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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Local/Oral Law

"Good Medicine"

Visual representation of nature's laws

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Definition: One of the 10 categories of Nature's Laws developed by the Nature's Laws Project Team and defined as "The embodiment of Indigenous Law in identifiable cases and stories and includes Language of Cultural Norms; convergence of Influences in "Common Law"; Good Law equivalent to good medicine; Tribal Norms or "belonging to" to the people; Personal "Law" related to ancestry, "gifts"; Restitutional Law enshrining sentencing circle, etc."

Nature's Laws reflects the notion of Indigenous People that, in reality, categories of experience are extremely difficult to maintain…one cannot always determine, for example, whether an act has religious connotations or whether someone is mimicking a sacred act. (Think of an actor in a theatre) Moreover, some communities have several superior gifted leaders…medicine people, shamans, seers, herbal healers, while others do not. One could expect that the knowledge base of the former community provides a much richer array than the latter, giving rise to interpretations of law that are distinctive and more nuanced. Furthermore, some communities have important "historical" (to use a Western phrase) occurrences that have influenced the way laws are applied or restrictions imposed…floods, combats, loss of territory through death, etc. All of these scenarios prove the point that local oral law plays a significant role in acquainting and shaping Indigenous People's perception of Nature's Laws. Consequently we could not hope to have surveyed Nature's Laws without indicating the creative role that local oral law plays in depicting Nature's Laws for eh People.

Local Oral Law (tipahikepayihtāwin, i.e act of imposing a rule or requirement). In this kind of law, local understandings play a role in defining the legal territory. The best approach to this type of law is to note that tribal and regional differences played an immense role in defining law among Indigenous peoples in a very significant manner. For example, the Dene people have a long tradition of holy people called in English "prophets" who often come to tell the people what would be coming and how the people should prepare themselves. The best known of such figures among the Dene is Nógha (pronounced No-ah). He was said to receive his information from a wolverine (Nógha is Slavey for wolverine). Stories of his exploits continue to influence Dene culture to this day. Hence in this category, we will try to indicate how law takes on local colouring from people and occurrences, despite its attendance to some of the general principles we have noted that are part of Nature's Laws, such as Ritual or Constitutional, etc. Law.

In most Indigenous communities there are what is called in English "Customary Laws." It is well known that the elders and powerful people were the custodians of these laws, and they often applied this knowledge as the need arose. Customary laws are "oral" in that the details of them are carried in local stories and local lore, but not likely anyone would say that these specific laws applied to all neighbouring tribes or even to all peoples on Turtle Island. They arose out of the particular group experience.

Elders will tell you that some examples of local oral law are such things as "How you built a house." Or "How you decided on who should be community leader for any particular problem," or "How you made agreements" between you on some business or ritual matter, or "How you sold or traded horses, "or "How you transferred belongings, such as a medicine bundle." While Western law would accept that some acts might be "religious" (like transferring a Pipe) and therefore subject to Ritual Law, that might not be the case if someone found an old pipe that no one seemed to "own." Local Oral Law determined the legal outcome of such cases. Cree Elder Wayne Roan had this to say:

There are historical stories…that is actual stories about the people and how they lived, and the things that happened to them. These are not ‘stories’ but descriptions of events that have been passed down to the people as true ‘history’; for example, there are historical stories of when the tribes met and made agreements…these are oral stories but they are not tales…they depict true events. They are a kind of local law. Wayne Roan, April, 2002

Teaching "The Law"
Interviewer - Earle Waugh, PhD.



Local Oral Law often relates to important experiences of gifted people in a community…the essence or interpreted meanings of such experiences then are passed down to the community as normative in some way. For example, we have this from Catherine Yatsalie, Dene Tha’, Meander River Reserve:

As one Dene That elder put it, "People may think that they know about animals, but it isn't true; a human's powers are insignificant. We are people; we know only a little about animals and their ways. Animals have special abilities which they depend upon to live, giving us only the powers which they no longer need. They hold fast to their secrets until they are used up, and then they throw them away. An animal chooses someone to receive these leftover powers, a person who has treated the animals with respect. My father talked to me. He taught me in many ways, and that is how I have learned these things." (Meili 90)

The idea that animals have energies or powers that they no longer need which they then impart to a favoured person is not universally known among Indigenous People. This is part of the local oral law of this particular group. This is clearly not totemic power, arising from one's totem, but just specific skills or abilities…leftover powers…that someone acquires from the animal that is then used for the community. This example demonstrates that individual communities could have significant local traditions relating to their medicine people that would require behaviour that is legally binding.

Even children come to know the difference between one group and another based on this local lore, ad the grandson of Catherine demonstrates:

"Other tribes like the Cree have medicine circles and different animals for the different directions. They have ceremonies. We don't have anything like that. Our religion is simple. We have the Tea Dance and the drum," Arnold, eighteen, explains. The hand drum is the symbol of Dene Tha’ identity, a spiritual instrument used to sing prayers or communicate with the Creator and honour elders, mothers, children, and nature, for example. The Tea Dance is a spiritual celebration of thanksgiving, involving prayer, dancing, feasting, socializing, and elders' speeches.(Meili 91)

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