"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Ancient Teachings Made New

leave a comment »

I’ve just finished a fascinating book, Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice. The author spent several years exploring Aboriginal “justice” systems, and ended up with his worldview being completely re-worked.

The fundamental shift in cosmology he identifies is based on the principle assumptions made about the nature of reality. For an Aboriginal, the worldview is informed first by the network of relationships between the community and the creation – in fact to state it that way is to already lapse into a Western perspective, because there is no distinction between the people and the creation – these are all parts of the same inter-related reality.

By contrast, the Western view begins with the individual, and extends outward from there. So justice is implemented, in a Western context, with the individual offender. In a First Nations context, “justice” starts with the damage to right relationship, and a plan to restore that relationship to a right footing.

He summarizes the differences between the two systems on pages 284-286 (Penguin edition):

First, according to Western law, offenders can be effectively dealt with on their own, whether within deterrent or rehabilitative contexts. Traditional wisdom suggests that we are all substantially the products of our relationships. Traditional law thus commands that justice processes involve all people within the webs of relation¬ships that surround every offender and every victim.

Second, Western law seems to assume we are captains of our own ships and that each of us is equally capable of moving out of antiso¬cial behaviour on our own, just by deciding to do so. Traditional wisdom suggests that each of us rides a multitude of waves, some stretching back centuries, which we cannot fundamentally change and which will still confront us tomorrow. Further, it suggests that each of us is confronted by very different wave combinations, some much more powerful and destructive than others. Traditional law thus commands that a justice system focus on healing and teaching offenders so that they become more, not less, capable of dealing with their unique and continuing realities.

Third, Western law focuses very narrowly on particular acts, for it is acts that are alleged, subject to proof and, if proven, substantially controlling of the court’s disposition. Traditional understandings suggest that such acts are no more than clues signaling relational disharmonies between individuals, between individuals and other aspects of Creation, and between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of each individual. Traditional law thus commands that these be the areas of investigation and intervention, and that acts no longer occupy centre stage.

Fourth, Western law puts the parties through adversarial processes that inevitably add to the level of antagonism between them. Traditional wisdom suggests that antagonism within relation¬ships is in fact the cause of those adversarial acts, and traditional law thus commands that justice processes be structured in ways to reduce that antagonism and bring health and understanding back to those relationships.

Fifth, while Western law labels and stigmatizes offenders, to others and to themselves, traditional wisdom suggests that we are all in constant processes of reformation within ever-changing relationships. Traditional law thus commands that justice processes be structured to help people begin to believe they are more than their anti-social acts, that they too have worth and dignity; and that they too are capable of learning how to cope with the forces that surround them. In short, while our punitive law treats offenders as enemies of the community, traditional wisdom suggests that such alienation is part of the problem, and traditional law commands that every effort be made to overcome that conviction, not add to it.

Sixth, according to Western law, “taking responsibility for your act” means little more than acknowledging the particulars of the illegal act, then paying a proportionate price in punishment. Traditional wisdom suggests that acts are important only for their consequences on the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health of all those affected, including all those within the offender’s relationships. Traditional law thus commands that justice processes be structured so as to incorporate the “felt” responses of all those people in respectful, dignified and “non-blaming” ways and to help the offender truly “take responsibility” for his act by coming to feel some portion of the pain he has caused all those other people.

Seventh, according to Western law, “solutions” are best provided through reliance on professional, third-patty strangers like judges, psychiatrists, probation officers and the like. Traditional wisdom suggests that the only people who understand the complexities of their relationships thoroughly enough are the people actually involved. The proper role for third-party professionals is to act as regulators of respectful processes, teachers of values upon which respectful relationships can be developed, and real-life demonstra¬tions of what those relationships look like in action. Traditional law thus commands that the responsibility for problem solving be restored to the parties and that the experts step down from their thrones.

And, as I hope to have shown, all such laws can indeed be found “hidden in every leaf and rock,” where every relationship speaks of interdependence, of intersustenance, of symbiosis. In the face of such laws, it only seems appropriate to contemplate a human duty to strive constantly to attain a state of mind—a spirit—that both acknowledges and manifests such understandings at every instant, and in every act.

He tells a short story about a friend’s comments on trapping to a provincial government agency that had asked for input on trapping quotas.  The perspective shift is interesting, and I’m certain the ministry staff had not included the spiritual perspective in its analysis.  It seems like a strange idea – that there is a spiritual element to taking animals from the environment to sustain yourself and your family…and yet it makes so much sense.  Part of our disconnection from the food supply is our lack of understanding of how other parts of the creation are sacrificed to permit us to live, which has a deeply spiritual aspect.

There is some danger here for the Christian.  It’s a short step from St Francis’ address to the wolf as “Brother Wolf”, I think reflecting that inter-relatedness of all creation, to calling that wolf a ‘spirit guide’ or a literal family relation.  We’re told that a day will come when the creation will be at peace with itself, lions and lambs, etc.  Yet, I’ve got no problem with thinking that God might send an animal to teach an important lesson – I’ve had an interesting relationship between prayer and jack rabbits that I’ve never understood.  Sometimes when I ask something in petition, sometimes the answer comes in animal form.  I’m still working this through, as I know there is a genuine Christian faith available within the traditional teachings as I’ve seen it, and met those who are living it.

The story:

[this is an intro snip about an attempt to make subject lists for a traditional school program] As that Cree educator phrased it, he felt that his people had to take “two giant steps backwards” to precolonial understandings, to learn from the elders about what the traditional values and laws were, and how they were incorporated into daily life. Then, he said, it would be possible to “get our feet on solid ground again.” And only then, as he put it, could his people take “even the first small steps forward” in creating the kind of education system that the communities require today. In my experience, that appears to be the strategy emerging across the country, whether the context is justice, health, family law, education, child rearing or any other aspect of life. The belief seems to be that, whatever processes are created or restored to deal with today’s issues, they must be firmly grounded in the values—in the laws—of traditional times.

As much as it might surprise non-Aboriginal readers (and many Aboriginal ones too, I suspect), this approach is being taken even where the activity seems much more straightforward than law or education. Charlie Fisher, my friend and teacher from the Treaty Number 3 area of northwestern Ontario, prepared a paper on trapping to help discussions with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) in May 1995. A couple of excerpts show how much traditional understandings are seen as the most important aspect of trapping:

“For Anishinabe people, trapping is not simply a satisfying way of livelihood. Trapping in the Anishinabe way is first and foremost a spiritual activity. At its most basic level, it means:

  • Giving respect for the land and animals in the Anishinabe way so that life on the land will be renewed; and
  • giving respect for those people who have the sacred knowledge of how to trap in a sustainable way based on Anishinabe teachings and knowledge.

When we talk about respecting the land and animals, we do not mean them in any way like the whiteman does….Our knowledge of trapping is a unique knowledge…. I believe that it is vitally important because it expresses our sense and experience of the lands. Our knowledge of trapping has its spiritual and sacred aspects…. Our knowledge has a spiritual and cultural form….

In terms of Anishinabe people, these animals are better understood as our relatives. Many of them are clan dodaems of our people. We have our own ways of speaking about them and relating to them…. Our knowledge of our animals is often expressed in the language of our ceremonies. But it reflects a great complexity and sophistication which the MNR bureaucrats and scientists do not know about. Our knowledge has arisen out of relationships to our lands and animals.”

All of the white man’s “science” used to make management decisions for quotas was based on their relationships to the land. It was against our relationships to our land and each other, as Anishinabe people, on our lands. It still is. This science is not objective. It is a tool of the whiteman that reflects his understanding of the land. It reflects his social relation­ships to the land.

Ross ends the book with a listing of the twelve teachings that come from the medicine wheel:

The Twelve Teachings of the Sacred Tree

Wholeness. All things are interrelated. Everything in the universe is part of a single whole. Everything is connected in some way to everything else. It is therefore possible to under¬stand something only if we can understand how it is connected to everything else.

Change. All of creation is in a state of constant change. Nothing stays the same except the presence of cycle upon cycle of change. One season falls upon the other. Human beings are born, live their lives, die and enter the spirit world. All things change. There are two kinds of change: the coming together of things (development) and the coming apart of things (disintegration). Both of these kinds of change are necessary and are always connected to each other.

Change occurs in cycles or patterns. They are not random or accidental. Sometimes it is difficult to see how a particular change is connected to everything else. This usually means that our standpoint (the situation from which we are viewing the change) is limiting our ability to see clearly.

The seen and the unseen. The physical world is real. The spiritual world is real. These two are aspects of one reality. Yet, there are separate laws which govern each of them. Violation of spiritual laws can affect the spiritual world. A balanced life is one that honours the laws of both of these dimensions of reality.

Human beings are spiritual as well as physical

Human beings can always acquire new gifts, but they must struggle to do so. The timid may become courageous, the weak may become bold and strong, the insensitive may learn to care for the feelings of others and the materialistic person can acquire the capacity to look within and to listen to her inner voice. The process human beings use to develop new qualities may be called “true learning.”

There are four dimensions of “true learning.” These four aspects of every person’s nature are reflected in the four cardinal points of the medicine wheel. These four aspects of our being are developed through the use of our volition. It cannot be said that a person has totally learned in a whole and balanced manner unless all four dimensions of her being have been involved in the process.

The spiritual dimension of human development may be understood in terms of four related capacities.
First, the capacity to have and to respond to realities that exist in a non-material way such as dreams, visions, ideals, spiritual teachings, goals and theories.

Second, the capacity to accept those realities as a reflection (in the form of symbolic representation) of unknown or unrealized potential to do or be something more or different than we are now.

Third, the capacity to express these non-material realities using symbols such as speech, art or mathematics.

Fourth, the capacity to use this symbolic expression to guide future action—action directed towards making what was only seen as a possibility into a living reality.

Human beings must be active participants in the unfolding of their own potentialities.

The doorway through which all must pass if they wish to become more or different than they are now is the doorway of the will (volition). A person must decide to take the journey. The path has infinite patience. It will always be there for those who decide to travel it.

Anyone who sets out (i.e., makes a commitment and then acts on that commitment) on a journey of self-development will be aided. There will be guides and teachers who will appear, and spiritual protectors to watch over the traveller. No test will be given that the traveller does not already have the strength to meet.

The only source of failure on a journey will be the traveller’s own failure to follow the teachings of The Sacred Tree.

Reprinted, with emphases added, from The Sacred Tree (1984), Four Worlds Development Press, Four Worlds Development Project, University of Lethbridge, 4401 University Drive, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada T1K 3M4.


Written by sameo416

October 21, 2014 at 11:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî

thoughts of an urban Métis scholar (and sometimes a Mouthy Michif, PhD)

Joshua 1:9

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Engineering Ethics Blog

Reflection on life as a person of faith.


Today, the Future and the Past all kinda rolled up in one.


For Those Courageous in Standing for Truth


Law, language, life: A Plains Cree speaking Métis woman in Montreal

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

%d bloggers like this: