ON THE 50TH VOLUME anniversary of this publication, I think about what I wish I knew--what I wish law schools knew--about Indigenous laws and legal traditions. I think about how we think, how we aggregate, disseminate, reconcile, and distinguish things as legal thinkers.
When I got my first solo apartment in my first year of law school, two of my friends from high school carried my grandfather's (nimosom, in our language) legal texts to my home. My grandmother's second husband was a Native law-court worker. Afraid and in awe of the books and what they represented, afraid of what law school would be, of failure, of not failing, and of the responsibility that brought hundreds of pounds of books from northern Alberta to the Saskatchewan prairie, I (or someone who loved me) carried those books every time I moved. Only rarely did I even glance at them. Law school means books and reading, of course. But those books represented the idea that anything you needed to know, even if you never needed to know it, was written down some place. As I understood, I had been given those books by the only law professional in my family or community. Embedded in that understanding was The Idea: if I could just read everything, I would understand Canadian law. To be clear: I read everything. I was one of the law students who could not discern important from unimportant, Canadian legal relevance from knowledge or facts deemed irrelevant. Collective annotative notes would not work for me. No study group would want me. I read everything assigned in law school, but Canadian law would not stick in my head. It would not reverberate, allow for the collapsing of principles, or the application of rules. Canadian law would not live in me.
In my last year of law school, before moving to the United States to study for a master's degree, I got rid of the law books. Hundreds of Criminal Case Reporters, Western Law Reporter, and Dominion Law Reporters. Forgive me, I do not know remember where they went. They were heavy and burdensome. And they weighed a lot, too.
We teach those cases and those laws like they are everything we need to know. They are not everything we need to know.
On this 50th anniversary, I take the occasion to think about what we need to know. 50 years ago, one of my grandfathers--a residential school survivor--was not able to legally vote in all jurisdictions in Canada (if he chose to; if he recognized Canadian nationhood). Forty years ago, my grandmother cleaned the Friendship Centre. 40 years later, I am a professor at a law school. And I am no expert in Indigenous law. You likely are not either. We need to really think about how to be the best educators, when we know too little about Indigenous laws and legal traditions.
This is not every Indigenous person's story. This is not every Indigenous woman's story. This is not every Nehiyaw (Cree) person's story. This is not every Kelly Lake Cree Nation citizen's story. It is one person's perception, acknowledgement, and advice. And, that one person might be completely wrong. Excellence in the realm of Indigenous Knowledge requires that we extend our networks and build our relationships beyond one or two thinkers or people. If you read only one book on law, you would have excellence limited to that book. If you engage the knowledge of one Indigenous person, you have limited your access to Indigenous Knowledge to one source. You must deeply engage with Indigenous Knowledge--with Indigenous laws and legal traditions--in order to have even mere facility with it. Our laws and teachings are strong enough to withstand scrutiny. You need to know how to find them, how to engage with them, and how to meaningfully analyze them.
In 2017-18 (I have habituated the education calendar so quickly), I felt disconnected from land, family, and my people. It is not a new feeling. This time, however, it feels longer term and I do not have the community network in place that is enriched by, and reciprocally enriches in, the flow of responsibilities between myself and community. In my second year of living on Algonquin territory it has felt hard for me to connect with people, land, and ideas formulated in a complex legal understanding and grounded in an Algonquin spiritual and legal tradition. Moving to non-Nehiyaw lands of course presents non-Nehiyaw language, culture, jurisdictions, governance, and legal traditions.
Halfway through the year I received a coveted invitation to be a Fellow at a Toronto-based university. There, with its constant movement and multiple expressions of Indigenous community, I was better able to understand what obligations we have as Indigenous peoples living on other Indigenous Nations' territories. While I was there, one of the groups I worked with had made a deliberate decision not to follow the institutional practice of reciting the land acknowledgement.
People were left to their own process and choice about acknowledgement. I missed the conversation and negotiation where they arrived at their decision. As, I believe, the only Indigenous person in the collective, it struck me as strange that they would make a decision about not acknowledging Indigenous peoples and our relationship with the land they are on when Indigenous peoples were not in the room. If a land acknowledgement falls in the forest....
People were left to their own devices, with some acknowledging their relationship with lands and others not doing so. It left me to wonder about my own recognition and acknowledgement of Algonquin peoples and their lands, on which I am currently living.
The land acknowledgement is not principally for you. It is for the land. It is for the people of, and responsible for, the land. If it does its work and you do your work, it is a respectful lawful acknowledgement in the legal terms of the peoples who have the responsibility for the land. You do not have to say something you do not believe. Find out what you do believe by writing your own land acknowledgement. Can you acknowledge that the land belongs to the original inhabitants? Can you acknowledge that you benefit from the land at the expense of the Indigenous peoples who remain dis/re/located so you can live on their territory? Can you acknowledge the rights of four legged, winged, gilled beings to the territory?
The Idea is wrong. You cannot learn this by reading it. You need to do it. You need to live the law.
You may be uncomfortable with a land acknowledgement. Good. You should interrogate it, understand why you say it, and have a critique as to why it is not adequate. If you do not...