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

Historical Evidence

Oral Tradition



Recent Legal

Visual representation of nature's laws

Contemporary Indigenous peoples in Alberta belong to one of three language families, Algonquian, Athapaskan and Siouan. Recent scholarship has modified Sapir’s famous paper in 1929 that grouped the many languages in North America into 12 middle-level stocks and then six "superstocks," but the trend towards linking tribes and cultural groups through language was firmly established and still constitutes the primary modus operandi of comprehending linkages behind the great diversity. Apart from this, our case for using language as a basis for drawing out legal concepts rests on three foundations: 1. The role and significance of storytelling as the premier mode of embodying the truths of Nature’s Law 2. Indigenous claims that language is essential to comprehend cultural affirmations such as sacred beliefs, moral values and notions of law, and 3. Language remains one of those basic ingredients of society. One characteristic of language is that concepts are not destroyed even when usage shifts, so that crucial words remain in the vocabulary even when the concepts are not used in everyday discourse. Moreover, words have that 'museum' quality…they remain, even if the conceptual framework moves on to another way of speaking. In this way, legal-type language still is available for piecing together the main directions used to affirm norms and customs.

Let us note, firstly, Ross’ compelling comment:

Indigenous people from coast to coast tell me something else as well – that those understandings are contained within the very structure of their languages. The old people, for instance, constantly say things like ‘Our language is our law.’ Until recently, I had no idea what they meant. How could a language not only ‘say’ things, but also ‘stand for’ things? What did people mean when they said I would never gain an understanding of Indigenous approached to justice (or any other aspect of their life) until I had gained some understanding of how different languages can lead us to different understandings about what life is and how it should be lived?" (Ross, Returning 99).

We can examine the study which Hanks did on the Blackfoot language as an example of this crucial point. Consider the words skunatapsi and matsapsi. Hanks found important distinctions in the "psychological aspects" in the language and he makes these important observations:

'Skunatapsi (were those who) always had some horses. Only the foolish ones did not have any because they did not go to war to get them. Or they gave them away or lost everything or lost what they had in war’. The term foolish may not have been expressed as matsapsi, yet gave them away, or lost everything coveys the sense this sense of the term [i.e. foolish]. If this evidence suffices, matsapsi appears in this context as a negation of the strength and effort of skunatapsi.

But the relationship is more complex, for matsapsi also implies a kind of strength to do the unusual … he can do anything; he doesn’t care, we hear the same overtones which even extend to auwatsixkasi. The question arises as to what kind of strength is implied in matsapsi. I believe that generally Blackfoot philosophers would distinguish between skunatapsi and matsapsi as powers in action. Matsapsi can do anything because of lack of restraint, poor judgment and heedlessness of consequence, while a skunatapsi has a positive power to accomplish the unusual. An informant addressed himself obliquely to this question, though actually he was concerned with contraries, who are called iskutuitapi he-forces-to-do person. In the old days these people had something in their powers to act that way (contrary). This power is not from anyone but just from their own acting. Red Eagle’s father, everyone thought, had power, but it showed that he had none because he would have cured himself, if he had (instead Red Eagle’s father, a noted contrary, died from his own contrary acts). Same with Red Eagle, he couldn’t cure himself and thus had no power. Here the speaker appears to distinguish between something in their own powers or from their own acting (i.e. a power of the individual) and a power from a supernatural guardian. The power from one’s self might enable one to do some spectacular things, but when it becomes a question of life and death, the power from one’s self is ineffective. By extension I would expect the philosopher to distinguish between a power from one’s self that is present in the matsapsi, presumably a lack of restrain, which is countered in the skunatapsi warrior by a positive supernatural power. Pragmatic tests of survival were, of course, the sole means of making the distinction in practice, and a callous Blackfoot who cared not a whit, had ample room for whatever he wished to do
(Hanks 201).

This demonstrates that words not only define a particular situation, but embody a law…one could talk about someone, indeed judge someone just by the use of the term matsupsi. Indeed the use of matsupsi within a conservation already implies a kind of pigeon-holing of the person’s character, such that it would be exceedingly difficult for that person to win the confidence of his equals again.

Nor is this vitalistic "power of words" limited to one Indigenous language. Rather, it appears to be a broadly accepted perspective of most. For example Smith has noted the emphasis placed on categorical discreteness in English and identified how different the conceptual system is in Athapskan languages:

… the need for flexibility and to be in communication with the world-as-event may account for the fact that Athapaskan languages stress action verbs so heavily. Even the nouns tend to be nominalized verbs [see Krauss and Golla 1981; compare Witherspoon 1977] … there can be enormous discrepancies of meaning arising from the categorical discreteness and concreteness that English imposes, which is altogether absent from the Dene language and thought (Smith, World as Event 73). The result is that words function differently in the Indigenous worldview, and take on eventfulness just in their usage. It is no wonder, as the old people say, "language is our law."

A cogent understanding of the matrix within which language sits is best summarized by Erica-Irene Daes:

…the heritage of an indigenous people is not merely a collection of objects. Stories and ceremonies, but a complete knowledge system with its own concepts, epistemology, philosophy, and scientific and logical validity. The diverse elements of an indigenous people’s heritage can only be fully learned or understood by means of the pedagogy traditionally employed by the peoples themselves…Simply recording words or images fails to capture the whole content and meaning of songs, rituals, arts, or scientific and medical wisdom. This also underscores the central role of indigenous peoples own languages, through which each people’s heritage has traditionally been recorded and transmitted from generation to generation to generation. (qtd in Henderson, 261.)

It is on this authority, then, that we begin our research with the words that are used to define areas of behaviour, for they indicate to us how Nature’s Law is encountered in each linguistic branch of the language. Moreover, we will argue that the legal nature of language among Indigenous speakers means that law-mindedness permeates consciousness even if a particular word drops out of the vocabulary. Similarly, if an equivalent word to an English word is not present, that indicates a different system of understanding is in place. 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. (Taylor 42)

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