“Not a Lawless People”

Re-implementing the silenced legal tradition of the Cree Nation.

Sylvia McAdam is one of the four lawyers who began the Idle No More Movement in 2012. In Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems, she offers an unprecedented look at nêhiyaw (Cree) law and, in doing so, lays plain why she was destined to start a movement that could change a country. She explains in clear English what every news story on the topic has failed to communicate—that before colonial reconciliation can happen in Canada, worlds must be rebuilt. Songs, political arrangements, legal systems and the thousand other edifices that once upheld each of the First Nations must be recovered and restored. And we have barely begun.

Putting her shoulder to one specific reconstruction project, the nêhiyaw legal system, McAdam demands: “in the spirit and intent of Indigenous sovereignty and treaty … non-­Indigenous people must begin supporting and encouraging Indigenous laws and teachings, in every aspect, and by whatever means possible.” According to McAdam, based on interviews she conducted with a variety of elders, the nêhiyaw received laws given specifically for this land at Alberta’s Cypress Hills, with the instruction that women would be the law keepers. The women law keepers formed a society who met together in solitude for ceremonies but also arbitrated disputes, decided community strategy and led ceremonies. Only they had the authority to “speak about the land and the water.” In the 19th and 20th centuries the Canadian government outlawed most First Peoples’ spiritual societies. Groups such as these law keepers were forced to meet in secrecy and many, including the nêhiyaw women law keepers, stopped meeting entirely.

Knowledge of nêhiyaw law was preserved by children whose parents carried them away into the bush to protect them from Indian agents intent on forcing them into residential schools. This includes members of McAdam’s own family. In the safety and secrecy of the land, McAdam’s great grandparents and grandparents taught their children, including McAdam’s mother Juliette, who gave McAdam permission to share her knowledge, and Francis McAdam, McAdam’s grandfather, who she remembers saying: “We are not a lawless people.”

nêhiyaw law governed matters such as relationships toward other beings and other nations. Southern Blackfoot visitors to a nêhiyaw community, for example, would announce their desire to enter the territory by placing a stake with a tobacco offering on the border. The nêhiyaw leaders signalled a welcome by removing the bundle and accepting the tobacco, or a rejection by leaving the offering untouched. After the treaty, the nêhiyawak had their own patrols who would send away any settler person who camped on reserve land.

Having described some of the mechanisms and content of nêhiyaw law, McAdam turns to consider how it was employed in the negotiation of Treaty 6 with the British government. On that occasion the nêhiyaw legal women met to consider the proposed treaty. Two major points emerge from McAdam’s analysis, which she bases on oral history, the notes of the British Treaty commissioner Alexander Morris and the work of James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson. First, “in nêhiyaw law, the treaties were adoptions of one nation by another.” Treaty 6 was not a real estate deal, wherein settlers took ownership of a piece of land; it was an agreement for two groups to act as kin, or “cousins” for all time. Should one of the parties fail to perform their role as kin, the treaty would end. Second, both sides were operating from the shared agreement that the treaty was intended to add prosperity to the nêhiyawak who made the treaty and all of their ensuing generations. In treaty commissioner Morris’s words “what I offered does not take away your living, you will have it then as you have now, and what I offer now is put on top of it.”

Almost immediately after Treaty 6 was signed government legislation and the policies of the Indian Department grew up like vines and choked it. In quick succession the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 ended all indigenous political systems, residential schools swallowed generations whole, Indian Department agents turned the reserves into prisons, and the government banned spiritual ceremonies. Together these actions obliterated Morris’s promise that nothing would be taken away. This hard story is the context for McAdam’s questioning of Canada’s current reconciliation project.

The book ends where McAdam’s national renown began, with Idle No More. In the fall of 2012 she and three other women who would later become her Idle No More associates discovered that hidden within the 450 pages of the Conservative government’s 2012 omnibus budget bill were legislative changes that would enable the government to privatize every reserve in Canada. Working with these other women she planned a teach-in in Saskatoon and a petition. The Treaty 6 elders instructed her to invoke the law of nâtamâwasowin, which calls people to “defend … all human children in the world as well as future generations” also “the children of all animals, plants, water, and the winged ones—every thing in creation that has a spirit.” McAdam and the rest led a movement that included hundreds of teach-ins and round dances and created an international focus on indigenous rights in Canada.

The knowledge in this book is part of the nêhiyaw oral traditions. Whereas archives corroborate western histories, local communities are the arbiters of oral tradition. In this work more information about the specific communities of the contributing elders would be instructive. Are there disputes about these teachings? Are these teachings that are held in common by all the nêhiyaw communities in Canada or are they more local? McAdam mentions the tradition of knowledge keepers, identified while still children and given specialized training to enable them to memorize great volumes of information with precision. Are her informants recognized by their own communities as such knowledge keepers or is their knowledge of a different order?

Still, McAdam’s words are those of a determined leader. In the recent past, she has been shouted down for speaking reason to a hostile audience. This time many will hear her charge, that caring only for our own laws, settler Canadians have not tried to understand the treaties in the context of our treaty partners’ legal systems, or even considered consulting their legal experts on how to interpret them. Indeed, it will be hard for many Canadians to accept that our treaty partners had legal systems in the past and continue to have them today. To do so is to acknowledge that Canada attempted to wipe out truly complex societies, making the cherished idea of Canada the Good difficult to hang on to. But many Canadians now seem ready to live in the hard truth rather than the comforting lie. There is time in the future for more unsettling thoughts, such as how to fit nine nêhiyaw women law keepers on the bench with the Supreme Court Justices when Treaty 6 matters come before the court; or whether non-indigenous Canadians, if we wish to be considered immigrants rather than invaders, might ourselves be bound by the laws of our adopted home. For today let us simply accept McAdam’s invitation to settle into a longer story of Canadian history than that to which we have been accustomed.