Blog on Language & Law

Series on Language as Law

The ILADA blog’s first series was on the theme of language and law. Within the context of language revitalization, how do Indigenous laws pronounce themselves through language? How can Indigenous laws be strengthened, given the impact of colonialism on Indigenous languages? And can the changes required to revitalize—funds, experts, and the privileging of resources—create additional inequities?

We aimed to first and foremost to address the crucial relationship between language and law: in particular, the role Indigenous languages play in articulating Indigenous laws. Writing about the Navajo people, Anishinaabe scholar Matthew Fletcher emphasizes, “for many tribal communities, the law is encoded right into the language – and the stories generated from the language.”1 Because most Indigenous communities historically expressed (and continually express) their customs and laws orally, this statement applies to Indigenous groups broadly.2 This season features contributors who explore expressions of law and answer questions about how language deepens and complicates protocols, interpretations and worldviews.

We looked at the inherent challenges in this exercise: communities experience “law” in different forms and may not identify practices and behaviours as law in the same way that they are identified in Western legal normativity. What one group claims as “law” may be something entirely different to another; and not everything is translatable into English or French—nor should it be. As John Borrows stated, “context should not be stripped from the practice of Indigenous law.”3 Often, that context is language. Our contributors this season help to tease out how Indigenous languages limit and liberate, stymie and enable, and generally complicate the articulation of Indigenous law.

The State of Canada’s Indigenous Languages by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel

Indonaakonigewininaan – Toward an Anishinaabe Common Law by Matthew L.M. Fletcher

Language and Anishinaabe Consultation Law by John Borrows

1 Matthew Fletcher, “Rethinking Customary Law in Tribal Court Jurisprudence” (2007) 13 Mich J Race & L 57 at 21.

2 Ibid at 41, “Indian cultures (often) were and are oral cultures.”

3 Borrows, John, “Foreword: Indigenous Law, Lands, and Literature,” (2016) 33 Windsor YB Access to Just v at ix.