Today’s post, from Hadley Friedland.
Hadley Friedland is a PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, Vanier scholar and the inaugural SSRHC Impact Talent Award recipient. She was the Research Coordinator for the Indigenous Bar Association’s “Accessing Justice and Reconciliation Project.” Her doctoral research focuses on engaging with Indigenous laws through story, and exploring how Indigenous communities may choose to apply their own laws to current social issues. As you saw in yesterday's post, her LL.M. work provided some inspiration to Louise Erdrich. A pleasing loop - we're honoured by Hadley's willingness to share her reflections on the Round House here .
Thanks Sonia for coming up with this idea, and covering so much ground, and opening the door so wide for this ongoing conversation. My mind goes to a million places, but I think the pieces I am reflecting on right now, is how Louise Erdich used the wetiko concept to talk about, and think about, unspeakable violence, because the same subject drew me to it as well, and how using this concept is one way to restore respect and dignity to decisions far too many Indigenous people face every day.
First, I have to say it was incredible to find it, and be found, in her beautiful and powerful work. The main way I have worked on engaging with and attempting to articulate Indigenous laws, is through analyzing stories, identifying legal principles, and synthesizing them into something that looks like a law school outline or legal memo on a particular body of law from a particular society. A valid criticism of this method is that the distillation loses much in losing the fullness of narrative thinking itself. The answer to this criticism, for me, lies in whether or not these distilled principles can be drawn on or reconstituted in the creation of new narratives. This is what Val Napoleon did with Mikomosis, consciously and explicitly, and this is what Louise Erdrich, truly a master storyteller, did in the Roundhouse.
As Sonia points out, there is no question about the horrific level of violence (and violent erasure) Indigenous people, and Indigenous women in particular, suffer and are subject to, or that statistics confirm this is often at the hands of white men. To focus, as the federal government recently has, only on the violence within Indigenous communities is politically convenient and dangerously deceptive. And yet part of the complex reality is that there are dangerous levels of violence within communities, and that this violence is often both caused by and experienced by people who live in relation and/or close proximity. When people reach out for help or a tragedy ends up in the news, the worst kinds of personal trauma are often reduced to the belittling stereotypes of the “sick” or the “savage”. This insult heaped on top of injury – humiliation added to already deep wounds – can feed back into anger, isolation and paralysis. There has to be a way to break the silence without feeding the ugly stories that perpetuate colonial degradation and racist violence at a national scale. That has been my focus. How do we respond as a community to harm and horror? How can we stop this pain from passing to the next generation? How do we speak about the unspeakable? How do we protect those we love, from those we love? These questions, which also fill this book, often occupy my thoughts, and are what led me to the wetiko stories in the first place.
There are many wetiko stories, spanning hundreds of years, in Cree and Anishinabek societies. The earliest stories are about cannibal giants or spirits, and how the people faced this horror and danger. There are also stories about strangers who are suspected of cannibalism. Many stories involve people who are known and loved who cause terrible harm to themselves or others. This can include stealing, hoarding, murder and cannibalism. Cannibalism may seem horrific, but I would argue that some of the violence occurring today is even more horrific. Some stories are about a person in the process of becoming a wetiko. These people might act strange, make threats, act depressed, withdraw, isolate themselves, hurt themselves, stop taking care of themselves, try to hurt or bite others, look for weapons, or do things they can’t remember later. Most people becoming a wetiko were cured, but when healing didn’t work, and they became more dangerous or harmed others, families, leaders, groups and/or medicine people worked together to keep others safe. This could result in supervision, temporary or permanent separation, or even death, if that was the only option left. Again, it is crucial to note that most people becoming a wetiko actually were helped to recover and reintegrated into the community (although they required ongoing monitoring, as nobody could be completely cured). I stress this because I do worry that, even though Mikomosis and the Roundhouse create conversations that respectfully engage with the wetiko concept as an intellectual resource, the fact both end in a death might inadvertently perpetuate the assumptions that execution, and incapacitation is the only available response to a wetiko.
Indigenous legal traditions, like all legal traditions, provide a specific way of not just solving, but articulating and reasoning through human and social problems in the first place. Through my research with the wetiko stories, I came to the conclusion that the wetiko is best understood as a legal concept or category in Cree and Anishinabek societies, that describes people who are harmful or destructive to others in socially prohibited ways. One of the questions in this research, relevant in any legal order but particularly germane in horizontal or decentralized ones, is who are the legitimate or authoritative decision makers? Not what is decided, but who gets to decide?
In the book, my attention was drawn, not just to the multiplicity of legal orders, and the spaces of lawlessness painfully illustrated, but the multiplicity of legal decision-makers and many sites of judgment I could recognize from older wetiko stories. Bazil, as a tribal judge, carefully, meticulously working with the laws available to create a foundation and greater space for future authority and jurisdiction (he reminds me of John Borrows in this regard) is the most obvious legal decision-maker by today’s standards, and, pronounces judgment for his son: “It could be argued that Lark met the definition of a wiindigoo, and, without any other recourse, his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law”(306). But there are others. Joe, who made the decision to shoot Lark, and Cappy, who helped him implement it, both of whom, as Joe’s father points out, will live forever with the human consequences of taking a life. There is no illusion as to the cost. Linda, Lark’s sister, makes the decision to support the killing by giving information about where to find her brother and disposing of the gun afterwards, before Joe even asks. And Geraldine, who, through her own horrific pain and trauma, chooses silence, and to break that silence to ensure a baby’s safety. And Geraldine, who is the first person to identify Lark as a wiindigoo, and tells Joe, after her husband’s encounter with Lark in the grocery store, resulting in a major departure from his moral code, and a minor heart attack, “Lark’s trying to eat us Joe. I won’t let him…I will be the one to stop him” (248).
In the book, Bazil refers to his son’s response having a precedent, and what I would add, is that an unsaid but important aspect of this story is there is also precedent for people in all of the roles above to make decisions about the appropriate legal response to a wetiko. Judith Herman has described her work as driven toward the goal of giving dignity to trauma survivors’ distress. One of the things that I strive to do in my work, and I think Louise Erdrich has done in this book, is to restore dignity to the decision-making that occurs today within Indigenous communities. Rather than staying stuck in the ‘trauma narrative’, I think she uses the wetiko legal concept to demonstrate, in a trauma-informed way, how, Anishinabek individuals and groups continue to reason through issues, make principled decisions, and act on enduring felt obligations, in the face of terrible violence, degradation and grief, through the irrational tangle of state laws and colonialism. For me, this is a powerful story, one we need to effectively address the overwhelming violence as badly as attention to the larger political issues of lost land, entrenched generational poverty, systemic racism and racist violence within the dominant society.