First Nation Law - Aboriginal Law
The term "Aboriginal Law," which indicates commonality, is not a proper term to use to describe the combined diverse laws of First Nations. The worst fallout from the use of the term is that it fortifies in the minds of the vast majority of non-First Nation people a belief that there was, and are, no cultural differences between First Nations. In other words, we are like peas in a pod. Therefore, the use of it undermines the reality that we try to get across to them: before European invasion, our homelands were independent, viable, culturally different, self governing Nations. It is not in our long range interest to permit the use of the word "aboriginal" in this regard.
That there was, and is, a multiplicity of distinct First Nation civilizations in the Americas, with drastically different cultures, languages, laws, etc., is easily proven. For instance, the difference between the Aztec and the Mi’kmaq civilizations is so pronounced that it’s like the difference between night and day. The same applies on the other side of the Atlantic in Europe. The term European law is not a proper term to use to describe the laws of European Nations collectively. The reason being that each European Nation has developed its own culture, with a multitude of intrusive laws, structured to control and regiment its population, which in many cases are radically different from those of neighboring European Nations. Even the laws of the European Union, before becoming applicable in a member Nation, must be adopted by that country.
However, because civilizations evolved differently in the Americas and Europe, the laws of European and First Nations are radically different. Thus, when Europeans invaded the Americas they did not find encoded in most of the civilizations they found, particularly in North America, the controlling intrusive laws that their countries were burdened with. The reason for this is quite simple, they weren’t necessary. To demonstrate why they weren’t necessary, I’ll use seven of the most important principles that were followed by the Mi’kmaq and many other North American First Nations:
1 - Great Spirit:
The people had a firm belief in the Great Spirit. They believed Him to be the epitome of all things’ good. Thus, they lived under His guidance and thanked Him profusely for blessing them with good health, good harvests, and so on.
The Great Spirit was the People’s guiding light. He was responsible for all existence, and was personified in all things, rivers, trees, spouses, children, friends etc. No initiatives were undertaken without first requesting His guidance. His creations, Mother Earth and the Universe, were accorded the highest respect. Religion was blended into daily life-it was lived. Nature, as was the case with most American civilizations, was the base that religious beliefs were built from.
2 - Honour:
Personal honour was a person’s most cherished possession. In fact, the People held it so precious that they would willingly give up their lives before seeing their honour besmirched. Thus, dishonourable conduct was almost unheard of.
This is how one young man responded when accidently struck with a broom being used by a servant, who, he believed, was evicting him.
"Ah, I prefer to die! What shall I look like, in the future, when I find myself in the public assemblies of my nation? And what esteem will there be for my courage when there is a question of going to war, after having been beaten and chased in confusion by a maidservant from the establishment of the Captain of the French? It were much better ... that I die."
3 - Sharing:
There was no such thing as greed. Everybody shared equally. The citizens of most Turtle Island civilizations put community first. This was in direct contrast to European civilizations, where personal wealth and welfare came first. This is how a missionary described it:
“They are in no wise ungrateful to each other, and share everything. No one would dare to refuse the request of another, nor to eat without giving him a part of what he has.”
4 - Tolerance for differences:
Racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance were unheard of. There are records which show that many First Nations, after the invasion brought foreigners to our shores, adopted black, white and any other colours of people into their Tribes as brothers and sisters. One did not have to born a First Nation person to be one.
Religious tolerance. This is how Seneca Chief Red Jacket responded to a white preacher’s attempts to convert his people to Christianity:
“Brother, we do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion, which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favours we receive; to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.
“Brother, the Great Spirit has made us all, but he has made a great difference between his white and red children. He has given us different complexions and different customs.... Since he has made so great a difference between us in other things, why may we not conclude that he has given us a different religion?...
“Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.”
5 - Leadership:
Sieur de DiPreville wrote about leadership within Mi'kmaq society: “The cherished hope of leadership inspires resolve to be adept in the chase. For it is by such aptitude a man obtains the highest place; here there is no inherited position due to birth or lineage, merit alone uplifts. He who has won exalted rank, which each himself hopes to attain, will never be deposed, except for some abhorrent crime. No wise noteworthy are the honours paid his high estate, for he is merely first among a hundred..., more, or less, according to the size of his domain.” In plain English, leaders were equals among equals.
6 - Competition:
The urge to compete was a trait instilled in children at an early age and reinforced throughout adulthood. The competition to be the best hunter, the best leader, the best fisherman and so on kept the larders full and assured that the most qualified graduated to leadership. For most of their lives women also competed intensively to produce the finest clothing, designs and other things needed and valued by the Nation. However, the motivation for competing in First Nation societies was quite different from the motivation in European societies. In most First Nation cultures one competed to provide the best service and most wealth to his/her community. In European societies the competition was to see how much wealth one could accumulate for oneself.
7 - Civility and generosity:
Civility and generosity were so ingrained in Mi'kmaq society that to be rude or mean was unthinkable. In this regard Calvin Martin found that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between genuine conversion and a tolerant assent to strange views:
“Such generosity even extended to the abstract realm of ideas, theories, stories, news and teachings. The Native host prided himself on his ability to entertain and give assent to a variety of views, even if they were contrary to his better judgement. In this institutionalized hospitality lies the key to understanding the frustration of the Priest, whose sweet converts one day were the relapsed heathens of the next. Conversion was often more a superficial courtesy, rather than an eternal commitment, something the Jesuits could not fathom.”
Most North American Indigenous societies were socially liberal. Instilled in them were ways for people to adopt children, get divorces, care for the incapacitated, and so on. When one prospered all prospered, when one suffered hardship, all suffered hardship. Respect and justice for all were the cardinal rules.
In conclusion, it is said by some - I haven’t followed it up - that Karl Marx’s Communist manifesto was modeled after the sharing civilizations found in North America. But, the imposition of such on Russia was doomed to fail from the start because civilizations of social excellence need to evolve over a long period of time, they cannot be invented and imposed.
The following is a good example of why it cannot be imposed with complete success. Although the provisions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States of America were copied to a large degree from the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, the ideals contained therein never succeeded for the Americans as they did for the Iroquois. This happened because the population of the country was tainted from birth by the presence of the worst of European traits - greed, intolerance, treachery, and so on - which are the evils that make strictly enforced intrusive laws necessary.
Related to the before mentioned, the Supreme Court of the United States is constantly fielding cases where groups of citizens, or individuals, are trying to circumvent, or subvert for their own advantage, the ideals of the country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights. Even the Court itself has been involved in twisting the Constitution’s ideals. For instance, until relatively recent times, equality provisions were interpreted in such a way that it produced rules that allowed for equal but separate status for people of color, which were used to degrade and segregate them.
During a 2001 visit to Kazakhstan Pope John Paul II advocated tolerance for differences among civilizations. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's Muslim President, was so impressed that he observed of the Pope: "probably one of the first leaders of the Roman Catholic Church who preaches conciliation between civilizations and between religious confessions." Perhaps one day humanity will reject Nationalist superiority claims and adopt the views of the Pope, and the civility and tolerance found in many of the civilizations of the Americas in 1492. Then, and only then, will the world's diverse cultures be able to accept one another as equals and live in peaceful coexistence. Although individual First Nation laws were diverse, they were not designed to belittle those of other First Nations, they were designed to promote tolerance among people. To read a column I wrote about the Pope click: http://www.danielnpaul.com/Col/2001/PopeSetsGreatExampleForWorldLeadersToFollow.html
Canada, its news media and many of its other institutions, are guilty of undermining the individuality of First Nation civilizations by lumping them into a thing they invented called "Aboriginal." Pick up a newspaper on any given day and you are likely to read a story about a First Nation that the paper identifies only as an aboriginal community, it rarely identifies which First Nation they report about - Cree, Mi'kmaq, Mohawk, etc. I think it is time that we insist that the individual identities of our First Nations be acknowledged in such stories, and that Canadian society stop using such terms as "aboriginal law," a thing that doesn’t exist.
Daniel N. Paul
April 21, 2006