Non-human equality and nêhiyaw food sovereignty

By: Darcy Linberg

Darcy Lindberg is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta. He has published and has publications forthcoming regarding Indigenous law and legal theory, Plains Cree constitutionalism and food sovereignty, and Indigenous citizenship orders

It is impossible to view contemporary challenges to nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) food sovereignty without acknowledging the imposition of Canadian law on nêhiyaw askiy (Plains Cree territory), and the resulting interruption of the practice of nêhiyaw wiyasiwêwina (Plains Cree laws). While Indigenous-moniyaw (settler) relations prior to the signing of Treaties 4 and 6 were based on centuries of developed mutual aid,the 19th century saw a political and attitudinal shift within the moniyaw polity towards Indigenous nations.[1] The interruption of nêhiyaw legal ordering on the prairies has fundamentally changed the impact of our relationships with the lands, waters, flora, and fauna that sustain us. This brief reflection begins with the assumption that the revitalization of nêhiyaw wiyasiwêwina (Plains Cree laws) necessarily involves the re-centering of nêhiyaw ways of thinking about our relationships with our foodscapes. As a foundational concept in the relationship between nêhiyawak (Plains Cree peoples) and non-human beings, nêhiyaw values of the ahcâhk, or spirit, play a significant role in the revitalization of nêhiyaw law. 

The inspirited nature of our food sources

Within some nêhiyaw worldviews, everything in creation is animated by some form of ahcâhk.[2] In some epistemological teachings, we are gifted our ahcâhk from a larger creative force before birth.[3] Furthermore, this spiritualism is intellectual: our inspirited[4] nature requires “intelligence and brainpower” to serve the ahcâhk’s purpose in the physical world.[5]  The link between our individual intellectualism and our spirituality is described as ahcâhkomâmitonihcikan, or the spirit-mind.[6] This spirit-mind is not limited to humans. While there are beliefs that some species share a collective ahcâhk,[7]it is commonly conveyed through our stories, observations, and other teaching methods, that plants[8] and animals (like humans), have individual ahcâhk.[9] As both human and non-human beings have ‘inspirited’ qualities, there is an inherent equality to our existence.  Belief in this equality calls for special consideration of the autonomy of non-human beings. As Jerry Saddleback notes, the ahcâhk of âskiy (lands) requires that “we take of…[â]skiy…in the same compassionate manner that she takes care of us,” where “[l]aw states that there should always be a conscientious effort in continuity of taking care of the interlinked balance” with âskiy “for our required sustenance and livelihood.”[10]

Stories, treaties, non-human agency, and law

Within this line of nêhiyaw legal thought, the ahcâhk resident in non-human beings and things is a key concept within our legal obligations to our food sources. It causes nêhiyaw peoples to rely upon nêhiyaw legal processes in our interventions into the autonomy of lands, waters, animals, and plants.[11] For example, the story of the Buffalo Stone Child provides an account of law-making between humans and paskwâwi-mostos (buffalo) in light of our need for nourishment from them.[12] While there is not the space within this reflection to do a broad survey here, venturing into nêhiyaw âcimowina (Plains Cree stories) means engaging with nêhiyaw food law and  governance, and the legal processes deriving from these traditions.

 Land-based learning is an integral step to revitalizing nêhiyaw food governance practices, even within law schools.  In a modest example, during an Indigenous Environmental Law class I taught at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law in the fall of 2019, we walked through the kisiskâciwani-sîpiy (North Saskatchewan) river valley to put into practice learning directly from the land. While I shared stories that set our wâhkôtowin (laws that govern our relationships) obligations with the land, students had the brief experience of full sensory learning: while listening to my words, we watched the river flow swiftly past us on its banks, watched squirrels busy themselves with preparations for winter, tasted chokecherries, caught the scent of recently fallen aspen leaves, and felt the sun when it occasionally peaked out from behind clouds. I recognize this was a small experience, but it exemplifies how land-based pedagogies broaden the way law schools are thinking and teaching.[13] The spirit of such small steps towards reclaiming legal obligations to our food sources also informs how non-human agents are returning to treaty relationships. For example, The Buffalo Treaty: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal, and Restoration is a multinational  treaty between North American Indigenous nations committing to re-engage in historical legal relations with paskwâwi-mostos. The Buffalo Treaty broadens how we conceive of treaties, as its commitments are not only between nations, but also inclusive of non-governmental organizations, researchers, corporations, and farming communities.[14] The treaty is also founded on intersocietal law, with Indigenous nations bringing their own legal commitments to the species into the treaty relationship. It also includes the paskwâwi-mostosak in the economic, health, education, and research objectives of signatory nations, as well as in their policy-making processes.[15]  This agreement shows that nêhiyaw law is just one legal order amongst a constellation of Indigenous legal orders in Canada that can orient our relations to our foodscapes towards a kinder and more ethical form of sovereignty, where lands, waters, flora, and fauna have greater agency.


[1] See John Borrows in J Borrows & Leonard I Rotman, eds, Aboriginal Legal Issues: Cases, Materials & Commentary, 4th ed (Markham, ON: Lexis Nexis, 2012) at 23, 161-165, 168-169.

[2] Pauline Johnson, E-kawôtiniket 1876: Reclaiming Nêhiyaw Governance in the Territory of Maskwacîs through Wâhkôtowin (Kinship) (PhD Dissertation, University of Western Ontario Graduate Program in Anthropology, 2017) [Unpublished] at 172. I note that there are some Cree people who don’t ascribe to this ‘inspirited’ view.  The view presented in this post is just one tradition of Plains Cree thinking.

[3] Blair Stonechild, The Knowledge Seeker: Embracing Indigenous Spirituality (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2016) at 55.

[4] I use the word inspirited here to describe those things that are viewed to have a spirit or ahcâhk within nêhiyaw epistemology. Inspired by the writing and thinking of Robin Wall Kimmerer in Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013).

[5] Stonechild, supra note 3 at 55.

[6] Art Napoleon, Key Terms and Concepts for Exploring Nihiyaw Tapisinowin in the Cree Worldview (Masters Thesis, Faculty of Humanities, University of Victoria, 2014) at 26. 

[7] See Stonechild, supra note 3 at 63. 

[8] One of our protocols is to ask for permission when taking a plant for use as food or medicine.  This recognition of the spirit of the plant in this way is similar to that expressed by Wendy Geniusz within Anishinaabe thinking. See Wendy Geniusz, Plants Have So Much To Give Us, All We Have To Do Is Ask (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) at 20-4.

[9] For example, The Rock Cree of Northern Manitoba believe that animals existed before humans in a state of ahcâhkowiwin, where animal nations lived out their own cultural values and practices. See Robert Brightman, Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships (Regina: University of Regina Press, 1993).

[10] See Jerry Saddleback, “Cree Testimony on Water,” published in International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development (IOIRD) Stakeholder Communication to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Request further to Decision 2/104 on Human Rights and Access to Water, United Nations Human Rights Council. online: <https://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/contributions/civilsociety/IOIRD_Alberta.pdf&gt;.

[11] See Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, “Respect, Responsibility and Renewal: The Foundations of Anishinaabe Treaty Making with the United States and Canada” (2010) 34:2 American Indian Culture and Research Journal 145.

[12] See Neal MacLeod, Cree Narrative Memory: From Treaties to Contemporary Times (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 2007) at 23.

[13] John Borrows, Outsider Education: Indigenous Law and Land-Based Learning (2016) 33:1 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 1.

[14] James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson, “Wild Buffalo Recovery and Ecological Restoration of the Grasslands” in Environmental Challenges on Indigenous Lands, online: <https://www.cigionline.org/articles/wild-buffalo-recovery-and-ecological-restoration-grasslands&gt;.

[15] See the Buffalo Treaty: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration, online: <https://sens.usask.ca/documents/BuffaloTreaty_2014.pdf&gt;.

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