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The next principle that is important to recognize is “reciprocity”. For the Cree people, for example, the universe has at its root the principle of miyoto-ta-kewin, or reciprocity/ benevolent action. Acting improperly not only upsets the balance of a society, it upsets the order of the cosmos, something beyond the person to define. The Iroquois, for exampled, held ceremonies at Midwinter, in which each person, each family, had the responsibility of resolving disputes, making apologies, putting their personal worlds in order so there would be nothing on earth that might hold back the sun in its struggle to regain strength so it might bring back the new life of spring. These kinds of responses are not quaint superstitions, but rather are efforts to relate human life to the cosmos and to do one’s own part to restore balance to the universe.
Like the Hindu concept of karma, if one upset the principle of balance, one would pay in some way. Nature’s law would ensure that. Thus one did not show disrespect to one's ancestors, or one did not show disrespect to an animal that had given itself to your family for food. In traditional culture, not showing proper respect is unthinkable. When proper respect was absent or violated, repercussions are expected, if not in the immediate life of the miscreant, then in his/her children. Hence there is a spiritual reciprocity at the basis of much of Aboriginal life that is quite foreign to Western culture, and certainly quite foreign to Western systems of law.
Obviously such a conception of law will not find its way into a law book, but rather will be the subject of public discussion and debate. The goal is not punitiveness, but rather cohesiveness. The people have to address the questions of what law should be applied to a particular case. How should the individual be confronted concerning the breakdown of the harmony of the group? What were the natural consequences of such conduct? In what way might the community itself have contributed to the individual’s conduct, and what are the remedies to that?
In these circumstances, reaction to misconduct is seldom
carried out in a belligerent or repressive manner. Rather
gentle ridicule, gossip, perhaps shunning and finally exile
are the norm. , implying that the individual had the right
to live despite what had been done. Very few acts could
bring about the killing of a person; more than likely, when
one had "crossed the line," he would be the butt of jokes and humiliations in conversations, and he would be unwelcome in the lodgings of other members of the clan. The more prominent the person, the harsher the consequence. Such judgments – often unspoken but acted on by consensus – could render the person harmless and without benefit of social benefits until such time as some reciprocal act has re-established social balance and decorum. In an oral culture, conversation served as the forum for judgment. In effect, then, law operates internal to the people, and each individual is responsible for making sure that the law is properly upheld within his or her life experience.
This system does not operate, however, according to a mechanical cause-effect model, or one which is “objective” and “impersonal”. Rather, a deeper personal sense of an ethical code – respect – embraces the relationship with the other living entities of the natural world. Beginning with the plant world, a medicine person offers a gift of a bead or tobacco when it is necessary to pull a medicine plant up by its roots. This is an offering to the plant spirit reflecting appreciation for the life it has given up. A woman might take from a nest seeds harvested by a mouse, leaving some for the mouse and adding a small piece of pemmican as a gift to the mouse for the seeds.
In Mexico, indigenous farmers may regard the outside row of plants around a field to belong to the animals or birds. The next row belongs to travellers who might be going by and need nourishment. The farmer considers this as natural reciprocity and respect, rather than setting out traps or calling the police because someone has robbed his crops.
The story is told of the hunter who shot a moose in its hindquarters, wounding it. It disappeared into the bush. He did not pursue it to kill it, but rather left it to die, deciding to find it later. To show such lack of respect was greeted with disgust by the community, who told the hunter he would “pay"
for his misdeed. And so it happened. Henceforth, all his
children were born with hip malformations and the local
people pointed to his lack of respect for the wounded moose
as the "cause." Such stories are effective means of setting out “the law” so each generation adopts it.
The point is that in Nature’s Law, respect among all life forms is basic. Each human is responsible for maintaining the beauty and productivity of nature’s order, i.e., letting nature do its work. When there is respect, the law of reciprocity sets out that benefits will be given. Hence, laws of respect and relationship constitute basic forms by which the people exist in the universe and operate according to conceptions of reciprocity and social beneficence. These notions are foundational to Nature’s Laws.
Western academics today would call this a “situational ethical process”. For the indigenous community, however, the law is plain common sense. Experience has taught that the "cause" of any particular action may not relate to the immediately available "facts." Both the past history and the future potentiality of a person had to be evaluated before the meaning of a particular event could be determined, and before any decision could be made to decide what should happen as a consequence.
As an example, take the case of a young man who had "taken" someone's rifle and accidentally fatally shot another person. Many factors had to be taken into account. People might be aware of a distant quarrel between families, maybe even another fatal incident in generations past. The young man might have been too poor to have a gun of his own and might not have been properly trained. He may have been intoxicated at the time. The community would ask what it might have done to have prevented such an incident. In some ways, then, there is no "taking", no "killing", no “offender”, no “crime”, but rather a serious situation that had put the community into an imbalance that has to be remedied. Every person considering the matter has potential to provide insight into the situation, to suggest resolutions. Possibly, however, none of insights may relate at all to Euro-Canadian ways of establishing relevant "facts."