Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were social beings who were linked to other people (including ancestors), through a number of totemic relationships. These relationships were very complex and test the intellectual agility of those who try to understand them.

Most commentators speak and write about Aboriginal social relationships using the word tribe.
"The system is worked out according to certain principles which are observed by the Aborigines: (i) A start is made from the family and close blood relations reckoned to the second generation up and down, and also collaterally to the second line on both the father’s and mother’s side of any particular individual (but) we should remember that the Aborigines do not distinguish ‘own’ or blood relations from those related only by marriage or by ‘legal’ fiction (in other words, every member of a tribe is considered to be a relative). (ii) But in reckoning collateral relations, aunts, uncles and cousins, they employ a principle which distinguishes their kinship system from ours; they regard brothers as equivalent and sisters as equivalent, and apply terms according to this principle. Thus, mother’s sister is classified with and called mother, and father’s brother is classified with and called father. Likewise grandfather’s brother is ‘grandfather’ and so on. Moreover, certain consequential relationships follow from this; thus, since father’s brother is my ‘father’, his son is my ‘brother’; he is not my cousin as with us; and likewise mother’s sister’s children are not my cousins, but my ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’; or a brother’s children, in the case of a man, are not his nephews and nieces, but his ‘children’, or if a woman be speaking, then her sister’s children are ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ to her. (iii)In the third place, except for very special and rare purposes, the children of a brother and sister are distinguished in terminology, and different behavior is observed towards them. Thus my children and my brother’s children are sons and daughters to me, but the children of my sister are nephews and nieces; or, to look at the relationship from the point of view of these groups of children: my brother’s children call me, and regard me as, ‘father’ while my sister’s children look upon me as ‘uncle’, that is, mother’s brother."

The complexity involved in identifying the different social groups in which the people lived, is simple compared to understanding Aboriginal relationships to other people.

A.P. Elkin Aboriginal commented on these relationships by saying: "The Aborigines reckon their relationships throughout the whole community and even beyond the borders of any one tribe. Indeed, every one with whom a person comes in contact is regarded as related to him (or her), and the kind of relationship must be ascertained so that the two persons concerned will know what their mutual behavior should be. In other words, relationship is the basis of behavior; indeed, it is the anatomy and physiology of Aboriginal society and must be understood if the behavior of the Aborigines as social beings is to be understood....What they do in effect is to enlarge the family for the purpose of social behavior until it embraces the whole tribe, and they do this not by increasing the number of relationship terms and speaking of third cousins, great-uncles, or anything of that sort, but by classifying various groups of the community under the normal relationship terms of mother, father, uncle, aunt and so on, going no father up and down than grandparent and grandchild, nor as a rule, collaterally [sideways] than second cousin." (
"This principle applies also to the brothers and sisters of my parents, grandparents or grandchildren, Thus, father’s brother, according to principle (ii), is father, by mother’s brother is quite distinct, being called by a special term, say, ‘uncle’; likewise, mother’s sister is mother, but father’s sister is ‘aunt’. Following from this are the facts that while my father’s brother’s children are my brothers and sisters, my mother’s brother’s children are my cross-cousins; and that my mother’s sister’s children are my brothers and sisters, whereas my father’s sister’s children are my cross-cousins. Further, my father’s father’s brother being father’s father [principle ii], his son is ‘father’ to me; but my sister’s son is not my father’s brother, but my father’s cross-cousin, and I call him ‘uncle’; that is I classify