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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

Following on the notions of self-government stated above, human social self-government derived from the fact of an order or "government" in Nature’s Law—we could say self-government was a mimicking of the process at work in the relationship between the four forms of life, plant, insect, animal, and human. It was held that human government worked best when it was patterned after this living form of "government."

The place where the bands most encountered the order that they held existed in Nature’s Law was in the key ritual of the year—in the Sundance during the summer celebration festivities. It was during that time that the whole tribe adopted a much more centralized authority system, with clear roles for ceremonialists, heads of bands, police to patrol the camp and warriors.

The most meritorious among the members achieved status in several ways—by receiving spirit helpers through dreams whose presence in the life of the young man was manifest to the holy people, who in turn recommended them to the band—by obvious feats of courage or strength of character that were then interpreted as revealing a giftedness for leadership…and by rituals of the Sundance that exposed the strength of character, piety and the connectedness of the young man to an ancestor of remembered ability---to name but a few.

When the tribe migrates after the Sundance towards the great hunt of the bison, the same structure remained in place, for the Plains hunt was the most serious survival issue of the ritual/hunting year. The police made sure that no one hunted or broke ranks and that everyone did the task assigned. Those who broke the hunting laws would have their lodgings destroyed, their weapons and horses removed and they were kept among the women until the hunt was completed, when they would be sent home with only minimal weapons to guarantee their survival.

Those responsible for these punishments were the police societies. These were constituted in the spring and did not practice their rituals apart from the fall assembly. This indicates that they had no continuing existence or purpose beyond the tribal requirements of the festive and bison-hunting months. Further to the south, among the Blackfoot, warrior societies continued throughout the year, but there is no evidence of their existence among the Cree, and societies certainly did not appear among the Woods Cree. The sources we have stress the fighting prowess favoured by these societies, but there was another side to this activity: peace-maintaining. Since tribal ethic left the responsibility for righting wrongs in the hands of the offended, the potential for fierce contestations was always present. The police units were called upon to mediate. So a young man in a policing unit would gain status, not by inflicting some kind of judgment, but in maintaining peace. Skills in tact, oral persuasion and humor were valuable tactics indicating policing abilities.

When the people returned to their traditional hunting grounds for the fall and winter, a different, but related kind of ritual governmental structure prevailed—a chief of obvious merit and solid ancestral reputation headed the everyday activities of hunting and camp maintenance, a loosely defined ‘cabinet’ of older advisors from among leading families provided assistance as needed. They also were responsible for teaching the youngsters. In addition there were holy men and women, medicine people, and young band scouts who could also protect the band if attacked.  This loosely shaped self-government was the hallmark of the Woodlands Cree under consideration here and largely constitute the system in place at Sawridge before European contact.     

The Basis of Band Divisions

The bands of the Plains Cree were loose, shifting units usually named for the territory they occupied. Each band had its own range, but the limits were not clearly defined; sometimes a band traveled a hundred miles or more from its usual locality to join in a Sun dance or to hunt with some other band. Individuals, and even whole families, might separate from their group to follow another chief.

The most important consideration in the demarcation of band divisions was that all the members of a band lived in the same general territory. The prestige and power of the leading chief was also an important factor in the cohesiveness of a band. An influential leader attracted more families and held their allegiance better than a weaker man. Black-bear, a not­ed warrior of the last half of the nineteenth century, rose to chieftainship and welded a new band because of his abilities as a leader. Not only did families from several Plains Cree bands place themselves under his aegis, but a considerable number of Assiniboine and Plains Ojibwa joined his camp.

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