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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
The Heritage Community Foundation, Alberta Law Foundation and Albertasource.ca
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Understandings Held by Indigenous People

Knowledge Organization

Weakness of Codification

Applying Western Categories

Kinds and Types of Evidence

Visual representation of nature's laws

In this introductory section, we will attempt to sketch out significant differences in the Indigenous understanding of law. This clearing of the ground will demonstrate that, while history does help in comprehending Indigenous law (in this report we use the words "Indigenous" and "Indigenous" more or less equivalently), for Indigenous peoples that law was based upon certain intuitions about the cosmos, the world, animals and humans that we can only designate by our word "natural," despite its inadequacy. The social devotion to this "nature" constituted the foundations for Indigenous law.

"And it is here in the Western Hemisphere that the knowledge still remains intact. Of how we are to walk in peace and harmony with the Creation, That knowledge was here before the strangers came and it is here still."

Art Solomon, "What We Say We Are," in Songs for the People; Teachings on the Natural Way (1990).

" I have been trying to explain these things to you for thirty years, but you never asked me the right questions."

Navaho elder, Son of Many Beads or Bidaga to anthropologist C. Kluckhohn (circa 1956).

"As I am starting to appreciate, humans have always been preoccupied with ‘natural law’ and have, on many occasions, used it to justify the structure of their own institutions. The Euro-American human appear to be no exception. It’s just that our definition of that ‘natural law’ seems to be almost exactly opposite to the definition contained within many Indigenous teachings. It all depends, much like the issue of hierarchies, on what lens you wear when you examine that non-human world."

Canadian Lawyer, Ross, Returning, 77.

Nature’s Law Foundations

Indigenous Peoples have long argued that despite an absence of formal codes of law among Amerindian tribes, a larger, comprehensive sense of law did exist, and it shaped life in much the same way as British Common Law has shaped legal life in Canada. Together with trans-tribal social mores, political agreements such as treaties, religious ritual and myths about the common source of all life, and the myriad details of everyday responsibility, these elements point to and affirm the existence of a truly all-embracing legal consciousness. Indeed, the Cree had a phrase Kihchi weyasowewin kisipikaskamihk (literally, The Ultimate, All-over -the-World Law). In the Mohawk language, too, there was a distinction made between a law that was not made by humans and human-crafted law.  Mohawk historian Rarihokwats notes how the distinction was expressed:

"… in the 'words "kariwiio" and "kariwiiosta", the former being literally "the beautiful way" and the other being "man-made beautiful way". The former is used for the "Great Law" or natural law, the latter is the word used for "religion". Natural law is understood by children, demonstrated without words in nature, and, properly, is the subject of study and discussion, but not dispute. In this sense, man-made "Indigenous religions" are deemed to be suspect because of the human intervention, is not understood by children, requires words to explain, and prompts many disputes." (Rarinokwats, 2004)

This sense of law formed the basis of Amerindian society and provided the common ground for such things as treaties, hunting ground agreements and social intercourse. As an important example, they point to the "Great Peace." It was and is a well-known model for one area of trans-tribal cooperation—a law that bridged the five tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Great Peace was and is, they contend, concrete evidence of the existence of a regime of law encompassing both local and individual tribes with a larger sense of ordered behaviour on the cosmological and natural levels.

They also point to traditional knowledge as proof that nature and its various forces were understood in their own "scientific" way, and hence constituted something like the Western concept of "natural law." As Elder Wayne Roan puts it:

"And also, there is another thing, it begins with the first four elements, you know, which God used to create earth…(it is) relationship. I mean the four things used were related. That’s why they created earth and why they have the four seasons. That’s why we have the four forms of life and the four gifts. Everything is related. From the first blade of grass to the last tree, there is a lump in that leaf; there begins an insect, the second form of life. Then, to the last insect, you know, that is just above an animal. That’s where it ends."

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