Every year at the University of Alberta, the Aboriginal Law Speaker Series is organized by the Indigenous Law Students’ Association and hosted by the Faculty of Law. This year’s theme was Indigenous Law: Theory & Practice and it featured some of the biggest names from contemporary Indigenous legal scholarship in Canada. For the rest of this week, we will provide you with a brief overview of each speaker, beginning with Darcy Lindberg’s presentation “Practicing Our Relations Beautifully: The Role of Aesthetics in the Vitality of Nehiyaw Law.”
Lindberg is of Nehiyaw heritage and has relations in Samson Cree Nation in Alberta. He is currently a lawyer and PhD student studying the legal theories of the Plains Cree peoples, especially as found in their relationships to lands, waters, and animals. His research interests also include Indigenous stories, songs, ceremonies, and protocols, and the laws contained within them.
As Lindberg pointed out last Monday, there is an important difference between Indigenous laws and Aboriginal law – the former refers to Indigenous legal orders that come from and exists within Indigenous communities; the latter refers to Canadian law, and how it has reacted to and dealt with Indigenous peoples. Throughout his talk, Lindberg revisited the themes of persuasion and disruption, and ultimately chose to focus on Indigenous laws.
He drew the audience in with four stories. In the first story, “Buffalo Lake,” Lindberg told the audience about how the lake came to be. He spoke about the ways that passing this story down through generations also meant passing down the legal knowledge it holds as the people in the story have specific obligations to each other and to the land and animals on it. He then told “Buffalo Stone,” a story that includes specific protocol for how to hunt in an ethical and sustainable way. Lindberg noted that the law in this story ensured the balance between taking from the land and giving back to it would be maintained. He said that these stories also shed light on the idea of disruption and the ways that these relationships have been interrupted today.
Lindberg’s third story was a shared one – “How Canada Came to Be.” By looking at policies of separation (such as taking land from Indigenous peoples to provide to settlers, the reservation system, and the residential school system), the story tells us not only about the violence that has been done to Indigenous peoples and cultures, but also the violence that has been done to Indigenous legal orders. Lindberg was quick to remind listeners that resistance has always accompanied the violence. For example, in response to sweats being banned, people took to doing sweat lodge ceremonies in their kitchens just to keep it alive. He also encouraged the audience to consider how this history has led to the injustices that we see today, in particular, the killing of Colten Boushie.
The fourth and final story was “Wasakechak and the Dog Council” and Lindberg said this is one of those stories where we learn not only from the main character’s wisdom, but also from his mistakes. The story exemplified what happens when there are power imbalances and (unwelcome) intervention. A member of the audience asked Lindberg whether he interpreted the story as providing a commentary on the current trend of reconciliation. His answer drew attention to the tension between what stories mean versus what they mean to different individuals, and he explained that interpretation is often unique to the listener. Leaving the interpretation up to the listeners, he said, most of the time “the stories I’ve been told do not come with an interpretation from the storyteller.”
Drawing Indigenous laws from stories is less about pinpointing a single takeaway and more about identifying different principles, processes, and relations, and figuring out how they might be applied today. In the end, Lindberg persuaded the audience of the relevance that Indigenous laws hold in contemporary contexts, and disrupted our understanding of what law in Canada looks like now with his ideas about what it can be. His captivating introduction set the stage for a week of exciting and important conversations about Indigenous laws. Come back tomorrow to hear about Tuesday’s speaker, James Sákéj Youngblood Henderson!
Until next time,
Team ReconciliAction YEG
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