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



Variety of 'Sacred' Moments

Dominance of
the Pipe

Meanings of
Sacred Pipe

Western Use of Language


Other Ways
of Speaking
and Knowing


Visual representation of nature's laws

Definition: One of the 10 categories of Nature's Laws developed by the Nature's Laws Project Team and defined as "Domain of shamans, medicine people, holy women, holy men, community 'religious' guidance; enshrined in traditional ceremonies like the sun dance, sweat lodge, shaking tent rites, hunter, fisher laws, etc."

Rules and requirements associated with ritual is the responsibility of the wise and the spiritually gifted. Ritual law has many dimensions, including seasonal directives, the institutional demands of annual rites, and hunting and planting ceremonies, to name only a tiny few. Taboos also play a role in this law, some of which are kept secret, or are the terrain of the knowledgeable. Most ordinary citizens remain outside the deeper reaches of this law as to the manner it is applied, and instead experience the full power of the ritual as it happens.

The peoples on Turtle Island have incredibly complex and diversified religious lives. We cannot hope to recount this multiplicity here. Rather we need to remind ourselves of this fact relative to Nature's Laws…the model for all ceremonial life is the rhythms and patterns of nature itself. It is Nature's Laws that provides the perceived stability out of which ritual life develops.

Here we see a dramatic contrast with the notions of Western society …where for Europeans, nature is wild and untamed, unpredictable and uncaring, Indigenous peoples everywhere in North America saw (and see) nature as embodying regularity, constancy and benevolence. It is but a step for Indigenous peoples, then, to insist that adhering to Ritual Law parallel Nature's Law; properly carrying out ceremony, taps into Nature's Laws by virtue of their interconnection and intimate relationship. Furthermore, rituals provide the means to influence those sources of power that are known to be beyond human beings but were intimately related to them.

In addition, participating in ritual provides the individual and the collective the means of making sense of Nature’s Laws and being a part of them at an emotional and spiritual, rather than intellectual, level.

It might be helpful to recount some important ways that Ritual Law impacts on culture and society of traditional Indigenous people. We have chosen only a few here.

  1. Westerners are now very much conditioned to the fact that a state’s law stands apart from Religious Law, and indeed, subject religions to the greater power of the state in civic affairs. But it was not always so. Indeed, it is only recently that some aspects of a very ancient Western "religious law" are being done away with in Canada: Sunday shopping and paid-time release for religious obligations. This alerts us to the fact that religious law has shaped Western culture even when official ties have been severed. The Monarch of England is still the head of the Church of England.

    One of the crucial aspects of Ritual Law is time. Religion structures social and cultural life by determining the ritual year, and Indigenous law is no different. However, where time in the Western conception is linear, and is founded upon the image of blocks of time sequentially stretching to infinity in a straight line, Nature's Law insists that time is cyclical. The model for this circular view of time is the seasons, with their continual, yet regular change. This model is the basis for Ritual Law. It is Ritual Law that provides the rules for other codes in society. It is to Ritual Law that all Indigenous people looked when a decision of high import had to be made. It is Ritual Law which ties individuals and collectives to the cycle of the seasons and makes them a participant in it.

  2. Ritual Law insists that there is a protocol for addressing the spiritual; this is not to be trifled with, nor left to amateurs. Ritual Law deals with the most powerful entities known to the universe, and therefore only the most knowledgeable and/or the most wise are to provide the access. The assumption is that there is a Proper Path by which the group may access the powers, and everyone is more or less proceeding along that path. Guidance is needed, and Ritual Law provides the means for that guidance to be appropriated.

    Many of the artifacts that ended up in Museums across the world relate to this Spiritual Legacy, and this suggests that each represents a dimension of a Ritual Law system about which even the most sophisticated purchaser knew very little. Each artifact has its proper place within the Pathway, and power becomes attached to it because of that place. This applies also to gravesites, hunting territories and sacred places that are now occupied by others. They all constituted part of Ritual Law.

  3. Nature's Law provides that Ritual Law can be expressed in many different ways, and that engagement with the realities along the Path can take many forms. One of the most significant expressions of Ritual Law is the embodiment of sacred powers in masks and unusual dress. That is, in the carrying out of Ritual Law, some ritual specialists use dress and mask which all them to use their power. Everyone knows, of course that the people thus dressed up are not someone or something else, but rather that they have become something else for the ritual. Ritual Law thus introduces and brings to life the personified beings, whether they were mythical, legendary, or historical.

    The re-enactment of some mythical moment can become a way of renewing and revitalizing the people and the cosmos…a transforming and taking the people to that moment when the powerful people were first here. It can be a means of rejuvenating of the cycle of life. It was not "entertainment", regardless of how colourful and exuberant it was. This is why ethnographical descriptions are so poor a source for meaning…the writers had no knowledge of Ritual Law. It was Ritual Law that dictated the rules for what the ceremony meant and how it should be done. It was Ritual Law that indicated who could attend such ceremonies and who should be barred because of the power and significance of the rite. Few anthropologists or missionaries were ever parties to those rules, so most of the Ritual Law descriptions we have are almost useless in comprehending this aspect of Nature's Law.

  4. Nature's Laws provide that ritual is not dogma, nor applied without change. The freedom of Indigenous peoples to modify rites arise out of the fluidity of religious encounter…once you accept that the gifted person can have his or her own encounters with the spirit world, and that those encounters can be extended to the world of everyday existence through his/her power gifts, the dynamic nature of ritual and religion has to be accepted. Thus religious acts can and do take on a local colouring. This accounts for the incredible variety of Ritual Acts. Furthermore, ritual could be imported from another source or group and utilized if it was deemed to reflect the Path for the people at that time.

    So even the cyclical model can be modified by 'historical' interventions. For example, not all Indigenous peoples on the Prairies practice the sun dance the same way, with the same rules applying…the Cree regard it as a Thirst Dance, suggesting its relationship to fertility and rain, whereas other, such as the Lakota Sioux, stress the piercing ceremonies and the offering of ceremonial life-blood to be renewed. Not all peoples have Secret Societies that adopt their own codes of behaviour and that discipline members according to their own protocols. Not all groups use rites like Vision Quests the same way. Yet they all have rites of cleansing, rites of naming, acts of prayer, guardian spirit relationships, great cultural gatherings, and give-away procedures, to select only a few.

  5. Ritual Law apply in areas unfamiliar to Non-Indigenous peoples. Hunting is not a 'secular' activity. What is the meaning of a moose that returns often to hang around the village of a powerful hunter? Westerners would read this as the attractiveness of a patch of food, or a previous familiarity with locale. An Indigenous hunter has a relationship with the animals, and he knows very well this is not happenstance…it is the moose "giving" itself to the community for food. Contrariwise, if a good hunter misses an easy shot, he knows very well there is something about this animal that is sacred. He has a kindred connection to this animal's spirit. He would never try to kill that animal. The rituals of hunting and trapping, of honoring those animals that give themselves, are all part of Ritual Law.

    Similar constraints apply to planting. Especially dominant in Algonquin-speaking people of Eastern Canada, planting rites signal that a bountiful harvest is not just dependent upon rain at appropriate times. It is dependent upon the securing and active involvement of tutelary beings in the whole process. Each and every activity has some kind of ritual attached to it. In consequence, we conclude that Ritual Law may apply to actions that to Westerners are "everyday" and non-religious in character.

  6. Ritual Law also has implication for landscape. Lake Minnewanka near Banff in the Alberta Rockies may be a lake of warm, pleasant water surrounded by beautiful mountains, but it is also a sacred lake. In the past among Indigenous peoples, it was known as a place noted for its powerful visitations from the spirit world.

    Thus, for example, youth among the Tsuu T'ina may be sent to the higher reaches of the mountains, seeking a vision regarding or from their tutelary spirit. Alone, without food, and committed to prayer for day and night for several days, the youth seeks a vision from the other world as to his true nature, and what the nature of his relationships will be with that spirit world. Ritual Law dictates the site, the rules attached with the quest, the requirements leading up to it, and the interpretation of the result. No one would ever violate the sacredness of his vision quest site in any way, for he is connected to it by a "natural" umbical cord. The same holds true for Sundance sites, grave sites, even sites of the burying of the placenta. In short, Ritual Law operates with awareness of a wide range of landscape that has both individual spirit or group-related power.

  7. The Indigenous year was divided into time periods when ceremonies that had group significance would be performed. Among the Plains peoples, the Sundance/Thirst Dance was clearly one of those occasions. When the whole "tribe" or people moved to the bison hunt and the integral Sundance, the Ritual Law structured the meeting in important ways: the Holy Woman had to pledge herself to undertake the rite, the Sundance site itself was set apart and purified, the tipis and tents circled the ritual lodge and enclosed the ritual leaders, the role of leadership was authorized for ritual, policing and social control purposes, etc. Dancers may have been preparing for a year for the event, based on a pledge made at a previous Sundance. These rites may involve major give-away rites, by which some wealthy individual expressed his gratitude to the spirits by giving away as much as he could to the tribe.

    Wayne Roan from the Mountain Cree insists that the Sundance structure was the basis for all other rituals carried out throughout the year, and that leadership roles in the local band arose out of the position people had during the Sundance. In this way, Ritual Law set the agenda for how people would live for the next year. Similarly, among women, rites of passage from childhood into adulthood were marked by the rites of holy women who inducted young girls into puberty by secret women's rites. Girls learned both the meaning of the rites and the responsibilities they would soon be assuming as they grew up and married.

  8. One of the persons with the greatest power in any Indigenous group is the shaman or medicine person. This person is the custodian of the people's rituals, and is charged with carrying them out properly and instructing others in how to respond to the spiritual world. Most often the shaman is male, but sometimes there are women medicine people. They were deemed as the most powerful among all the leaders, who, after all, could be dismissed from a position if he or she became ineffective or senile. People treated the shaman with extraordinary respect.

    We will touch on the role of the shaman below, but it important to realize that, because Nature' s Law was not codified in our sense of the word, the shaman is the living repository of legal understandings. The shaman is called upon to give legal renderings of matters that would fall under what we would consider "secular" leadership. For example, outside people may be coming to the community with a proposal for a business venture which would involve cutting timber. The medicine person might engage in a ceremony to better "see" the situation, and then might present his analysis of the moral quality of these outsiders, the likely consequences to the natural world of the proposed operation, what likely would happen to the community if it accepted the offer. The medicine person provides this "intelligence." Hence we can see that Ritual Law can be used for a very secular matter, in this case, a business proposal.

  9. Major historical events also required Nature's Law, in the form of Ritual Law. Rituals were necessary to demark the significance of a treaty, for example, when everyone attending had to smoke the welcome Pipe, and everyone closed a session with a validating ritual smoke. Such actions were not just good form. Smoking the Pipe both set aside individual will and affirmed the good purposes of everyone participating. It required the most honorable of men to articulate the issues, and it presupposed a mutual comprehension of the many dimensions of the problem. Certainly it had a political content, but when consensus had been reached, Ritual Law stepped in. This reflects that participating in a final smoke was more than a denouement…it was the validation that all had acted honorably and all had agreed to the conclusions reached. The final smoke signaled what we now say when a law has been passed and recorded in Parliament: It has received Royal Assent. Similar rituals were seen in this generation at the First Ministers’ Conferences in the 1980s, and in the "cleansing" of Paul Martin when he was sworn in by the Governor General as Prime Minister in 2003.

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