Treaty Paradigms

Bryce LansdellBy Bryce Lansdell

As mentioned in my prior blog post, apart from working as a teaching assistant for the Indigenous Law Centre’s summer course, I also had the opportunity to work as a curriculum development research assistant. The Indigenous Law Centre is in the process of developing an accredited certificate program in Indigenous and Aboriginal law, which is intended to accept students for its inaugural year in the summer of 2022. Currently, the Indigenous Law Centre is in the process of developing course proposals and syllabi to be submitted to the school for approval and accreditation.

As part of my internship, I was invited to help assist in developing some of these courses by compiling literature reviews and developing proposals for possible class content and weekly learning objectives. Helping to conduct research and compile sources on various topics within Indigenous and Aboriginal law greatly expanded my research skills and increased my familiarity with different scholars and academic sources. Conducting research also opened my eyes to the breadth of resources—whether podcasts, videos, or interview transcripts—that are available online which allow one to listen and learn directly from Elders and their teachings.

The first and primary proposal that I worked on was a course about treaties. Having taken Indigenous Legal Traditions at McGill with Prof. Aaron Mills, I had received a brief introduction to understanding different foundations and paradigms regarding treaties between Indigenous and settler communities, with the topic having piqued my interest quite a bit. In turn, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more by conducting research.

Although I do not have space here nor the personal capacity to justly represent the Indigenous treaty paradigms that I researched, I found the foundations and starting points of Indigenous treaty making to be both radically different from what I was accustomed to, and very humbling and inviting. One article that has stuck with me described treaty as a process of two separate peoples “growing together from the earth”, by living in relationships of kinship, mutual respect, and gift giving.[1] These relationships were created and cultivated in part through ceremony and were renewed and altered according to the varying needs and gifts of the parties.

In reading primary sources from settlers about treaty making, I was fascinated how the practices of gift giving, peace pipe, and exchanging wampum had been often adopted by both parties in early treaty making. However, while I found some accounts of attempts at respectful interaction, the more the dominance of the Canadian state grew, the more a colonial understanding of treaty—as a contract entailing fixed and written obligations with disputes to be resolved in colonial courts—began to be imposed. Although this latter treaty paradigm is largely now the dominant narrative, Indigenous understandings of treaty never disappeared, even if they were forced underground.

As I conducted research, I felt grateful for the sheer amount of both academic and non-academic work that is being done to revitalize Indigenous treaty paradigms. A common theme of many of these sources is the importance of language in housing fundamental understandings of the world. In turn, I would like to end with some of the Cree words that I have learned from the Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan. Although all these words deserve far longer explanations than I will afford here and my understanding is only approximate, I hope that this can serve as a very condensed introduction to some of what I have been learning.

  1. iyiniw miyikowisowina” (“that which has been given to the peoples”) and “iyiniw sawêyihtâkosiwin” (“the peoples’ sacred gifts”).[2] These terms speak of the special relationship that Indigenous peoples have to the land as first peoples, and the gifts that they have received from the Creator due to this relationship. This special relationship to all of creation was nourished and sustained through ceremony by various peoples in Saskatchewan.
  2. Miyo-wîcêhtowin (“having or possessing good relations”). This entails living out a vision of life of peace, good relationship and sharing by Indigenous peoples towards others in response to requirements of the Creator. This good relationship which informed treaty making was “to consist of mutual ongoing caring and sharing arrangements between the treaty parties, which included a sharing of the duties and responsibilities for land, shared for livelihood purposes with the newcomers.”[3]
  3. Wîtaskêwin (“living together on the land”). From my understanding, this encompasses a perspective of how through ceremony and relationship, peoples who were formerly strangers could come to live in harmony and live out the responsibilities that being on the land entailed, while still remaining distinct peoples.[4]

[1] Gary Potts, “Growing Together from the Earth” in Diane Engelstad & John Bird, eds, Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada (Don Mills, Ont: House of Anansi Press, 1992) 199.

[2] See Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildrebrandt, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000), 10-12.

[3] Ibid at 13.

[4] Ibid at 39.

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