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



Spirit Realm

Visual representation of nature's laws

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Retribution—If the universe was held to operate according to the code of relational logic set up by a dual power system in the universe, there was also a powerful concept of payback. One meets this everywhere in Aboriginal notions of justice. This is not just a system of social containment. In English, we are confronted with a wide range of attitudes and words: reprove, reprisal, recompense, redress, revenge, vengeance, payback, requiting, punishment, debt, obligation, vindication, blame, scapegoat, etc. that have their equivalents in Aboriginal languages. In Cree, for example, we have: meskotsehowin (redress), kakweskasowehk (reprove), apehowin (revenge), naskwawin (reprisal), pasastehokowisowin (retributive justice), naskwastamasowin apo apehowin (vengeance), pasihiwewin (vindication), atameyimew (s/he lays blame), sihkiskakewin (obligation), masinahikepayowin (indebtedness), tipahikewin (the act of recompensing) to mention only a few. This suggests a rich vein of retributive justice exists at the foundation of Aboriginal culture. Here are some able notable expressions of the system:

Elder Dorothy Smallboy, of Chief Smallboy’s Camp in the mountains of Alberta had some rather sharp things to say about suicide and abortion. The conversation inevitably rolls around to children, and I share my concern about a friend's abortion and the guilt she is experiencing. Dorothy frowns and shakes her head. That's bad. Suicide ... abortion. In our religion, you cannot harm life which the Creator has given. She would have to pay for her sin for seven years on the other side. Sometimes, women who have abortions are not gifted with another child. If she's really sorry for what she's done, she must fast for four days and pray to the Creator to forgive her (Meili, 114)

Red CrowAnother example of this sense of retribution and payback is found in the famous story of Red Crow and his encounter with the gopher. While still a boy, Red Crow was out hunting gophers. The gophers wanted to live in peace, and were much disturbed by Red Crow hunting their people. When Red Crow lay down near a hole to wait, he fell fast asleep and in his dream he was visited by the gopher spirit, who promised him he would receive much recompense if he would only go away and leave them in peace. The gopher spirit’s recompense for leaving them alone? "When you go against and enemy, take a blade of grass and stick it in your hair. Then you’ll never get hit." Red Crow accepted the offer and  left them in peace. Although he fought in 33 battles, the enemy never wounded him once nor even hit him in combat. (Dempsey, 389)

In a recent case in Manitoba, an Ojibway-Cree woman’s belief in onjine was highlighted. Onjine is the concept of retribution for past improper actions. When her child was born with a congenital heart problem that could not be operated upon, she immediately abandoned her child to the nurses and went into depression.  She held the traditional view that the impending death of her infant was related to some disrespectful act that she had done towards the ancestors or to an animal that she had subsequently eaten. For her, the horrendous state of her daughter’s heart was payback for her lack of respect. She abandoned the child and would have nothing further to do with her, because she believed any contact she might have with the baby would inevitably allow the evil influence attached to her to "rub off" on the child, leaving the child no alternative but to die.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo JumpThese are but three of a vast array of interpretations of a crucial area of Nature’s Law. In Plains culture, it was well known that one could be severely punished for some actions…such as hunting ahead of the main group during the great buffalo hunts. Similarly, inter-tribal sparring often left some dead—with vengeance a necessity to maintain tribal honor. Every action that undermined a sense of common decency required the recipient’s response, else s/he would be regarded as weak. Shunning ridicule and shaming were all social tools to enforce cultural norms. Consequently, the leaders of the band often tried to head off trouble between contenders by intervening and offering to negotiate compensation before vengeance was carried out.

The most powerful tool in mitigating vengeance was fear of bad medicine; indeed, unfortunate occurrences might well be as much the result of some bad medicine as being bested in a fight. Likewise, the threat of bad medicine might curtail any attempt to carry out reprisals. Consequently, the presence of a powerful medicine man was an important feature of social control; he could just as easily use his power to produce bad medicine as good. His reputation alone was a strong deterrent for much uncontrolled behaviour.

Besides this, the sacred dimension of retribution came in at several related levels:

  1. the spirit world can wreak vengeance upon humans
  2. a system of balance existed between this world and the next
  3. disgruntled ancestors could bring calamity upon their descendents
  4. human actions have repercussions for all levels of beings with whom they interact…plants, animals and greater-than-human beings
  5. humans retain status in the next world, and their actions here have significance beyond this life, and
  6. many actions of life required ceremonial responses to vitiate the influence of ill omens, improper behaviour and lack of respect.
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