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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Governmental Law

Secret Societies

Visual representation of nature's laws


Page: 1  2  3

Leadership and Governance

In general, Aboriginal law differed from ours both in the way it was conceived and it was practised. Aboriginal peoples had no separate institution mandated to secure the law to see that it was obeyed. Rather, law rested in the hands of each member, since each was essential for the social whole of the group. Power was not vested in an institution but in the corporate will of the people, understood as both the local group and the people as a whole expressing themselves as responsible for their environment.

The model for this personal responsibility was the medicine man or the holy woman, both of whom provided the tribe with insights into the operation of nature’s laws by virtue of their familiarity with ritual requirement. The holy person conveyed the proper way to perform a ritual in the same way that the individual had to attend to the proper way that things must be done in one’s life. When ritual was properly carried out, the people were assured that their place in the world order was confirmed. Likewise, when the best way was utilized in one’s behaviour, the assurance was that the good life would result.

Among the Cree, too, there was the concept of rule; it utilized the same root word weyasowewin, but meant something close to "setting a standard." For example, in Plains Cree culture there were rules on when you could kill a bison at the time of the annual hunt, and a special constabulary force maintained strict adherence to these rules.

Similarly, in custom—he Cree word is nakāyātotamowin with the implication of "what is usually done." Here the word signals that ordinary domestic life is governed by customs representing expressions unique to the local group—say, the style that drummers use in playing, or women use in their dress.

The Cree language also enshrined the recognition of the permanence of political institutions; a good example of this is that represented by the word okimahkan, a clan or tribal leader, whose role and significance might differ from band to band or tribe to tribe but which can be said to be a continuing element of Cree culture. Okimahkan relied upon a tribal sense of evaluation that not only involved the normal evaluations that go on among social group—in other words a "natural" human activity—but evidence of a spiritual sort delivered in such ways as what spirit helper the leader was known to have, or to which totemic line the leader belonged.

Decision-making structures vary greatly among Aboriginal people in general—perhaps vary greatly in all peoples. Yet, clearly, linguistic evidence from the Cree demonstrates such permanent bodies. There are distinctive gatherings of a solemn religious sort, such as took place in the wahkotowin, where the ancestor spirits are welcomed and ritual honored before pleading with them to represent the people to the spirit world. Being present at this meeting signaled that one was indeed one of the nehiyew. This was a religious gathering that highlighted the corporate connection to the ancestors and the spirit world connected to the roots of the people. Generally speaking, in Cree, the word wahkohtowin expresses a complex understanding of the law of relationship— involved in it is the notion of an overarching law of respect and belonging. One belonged, first and foremost, to the sacred order of things laid down by the first Creator. One also belonged as a member of the family of the first ancestor, so the word could equally be used to describe "descendant."  Decisions about who did or did not belong were indicated by attendance at such invited gatherings.

In a less formal religious level, there was the mamawapowin, which we would describe as a rather informally organized meeting convened for a business purpose. There could also be a wide variety of attitudes expressed in meetings—from highly a formal confederation of tribes or bands for a purpose, called mamawinitowin where nothing would be said until everyone was seated in his/her proper place and rituals of unification and purification (such as sweet-grass smudging and prayers) had taken place—to rather informal meetings where information about location of animals could be traded. Such a meeting could vary from  pikiskwasowewin, consultation or mamawihitowin, a general gathering of people.

Generally-speaking, the importance of a formal meeting could be determined by the level of ritual activity involved in it, and the formality of the rituals. Any official meeting would open with prayers and/or pipe-smoking among all delegates1, Major decisions also required the exchange of gifts, which not only recognized the hierarchical order of venerated leaders, but acknowledged that some individuals spoke for the entire group. Being stingy in such gatherings would call down condemnations on the leaders among those present, and the public perception of such falling-short of the norm would redound against the band and its leader in subsequent negotiations. In short, decision-making always took place within a context of ritual formalization, and the gravity of the gathering could determine the rules that would apply. Yet obviously very precise human evaluations could determine outcomes regardless of what level of meeting it was.

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