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
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
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.