The first issue to be addressed is the classification of
behaviours that requires the application of judgments, that
is, whether there is a system in place that more or less
automatically implies a certain judgment. Clearly with some
behaviours, Nature's Law has norms that are held to be
inviolable. There seems, then, to be a system in place for
adjudicating behaviours, and this system applies a standard
of punishment and redress.
- Grouped under the first classification are acts
completely restricted…for example, the Cree phrase ka
nakinamihk means forbidden and applies to acts
that will not be tolerated whatsoever. The implication of
this group of acts is that they are totally against Nature's
One such behaviour relates to someone who is deemed to
have gone berserk and who turns to cannibalism…wihtikiw,
sometime spelled as wetiko. Such a person is regarded
as extremely anti-social and a threat to the integrity of
the community. It is sometimes talked about as if somebody
who was possessed by the cannibal spirit was partially in
the other world, and therefore dangerous to human society.
There are strong boundaries around this concept, and it is
normally not even a topic that one should talk about, but
when it is, the outcome is always the same: either death or
exile for the offender.
The people immediately responsible for handling such a
situation are the holy people…the ceremonialists, and the
medicine people. Once they have pronounced that this is the
affliction, then, the person no longer has any standing
within the band or tribe, and is exposed to the elements or
destroyed. Marriage relationships are also defined by incest
rules, so there are very stringent rules about who one could
marry. Marriage within family bloodlines within the
cross-cousin range is preferred, but marriages within
families closer than that are forbidden.
- Then there are a group of acts that are forbidden at a
specific time. For example, during the fall hunt of the
buffalo, no one was allowed to leave camp early or to charge
the buffalo before the lead hunters gave the word, lest the
herd be stampeded and people killed or the hunt lost. Those
who violated this rule were summoned by the lead hunter
and/or chiefs of the community, their teepees and belongings
were destroyed and they were forbidden to hunt with the
group. If they could not be located, the punishment was
carried out, and the camp police-society were sent out to
cut the horses out from under them, destroy their weapons
and to leave them without support.
- Likewise, there are appropriate behaviours during
ceremonials times…someone who breaks the rules of the
rituals is severely disciplined, since those rules should
not be broken lest the ritual not be effective. An example
is the deliberate dropping of an eagle feather wand on the
ground or the breaking of a pipe or stem.
- There are acts classified as disruption to the peace of
the camp. These are subject to community action, and call
for someone from a particular group to accept responsibility
for negative behaviour. Depending upon the violation, either
a family head, a society leader or the camp council,
comprised of the medicine people and elders from the
families are responsible for handling the situation. For
example, Wayne Roan comments on unruly children, the
responsibility of the head of family:
Wayne: Well, again let’s use common sense. If I go into
this camp and my children don’t listen, it is up to me to
discipline them. And if they take it further than that, I
use common sense and take them out of there. Therefore, I do
not break any of (Nature's) Laws. Therefore, I do not
disturb any of their Laws that are there. You can’t break
Fred Roan: (we used) straps or whatever; now, you can get
charged for assault. In the natural way, if a child was
misbehaving and continues to miss-behave after being talked
to and told, and so forth, then only once, it was used, ---
take a willow. That was final. Right across the back of the
Wayne: That stung.
Fred: That was only once. That was it, and to me, what it
upsets (i.e. Canadian Law against strapping), that type of
common-law, it upsets our Traditional Law, our Nature's Law.
We can’t discipline our children anymore, without that
concern. When a child is being raised and taught from the
time it is born and even before it is born. There is
something going on in our customs. Well, if you lose that
child along the way, that child no longer listens to you as
a parent. Or it goes off and on. Why do think our jails are
full? You know. There is (Canadian social) common law that
upsets our Nature's Law. That is one example. So you have
all kinds of social problems, all kinds of crime and
punishment, kind of things.
- Likewise on a disagreement between families that are
relatively equal in prestige and authority in the community,
another range of actions are involved. First, those who are
the close relations would initially only be involved in the
dispute...the oldest family male member, or the one with the
most prestige would negotiate. Then, if it could not be
resolved, and both contenders decided to stay in the
community, the standards set by the community required a
council to be held. The hearing of cases is based on a
developing process in traditional societies of what might be
called a ‘legal’ model: "to hear, to see, to move and to
speak". Only those who have been through the process related
to the particular case traditionally are allowed to have a
say in the easing the conflict. Here is Wayne Roan's
Earle: So the two of us would go to an Elder or a chief?
Wayne: Definitely. You know, we are talking about different
people. You know, if you choose to stay (in the band), then
the chief would get involved.
Earle: So the chief would sit
down with the two of us, to try to work the conflict.
Wayne: Maybe one-on-one.
Earle: Okay, so this is the equivalent of our court.
Wayne: Yeah, but better, we didn’t have any lawyers, to
Earle: Yeah, but the chief wouldn’t decide for you if
it wasn’t right.
Wayne: Well, the chief should already know. The people
should already know (what should be done). It's the people
with the problem who don’t know. Because you see, people who
don’t understand the thing are the ones that make the most
complaints, but when you understand something, then you have
nothing to say.
Earle: That’s where Nature's Law comes in?
Other voice: Right. You recognize it, just recognizing
Wayne: Because in the first place, if there is no
Nature's Law, how could this camp been set up the way it is?
- There are a class of actions that brought conflict to
parties within the social group. An example of this is
adultery or marriage disruption. Such actions were regarded
as detrimental, and are often handled by the community
through joking or ridicule. Behaviour that puts the
individual in a bad light is not legally forbidden, but it
certainly incurs social sanction. On such an issue Wayne,
Rynhart Roan and Therese Weasel have the following to say:
Wayne: Then that would be personal…
Earle: So we would write this as part of nature's law?
Theresa: But you wouldn’t even attempt it. It wouldn’t
even be a thought.
Earle: I understand that.
Theresa: If you understood the laws. It wouldn’t even be
Earle: But there were occasions in the literature when
one individual ran away with somebody else’s wife and they
left the band… they went some place else.
Wayne: They better.
Earle: They’d have to, right?
Wayne: Well, a long time ago, it's up to the husband and
the one who had done that, you know, but to settle their
differences. But they didn’t do it around where, you know,
where people were.
Rynhart Roan: And the damage that was done within
(community) relationships was everything. That was the
damage that was done, what these two people had done. And
the reason why they left was they broke Nature's Laws to
begin with. By doing what they did.
Obviously murder is one of those actions that requires
the resources of the most important people to adjudicate. It
is their responsibility toward any attempt for direct
retribution, such as a vendetta against the family, or the
killing of the assailant. Rather, reparations are almost
always a feature in the negotiations at the time of a
death…and the amount would be judged, drawing upon the
social status of the one killed, as well as the status of
the culprit. Exile is often used as punishment, in which
case the offender could move to a neighbouring tribe or
community and be adopted by them. After a certain number of
years he could petition the chief of his original band to
allow him to return. Some contribution would have to be made
to the family at that time. Or he could become a member of
the family of the deceased, functioning as the family’s
worker to replace the dead son. Eventually he may be
forgiven. In effect, even murder can be vitiated through
exile, payment and dutiful work to the family.
Members who deliberately violate standards are chastised
by family heads or councils…someone who disrupts traps of
another, deliberately hunts in another’s territory, destroys
animals’ habitat, or pointedly keeps away from community
ceremonies could be subject to community ostracism and
perhaps exile, depending on a number of issues. In most
cases, the violator knows the severity of the code and just
leaves before he can be judged by the whole community.
His/her possessions would be destroyed…tipis smashed,
weapons broken, families driven out.
- There is a class of actions subject to negotiation. The
most everyday examples of this can be addressed through what
we would call possessions…horses, weapons, canoes, teepees,
pipes, medicine bundles, etc. Someone always 'owns'
possessions, and anyone who uses them has to be accountable
to the one who owns them. If a canoe was needed for a
specific task, and someone's canoe was not being used, it
could be used for the task. But the 'user' would then be
liable either to return it to its former place, or to pay
for it through negotiating an equivalent. In one sense,
ultimate ownership is corporate, because selling one's
'possessions' should normally be done within the community
so that the band retains the benefits. Yet individuals did
(and do) become wealthy through their exploits, and their
'possessions' can then be traded to someone for something
else or given away in a potlatch-type festival.
This also applies to treaties. For example, the band's
land can not be sold or traded, but it can be shared
according to the terms of a treaty. The Great Code of the
Mohawks, mentioned above, is a famous treaty of this kind,
since it established mutual betterment. But the principle is
also reflected in the treaties of Alberta, and elsewhere in
Canada, where the common good prevails as an over-riding
- Finally there are actions that are in bad taste, but
which are not subject to moral or judicial condemnation.
Often these were handled by stories or jokes. Youths learn
the cues of proper behaviour from their parents, and every
effort is made to conform. People who constantly ‘went over
the line’ would be subject to private condemnations,
ridicule and the butt of jokes. These ‘unofficial judgments’
express local mores and standards; people make every effort
not to become the object of such derision. If they do, they
have to weather public scorn as payment for their erroneous