Reviving Indigenous languages is central to reviving Indigenous laws

I just read a brilliant article by a legal scholar doing a deep dive into Indigenous languages and grammar as a critical step in revitalizing Indigenous law.

The mix of law and grammar might sound dry and academic, but author Naiomi Metallic, Associate Professor and Chancellor’s Chair of Aboriginal Law and Policy at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, makes it readable, and incredibly useful in understanding Indigenous worldviews.

“My aim has been to show that the information encoded in language is rich and how it can inform the workings of an Indigenous legal order,” Mettalic wrote in a draft of “Five Linguistic Methods for Revitalizing Indigenous Law,” scheduled for publication in the McGill Law Journal.

Bottom line: Languages reflect cultural norms, values, and worldviews which shape peoples’ sense of law and justice. Embedded in Indigenous languages are values and worldviews differ from those expressed in English, the language of colonialism and capitalism.

This idea of inferring laws from language might confuse those used to looking up laws in statute books.

“Of course, finding law in the context of decentralized societies with largely oral cultures will not look the same as finding law in a centralized society, where all law emanates from the sovereign/state and its courts,” Mettalic wrote.

I was particularly interested to read about New Zealand’s support to help revitalize the Māori language and the practical impact it had. Today, there are more Māori words and phrases in New Zealand legislation, recognizing “a relevant and distinctive Māori perspective of the law,” the article said.

Metallic identifies five methods to help infer worldview and laws from Indigenous languages.

1. The “meta-principle” approach

Some words convey an overarching principle, carrying a bundle of “teachings and tools to draw on” for Indigenous laws, the article said.

Mettalic cites an example of the Navajo Tribal Judge who had to rule on whether Tribal police had a duty to warn suspects about making statements that could incriminate themselves.

The judge reflected on the Navajo concept of Hazhó’ógo, “which the judge described as a fundamental tenet of how the Navajo are to approach each other as individuals and relatives, serving as a reminder that patience and respect are due to all. Based on this principle, the judge held that tribal police had an obligation pursuant to Hazhó’ógo to give suspects the equivalent of Miranda warnings.”

(While the final outcome is the same in both systems, the route taken differs significantly. In U.S. law, the Miranda warnings are a procedural rule to protect suspects’ constitutional rights against self incrimination. In the Navajo case, it’s founded on the principle of treating each other as relatives.)

2. Revealing worldview through grammar

Many Indigenous languages are verb based compared to noun-based European languages, the article said.

Here’s why that matters.

Languages where nouns are key to describe the world are reflective of cultures that see the world as a fixed and stable universe, in other words as a set of things and objects that can easily be manipulated and used according to one’s needs or whims. On the contrary, a language using verbs primarily is the product of a culture that sees the world as a set of processes, made of multiple facets that intersect with each other in a myriad of colours.

Gespe’gewa’gi Mi’gmawei Mawiomi

Mettalic, who is Mi’gmaq, said in the Mi’gmaq universe, “everything can take new forms and everything can be reborn out of ashes.”

“Thus in stories, there are no eternally Bad Persons, eternal Villains as in the European sense,” she wrote. “These are only beings acting according to their nature and according to their whim or emotional state.”

“Such values—reclamation, renewal, rehabilitation and redemption—can be harnessed by Mìgmaq to inform the development of their laws.”

3. Word parts

Mi’gmaq, like some other Indigenous languages, is “polysynthetic”: Smaller words are put together to create a particular meaning.

One word can communicate a whole sentence (but it’s a long word). Metallic borrows from Stephanie Inglis who uses “Pemie’plewinatawijajika’sit” as an example. It has five different word parts and means, “S/he, who knows how to do this well.”

Metallic said her father would remind her that “Mìgmaq is a living language, meaning new words can be created from existing word parts to create new words to adapt to new concepts.”

4. Word clusters

Insights can be teased out by looking at a cluster of related words for similarities, differences, and nuances.

Metallic and others compiled a list of Mìgmaq words around resource sharing, and its opposite, stinginess. The analysis is ongoing. They identified 20 words relating to sharing and redistributing resources, such as biamalet (when someone has more than their share) and debiwen (when someone shares their wealth with others).

“[W]e found that the word for chief or leader (saqamaw), literally means ‘distributor’ or ‘the one who makes certain that everyone receives his/her fair share of community goods regardless of standing, age or gender.’”

The Mìgmaq language doesn’t have some English words and concepts. That’s a key insight, Mettalic wrote: “[T]he words tell us, if we know how to listen, about a different ‘law and order’ worldview in which the goal of justice is not individual punishment or retribution but the restoration of communal balance and harmony.”

5. Place names

How people name their geography says a lot about their worldview.

The article offers an analysis of settlers’ naming practices, according to the organization Gespe’gewa’gi Mi’gmawei Mawiomi.

  1. Put the word “New” in front of a name of a country or city in Europe. (New York)
  2. Name a place after a saint. (St. Paul)
  3. Name a place after a famous city or person, (Geogetown) or the name of the persons who “owned” the place.
  4. Ask a bilingual Indigenous guide to translate the aboriginal place name into French or English.

In contrast, Mìgmaq naming practices reflects geographical features, historical events, or available resources, using words that convey the place’s significance.

Among the article’s examples, the Mìgmaq name for the village of St. Omer is “Gaqpesawègadi,” meaning “the smelt-gathering place.”

Lastly, Mìgmàg place names can stem from stories and legends, which carry values. One such story is about a “peaceful community of many different plants and animals, each one doing its part to keep the community happy and healthy. Then, one day, a giant eel appears and terrorizes the happy community.”

To learn how it ends, check out the full article, it’s worth it.

Thanks to the Turtle Talk blog for posting the article.

2 thoughts on “Reviving Indigenous languages is central to reviving Indigenous laws

  1. […] So, because I have spoken this language and committed to learning it, I was able to introduce myself in Ojibwe to those gathered at the event as Nibi Center’s Terry Janis presented on the Rights of Nature. I was drawn to share with folks the blog that had just issued from Scott Russell of Minnesota Healing Stories which discussed the importance of adding Indigenous language to law: Reviving Indigenous languages is central to reviving Indigenous laws. […]


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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