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First Nations peoples everywhere operate according to their own system of laws. Because these systems are derived from nature instead of being drawn up by human experts, they are sometimes called “Nature’s Laws” These systems and laws serve indigenous peoples and their communities, just as European peoples have their own system. Neither system is superior to the other – each people make their own system “work”. This indicates that laws match the values held by each people.
In this essay, we can only skim the surface of indigenous values, but there is enough here to give a rough idea about “nature’s law”.
Generally, Indigenous Peoples have certain principles about life and the natural world which determine their approach to law. First and foremost, society, law and culture are held to be a seamless system, each integral to the whole. Current jargon calls this “holistic”, but one must be wary in applying this term to all indigenous cultures. What is clearly essential for the First Nations is what the Cree call tipasta-ywin, the notion of balance. Balance among First Nations peoples is a very complex notion. Balance is primarily applied in relationships between humans and the plant and animal worlds, and between the living world and the spirit world.
Indigenous perceptions are not “romantic” about these relationships – it is accepted that animals and plants are being sacrificed for human survival. They also believe in and adhere to an ecosystem in which only what is needed should be appropriated, and then only with due respect and responsibility. This heightened notion of balance also can be distinguished from the yin/yang system of Chinese tradition, for not all indigenous peoples of North America think in terms of this simple duality.
There was no concept of comparing one individual with others, or one species with others. Each had his or her own “gift” to contribute. In a community, it was “nature’s law” that some may have the gift of hunting, others the gift of ceremonialist, others the gift of art, or being a good parent. Individuals could not then be compared, for their role was defined by their own private myths, their special talents, and in some cases, responsibilities from their ancestors.
Differentiation also marked the plant and animal worlds from the human—since the latter relied on the former, the former were more powerful in the scheme of things. The sickness of a powerful animal might be cured by a tiny fragile plant with medicinal qualities. What indigenous peoples saw in “nature’s law” was a balance within the whole system, not merely of one element of the system with another.
To understand nature’s laws, indigenous peoples look
beyond their own locale to take into account the earth, and
beyond the earth, into the cosmos. The basic processes of
the world and indeed the cosmos are always moving, so that
the notion there are permanent physical structures in the
universe, such as Western notions of time, atoms and "persons," has no real equivalence and are irrelevant to the question of “nature’s laws”.
To translate this idea into Western thinking, indigenous peoples generally see everything as being comprised of an unknown (perhaps unknowable) kind of energy. One result of this belief is that, generally speaking among First Nations, no "personhood" was attributable to the power that had brought things to be. Even when the power was named, or, as one finds today the use of the word "Creator" or some other "deity," no personhood is necessarily implied by that designation. Personhood suggests permanency, and it was evident to everyone that there was no permanency to personhood in this world.
Sometime elders will instruct the people, “Do not try to picture the face of the Creator. You will only be making a great mistake. Whatever it is that made the trees, the air, those mountains in the distance, the waters and this earth, that is what we call “Creator”. Whatever that is. In the same way that you may know something about an artist by studying his paintings, you may know more about the Creator by studying the Creation.”
It follows, then, that the only laws that indigenous
peoples conceive as permanent and supreme are Nature's Laws,
for these are the laws one sees exemplified in the world
around oneself. What is around oneself is the only record
one has of reality – knowing more about this reality is the
only "revelation" available to indigenous people. It provides the ability to interpret the environment in which they live. Reading and revealing the truths of Nature's Laws is an enterprise that every thinking individual engages in, and it is explicitly and symbolically articulated in rituals that acknowledge the powers of the Creation.