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

Constitutional rights
and responsibilities

Social Reality

Rights of

Origin of

Exercised as a

Definition of People

Great Turtle Island



Survival for
All Beings

Survival for
the People

Right to Exist


The Land

Spirit of the Land

Judicial and Fiscal Order


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Treaties are a means to establish permanent Relationships between Peoples.

Non-Indigenous people often think the treaties were a European tradition, given their long history. Some think the treaties were "imposed" upon the Indigenous people in lieu of war. In fact, treaty-making has a long and distinguished history among peoples in the Americas…all of them stressing groups of people making agreements for many different purposes. Of fundamental significance, of course, is peace:

Aboriginal treaties are often described in legal terms as creating a trust relationship, one that invests the trustee with superior power and greater ethical responsibilities. For Aboriginal people, treaties created a relationship of mutual trust which was sacred and enduring. The bond created was like that of brothers who might have different gifts and follow different paths, but who could be counted on to render assistance to one other in times of need. Georges Erasmus, Vancouver, 2002.

The terms and the understandings were not kept to a few. They had to be conveyed to all parties involved. Therefore, much discussion attended each point made, and this has been passed on in oral tradition.

In an attempt to find out what the Indigenous peoples understood by the treaties, some native organizations have interviewed older people who could be expected to have some information from parents or grandparents. One body of such material was made available for purposes of this paper by the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research (T.A.R.R.) wing of the Indian Association of Alberta. Considerable numbers of elders throughout the province were interviewed in their own language over the last few years and their testimony recorded. It was later translated into English and typed.

Since the treaties were made a century ago, none of the interviewees were eyewitnesses, except in the case of Treaty Eight, made in 1899 and 1900. The use of evidence that is not first-hand testimony poses problems which cannot be solved by an examination of the evidential material alone. Does the interviewees' testimony represent an oral tradition from the time of the treaty making, or does it originate from some more recent time? This question can perhaps be partly answered by research into Indian-government relations during the past one hundred years and into the history of the Indian associations and other political activity. A thorough evaluation of the testimony would require further research. All that can be attempted here is to outline the general answers to the questions raised as derived from the oral testimony and to see how they compare with the archival material.

Information obtained through the oral testimony in the Treaty Six region concentrated on the questions of what the Indians gave up or did not give up and what they were to receive in return. The understanding which runs through all of the testimony is that the Indians gave up limited rights in the land, namely, the surface rights. This was explained as being land required for farming. It is most often expressed in terms of depth, informants varying on the actual depth, from six inches to two feet. In a summary of the interviews with elders, Lynn Hickey has explanation based on language:

The almost universal occurrence in the Treaty 6 area of the idea that only the surface of the land was sold may stem from a linguistic problem. The fact that all interviews so far are from Cree speakers may lend support to the idea that the word "land" may not translate into Cree with the same meaning as it does in English. There is evidence that "land" is usually used with various prefixes which must be added in order to specify more precise meanings. Thus, if the prefix indicating "surface" land were used to explain what settlers needed for farming, Cree-speakers may have understood they were being asked for something entirely different from "land" with some other prefix attached. Since we cannot know which Cree word for "land" was used in translating at Treaty 6 negotiations, and since Cree requires great precision in the use of prefixes, there are innumerable possibilities for misunderstandings to have occurred simply over this one issue.

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