To what extent did Indigenous law evolve through contact with Europeans?
Lady justice with her scales
For this inquiry project, I focused on three main groups: the Wendat and Wyandot people (also known as the Huron-Wendat), the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois people), and the indigenous peoples of Manitoba. I selected these groups because they played an important role in the founding of Canada, and there was a lot of information that was readily available. In this project, I focused on laws and governance, and I utilized Canadian, European and Indigenous sources for my project.
This topic is important because it demonstrates the impact of European civilization on indigenous people and their culture. It shows that through the implementation of European law, some groups (like the Wendat) lost significant parts of their history, culture, and population. Also, it shows the disparity that indigenous people face in a justice system that fails to recognize their culture.
The Wendat People
Pre-contact Wendat people lived north-west of Lake Ontario. They were divided into clans, based on a common female ancestor. Marriage within the clan was forbidden, much like inter-family marriage today. The members of these clans would help each other out in times of conflict and war. Governance took place on three levels, much like our system of municipal, provincial and federal. The government consisted of the village, the clan, and the Confederacy. Village councils meet regularly, and were divided into everyday matters, and matters of war. Chiefs were in charge of these councils, and chiefdom was limited to the most wealthy families. If someone committed a crime, it was usually up to the victim’s family to punish the offender. The main crimes were: murder/assault, theft, witchcraft, and treason. Feuds between families were avoided by the exchange of gifts. As stated by anthropologist Bruce Trigger, “Huron law did not permit society as a whole to punish individuals.”(http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/1889, accessed 11-04-2018).
Through contact with Europeans, the culture of the Wendat people was almost lost. The population was decimated because of diseases and conflicts, and the Haudenosaunee people violently assimilated a large portion of the Wendat. However, a few groups fled, including a group that we now know as the “Wyandot” or the “Wyandotte”. This group first fled to what is now Detroit and ended up on a reserve in Oklahoma. They still identify themselves by clan and follow a similar council-based structure. However, the Wyandot people have lost a substantial amount of their culture and heritage. The Wyandot people are under the jurisdiction of the American criminal legal system, and some argue that this system fails to take into account the culture and history of oppression that Indigenous people face. This results in disproportionately high rates of indigenous incarceration and this is considered one of the many biases and disadvantages that indigenous people face.
The Iroquois war
Pre-contact Haudenosaunee people lived Southeast of Lake Ontario. They were united by the Great Law of Peace, which is both a narrative and constitution that describes certain ceremonies and the history of the confederation. Like the Wendat, the Haudenosaunee traced their lineage to a single female descendant, and several of these lineages would form a clan. Clans were represented by a Clan Mother and a delegation of eight to ten people at the Confederacy and governed by a chief, chosen by the Clan Mother.
During the time of the fur trade, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy set out to absorb other indigenous groups into their culture. This was a method of increasing the strength of the group. It was known as “extending the longhouse” in the Haudenosaunee culture. While this may seem cruel in today’s culture, this was a norm for indigenous people at that time.
During the years leading up to the American Revolution, the Haudenosaunee formed numerous treaties between different groups, including the French, English, and the Two Row Wampum. During the American Revolution, the Haudenosaunee fought with the British, in exchange for guaranteed land parcels. Many villages were burned, and after the war many Haudenosaunee relocated.
The Haudenosaunee still exist as a thriving, self-governing nation today. They have an organized confederacy and have carried over a large part of their culture, like the clan system as well as the roles of chiefs and Clan Mothers. The Haudenosaunee are fighting for rights they may have once taken for granted. In one case, “Grand Chief Michael Mitchell crossed the border, declared goods, but stated he would not pay duty” (the Canadian Encyclopedia, 11-04-2018). This shows that the laws and cultural norms of the Haudenosaunee have been impacted by countries created by Europeans.
The Indigenous People of Manitoba
The pre-contact indigenous people of Manitoba used a set of unwritten laws and cultural conventions to govern their daily life. In the Ojibway and Cree tribes, Elders were relied upon to mediate disputes, much like today’s arbitrators. The indigenous people of Manitoba were individually responsible for the execution of the law. As stated in the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission of Manitoba, “A murder in the Eagle Hills in 1775–76 illustrates the practice. According to Matthew Cocking, the Hudson’s Bay Company trader at Cumberland House, who had heard the story from “Pedler Henry,” a quarrel had occurred among the Beaver Indians of the Eagle Hills (probably Crees in the area northwest of present-day Saskatoon). Cocking’s report is worth close attention:
That no account has been received [sic] from the Beaver Indians, only from the reports of others they are not expected to come down even in the Summer, on account of a Quarrel having happened between them and some others last Winter. That an Indian was shot by another the first of this Winter at the upper Settlement, the Indian killed having murdered his Wife last Summer was the reason of the other’s taking the same revenge, the Woman being his Sister: Tis supposed that the affair will stop here….” This account demonstrates how one “Beaver Indian” personally took “revenge” for the murder of his sister. Also, the injured party had the opportunity to settle the dispute if they decided to accept gifts from the offender.
The indigenous people of Manitoba lost a lot of their cultural practices and political autonomy with the passage of the Indian Act. Crimes that occur on reserve and in the traditional territory of the indigenous people of Manitoba are under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Justice System, and traditional mediation techniques that involve tribal elders are ignored. Also, the Canadian government has often tried to undermine the sovereignty of indigenous groups, denying them rights like voting unless they agreed to assimilate into European culture. However, reconciliation efforts are taking place in Canada, and with these efforts, indigenous people are regaining some of their sovereignty. There is still much to be done, and as a culture, we need to move forward and re-institute some of the original law practices of the indigenous people of Manitoba.
Thanks to the efforts of indigenous people, their culture and laws have survived through centuries full of oppression and opposition. It is impossible to create on broad statement on the evolution of indigenous law in Canada and the United States, as there are many different tribes, circumstances and alliances that dictated the evolution of indigenous laws and governance. However, European culture has implemented a justice system that replaced many traditional methods of justice. These changes have impacted Indigenous culture as a whole, and will continue to influence their culture, as well as our culture as Canadians.