some Indigenous peoples have bilateral groups that differentiate between cross and parallel relatives like mother’s brother’s and mother’s sister’s children: you can marry your cross cousins or mother’s brother’s children but not your parallel cousins or mother’s sister’s children since they were like your own brothers and sisters.

Indigenous kin relations were not only with humans. Turner and Mathews (in press) point out that Indigenous peoples throughout the world respect the deep kinship they have with all elements of life which include the air, earth, water, plants, fish, shell fish, and animal species which they note also come from spirit and need to be treated with “responsibility, respect, caring, gratitude, love, and generosity” (p. 6). Berkes (2013) defines everyones’ Ethics as, “Codes that exert a palpable influence on human behavior. Embedded in worldviews, ethics provide models to emulate, goals to strive for, and norms by which to evaluate actual behavior” (p. 380).

Aboriginal Ethics were sustained through an understanding of respectful relationship building with all animate and inanimate life forms. Aboriginal people took the lives of all animals, and fish with respect so they would want to come back and feed the people again (Berkes 2012). For example, among the Cree, Aboriginal Ethics were sustained through an understanding of respectful and reciprocal relationships with many life forms. These ethics were practiced whether the Aboriginal peoples practiced agriculture and had large settlements or where hunter-gatherers who travelled seasonally in their particular territories. These kin-based relationships were extended to the colonizers when they arrived on the shores and land of Indigenous peoples throughout the world. Few people are aware of the influence of Aboriginal Ethics on colonizing society.

Indeed, Aboriginal Ethics led to the creation of western democracy. Most people are unaware that Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams implemented American Democracy from the example of the Haudenosaunee or League of the Iroquois form of government (Morocco 1990; Stubben 2000). The elder women in each of the Haudenosaunee clans selected the men who would represent their clan in the Council of Chiefs and replaced them if they acted inappropriately (Wagner 1996, 2001). That this mechanism of creating responsible government is the origin of democratic rights worldwide is generally forgotten in contemporary society.

Aboriginal Ethics were also the source of Women Suffrage and Rights. This is also typically unrecognized. In fact, Women’s rights to vote in the USA, Canada, and around the world also came from the influence of Indigenous Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Women, who explained to settler women that their men never maltreated or raped their wives or any woman as this was not a part of their way of life (Wagner 1996, 2001). Again, the impact of Aboriginal Ethics on women’s rights is typically unrecognized today.

Aboriginal womens’ rights are also manifest in their traditional use of plant medicines to prevent pregnancy if they had had enough children. This is reported for the Beaver Indians (Mills 1985); the Thompson Indians (Turner et al. 1990); the Iroquois (Rousseau 1945); the Mimac (Chandler et al. 1979); the Cherokee (Taylor 1940); the Cree (Leighton 1985); the Navajo (Hamel and Chiltoskey 1975); the Hopi (Vestal 1952; Whiting 1939; Colton 1974); and the Zuni (Camazine and Bye (1980). Indeed, Indigenous people worldwide used medicinal plants, picked with great respect, for healing many kinds of conditions (Turner 2005).

Fluid Aboriginal marriage patterns created amicable relations with neighboring groups and were part of maintaining respect, reciprocity, and responsibility among and between diverse cultures. Traditionally, some Aboriginal Ethics’ marriage patterns allowed for multiple spouses, both for men and women, with marriages typically arranged by one’s relatives. Aboriginal Ethics sometimes allowed for extramarital relations. For example, when someone arrived at a village from somewhere else, his or her sexual needs were typically accommodated, often with the spouse offering his or her spouse to accommodate the newcomer out of respect for the newcomer(s). Such generosity was appreciated by settlers.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender relationships were traditionally supported by Aboriginal Societies throughout the world. The book The Zuni Man Woman (Roscoe 1991) portrays the life of We’wha who was born in a male body but did women’s and men’s chores in women’s dress and was a member of a spiritual secret society and highly respected by the Zuni. We’wha was taken to Washington, DC by Milda Cox Stevenson in 1886. After returning home, We’wha stopped the US army from invading her Zuni pueblo. Jacobs et al. (1997) and Roscoe (1998) portray more of the breadth of Native American transculture. African Aboriginal cultures also have transgender examples (Murray and Roscoe 1998).

Marriage relationships were sometimes created to assuage conflicts and create a kin relationship with someone one had offended. Mills (1994: 153) cites an example of the Witsuwit’en giving a daughter in marriage to someone offended in another clan in order to create a peaceful kin relationship with the offended party. In the Witsuwit’en matrilineal clan-based society, this meant the offended man’s future children would belong to their mother’s clan and have rights to her traditional territory, as well as to her father’s traditional territory, that of the offender. However, such relationships did not always keep raids and attacks from occurring as the two following examples portray.

Example 1

A Totem Pole at the Gitxsan village of Gitwangak in Northwest British Columbia Canada depicts the story of a Gitwangak woman who had been abducted by the Haida from Gitwangak, returning home in a canoe with her baby using the tongue of his decapitated Haida father as a pacifier so the mother could paddle back to Gitwangak without anyone on Haida Gwaii hearing the baby cry. An eagle guided the mother from Haida Gwaii back to the Skeena River so she could return home (cf. Mills 2001, p. 315).

Example 2

A Hartley Bay Tsimshian woman had a lance thrown by a Haida man that went right through her thigh when a Haida war party arrived at a beach where the Hartley Bay Tsimshian harvested seaweed. This woman was reborn as a babe with the birthmark on both sides of her thigh as a reminder of this assault. That babe became a Tsimshian Hartley Bay Elder who passed away around 1984 at an advanced age with the birthmark still on both sides of her thigh (Stevenson 1984).

Such reincarnation experiences are reported for Indigenous peoples throughout the world. Evans-Wentz (1911) described reincarnation concepts among the Celts in pre-Christian times; Spencer and Gillen (1904) and Spencer (1966) for Australian Aborigines; Malinowski (1916) for the Trobriand Islanders; Von Furer-Haimendorf (1953) for an Indigenous tribe in north India; Mills and Slobodin anthology (1994) for Indigenous and Inuit people in North America. In Africa, Parrinder (1956), Besterman (1968), Gottleib et al. (1998), and Stevenson (1985, 1986) have described reincarnation concepts and/or cases.

While war and conflict were and are recounted and recognized in Aboriginal Oral Traditions and Aboriginal Ethics, there are Aboriginal mechanisms to mitigate conflict. The four R’s, respect, reciprocity, relevance, and responsibility (Kirkness and Barnhardt 1991) have been used in Aboriginal diplomacy since ancient times. Respect is deeply ingrained in the spiritual traditions and kinship systems of Aboriginal people worldwide; reciprocity is also part of sharing and exchange that typifies Aboriginal practices related to governance globally and is deeply tied to responsibility and taking on leadership or chiefly duties. Disputes were and are typically settled by the leaders or Hereditary Chiefs (Mills 1994; Ignace 2017). Indeed, the relevance of actions taken in regards to upholding ethical practices ensured harmonious and enduring relations.

Despite the impact of Aboriginal Ethics on creating democracy and women’s rights, there are historical and contemporary difficulties of Aboriginal Ethics being respected by Settler Societies throughout the world. Indeed, Aboriginal rights have been impacted by colonization and the imposition of the Colonizers’ Ethics.

There have been and continue to be difficulties of having Aboriginal Ethics respected by Settler Societies. Fluid marriage patterns were a part of Aboriginal Ethics.

While alliances and aid from the Aboriginal Societies was often key to the establishment of the colonizers’ Settler Societies in Australia, New Zealand, North and Central and South America and Africa, the colonizing societies have typically not respected Aboriginal Ethics regarding Aboriginal rights to their way of life or their traditional territories. Since colonization, many Aboriginal peoples in many continents and in Canada have been moved from their traditional territories onto small reserves based on the concept of terra nullius (RCAP 1996, p. 47). There has been a disregard from the colonizing societies for maintaining the integrity of the interconnection of all life forms. The damage from clear-cut logging caused the Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en to go to court to preserve the integrity of their environment. Settler Society has also sought to wipe out Aboriginal languages through residential schools in Australia and Canada (Armitage 1995; Miller 2017; TRC 2015) and to some extent in the USA, as they saw their languages as part of an inferior culture. Only now are Indigenous peoples seeking to revive their traditional languages which embody their understanding of the importance of the deep spiritual interconnections of life forms (cf. Comaroff 1993 re Africa). This is despite the fact that the alliances between Aboriginal peoples and the freshly arrived newcomers were typically essential for the survival of the colonizers, who nonetheless felt entitled to take over Aboriginal Ethics, land and resources. Mann (2011) and Lepofsky et al. (2017) note that the huge decimation of the Aboriginal population from diseases introduced by settler society against which they had no immunity, greatly impacted Aboriginal peoples post contact.

Armitage (1995) noted that the conditions in and the goals of residential schools in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were very similar, namely, to obliterate Indigenous culture. In Canada, residential schools sought to “kill the Indian in the Child.” Although residential schools were expected to teach Christian ethics, many children were sexually, physically, and/or emotionally abused, and many died, raising questions of whether residential schools caused cultural genocide (cf. Miller 1996). Brower and Johnston (2007) discuss issues of disappearing peoples among the Indigenous groups in South and Central Asia. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) produced a report with 94 Calls to Action designed to address the injustices created by the residential schools, although most have not yet been implemented.

In addition, much of Aboriginal Ethics was deemed “of the Devil” by Christian missionaries and western culture which viewed shamanic practices as demonic even when they effectively cured patients, including Father Morice (cf. Mills 1994). Dakelh Elder Sophie Thomas’ traditional medicine to cure cancer has been scientifically tested on mice and shown to be an effective cure for cancer (Ritch-Krc et al. 1996). The sophistication of Aboriginal knowledge of all aspects of their environments and their protection and use of them as a keystone to Aboriginal Ethics has been well documented but greatly underappreciated by western culture for a long period of time.

Aboriginal rights and ethics need to be considered in the context of contemporary research with Indigenous Peoples. The creation of ethical Aboriginal academic research has been aided by the growing presence of Aboriginal academics who advocate for Indigenous focused research practice and principles. Drs. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999/2012), Marie Battiste (2000, 2013, 2016), Battiste and Henderson (2000), Margaret Kovach (2009), and Shawn Wilson (2008) have articulated how to conduct research using Indigenous values and principles. Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (1999) book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People describes how research methodology can be inclusive of Indigenous knowledge so that a decolonized approach to knowledge production and understanding is attained. The First Nations Information Governance Centre (2014) set out the principles of OCAP (ownership, control, access, and possession) for Aboriginal communities to use to move forward with research agreements and frameworks to ensure their cultural and intellectual property is being protected under parameters determined by their own nations. Chapter 9 in the Canadian 2014 Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Research Involving Humans gives guidelines for research with Aboriginal people, showing how community protocols of Aboriginal communities can be accommodated and respected in specific academic research agendas. Thus, Contemporary Aboriginal Ethics are slowly educating society about the necessity to have a mutual understanding about how research ethics can be used so communities and community participants are respected. The Four Rs of respect, reciprocity, relevance, and responsibility presented by Kirkness and Barnhardt (1991) are inherent Aboriginal Ethics that need to be used as they embody an entire worldview that must be honored in a respectful way.

However, there are still considerable difficulties of Aboriginal Ethics being respected by Settler Society and industry. In North America, as on all the other continents, Aboriginal Peoples were given rights to small reserves which are tiny portions of their traditional lands. In Canada, the Nisga’a Calder Case, the Delgamuukw-Gisdaywa, and the Tsilhqot’in Court Cases in particular have been important but have not settled all the issues of territorial integrity and rights to preserve the territory from industrial damage. Aboriginal People find the environmental review process typically gives more credence to industrial development of pipelines, mines, and dams than to Indigenous rights and environmental concerns, producing catastrophes such as the Mount Polley spill in British Columbia, Canada (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mining-fears-1.4235913August4). Despite the increasing impact of climate change implemented by clear-cut logging, fracking, pipelines, and environmentally devastating mining practices, the environmental review process has yet to consider the Ethics of Aboriginal Peoples worldwide which relate to preserving the integrity and health of all forms of life based on their perception of their ecological and spiritual interdependence. Aboriginal Ethics would require that a sound environmental review process be implemented before fish-farms, mines, hydroelectric dams, and other environmentally impacting practices are allowed. Contemporary Aboriginal leaders are seeking to have such ethical impacts understood, assessed, and halted, as Wade Davis (2009) notes.

It is time for a change in western ethics to a more traditional and contemporary aboriginal ethics. It is important to note that while Aboriginal Ethics impacted the creation of democracy in America, many aspects of the original (pre-1492) Aboriginal Ethics have been judged primitive, uncivilized, inappropriate, or necessary to obliterate by Eastern and Western cultures that currently dominate North, Central and South America, as well as Asia, Australia, and Africa, now recolonized by China.

Charles Mann’s 2011 book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus portrays the richness of precontact Aboriginal culture and ethics which Western culture deemed worthy of obliteration. Similar richness existed in Aboriginal Ethics as practiced originally throughout the world. Lepofsky et al. (2017) and Turner et al. (2013) have documented the careful cultivation of plants practiced by Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples, noting that it is inappropriate to label them as simple “hunter-gatherers” as they cultivated and managed plants as part of their way of life, stating,

Our understanding …is particularly heightened by the unparalleled details of these places recorded by William Benyon (n.d.) in the Ts’msyen adaawx. The adaawx (true histories) and the ayaawx (laws) are historical recordings that provide evidence of ongoing occupation, spiritual and physical relationships, protocols, and traditional environmental knowledge about the land and people to which the Ts’msyen are socially and politically tied. The ayaawx are not laws created from humans engaging with this land; rather, they are the spirit of the land speaking and giving people the tools to live within its order and with each other. (Lepofsky et al. 2017, p. 456.

Regarding the integration of Indigenous Science with western science, Johnson et al. (2016, p. 10) introduce the issue of articles that “explore the central philosophical concepts upon which Indigenous peoples’ sustainability is founded, such that sustainability scientists might explore how these concepts could inform sustainability initiatives more broadly.” In the current context, this is critical.

Richard Shweder (2004) has written an excellent examination of Western ethics’ suppression of other societies’ concept of ethics including human rights, in Chapter 3, “Moral Realism Without the Ethnocentrism: Is it Just a List of Empty Truisms?” in the book Human Rights with Modesty: The Problem of Universalism. Schweder points out that non-Aboriginal Ethics sound laudable but do not validly examine whether cultural practices are defendable and appropriate, as they contain deeply embedded assumptions of ethical rights that are not empirically defendable.

As Henderson (2008) and Hartley et al. (2010) note, it is time for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 and subsequently slowly endorsed by almost all member nations, to become foundational in making the rights and ethics of Aboriginal or Indigenous Peoples respected and implemented worldwide. Sefa Dei et al. (2000) and Blaser et al. (2004) had already stated that Aboriginal Ethics should no longer be deemed as detrimental to development. Indeed, environmentally friendly forms of power offer the whole world a better economy and way of living that appreciates the need to look after the environment and all life forms (Ozog 2012). This process can ultimately aid business and professional ethics of all Nations and cultures to make wise decisions that respect the relevance of endorsing commitments towards the environment and its interconnected life forms on all continents for the benefit of all mankind.

Turner and Mathews (in press) also note that Aboriginal Ethics need to be endorsed more broadly, saying:

Humans have equal responsibilities to support ecosystems and the complex web of relationships that exist, and of which we are a part. Without our contributions to nature, the system will eventually deteriorate. In this scenario, humans are active players in cycles of “give and take,” and hold deep commitments towards other species, incorporating virtues of responsibility, respect, caring, gratitude, love and generosity. This view is embedded in the knowledge systems of Indigenous Peoples in many parts of the world, including across Canada, and is manifested through stories, ceremonies and intergenerational education, as well as in everyday actions. (page # to be determined)

“The Spirit in the Land” is a deep concept, articulated also by Gisday Wa and Delgan Uukw (1989) in their opening statements about their right to their Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en Traditional Territories. Traditional Aboriginal Ethics embody the concept of respecting the Spirit in the Land and the deep reciprocal commitments that entails. Turner and Mathews note that this is missing in Western Ethics, which needs to replaced by “a philosophy of relatedness and reciprocity, [that] embodies an understanding that we humans are an integral part of nature and natural systems, that animals, plants and even mountains and rivers, considered non-living within western taxonomies, are our kin, ‘our relations.’ It is our role to ‘give back’ to our non-human relations.” (in press, now p. 3).

It is important to note all people would benefit from applying these Aboriginal Ethics wherever they live.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Northern British ColumbiaPrince GeorgeCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Deborah C. Poff
    • 1
  1. 1.Leading with IntegrityOttawaCanada