Student Contributions | Contribution des étudiants

Submissions by students of John Borrows’ Anishinaabe Law Outdoor Education Experience

Last August, McGill law students visited the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation on Georgian Bay to learn about Anishinaabe law in an intensive field course. The course was led by Professor John Borrows with the help of Elders and other community members, and took place on the land and water. For four days, students worked with different sources of Anishinaabe law found in traditional stories, the environment, treaties, declarations, and customs and learned about Indigenous legal traditions.

As part of the ILADA’s blog series on Indigenous languages and legal traditions, we asked the students to share their thoughts on the interconnection they observed between language and law during the field course.  The following are some of their reflections.

En août dernié, un groupe d’étudiants en droit à McGill ont visité la Première nation des Chippewas de Nawash sur la baie Georgienne pour apprendre davantage à propos du droit Anishinaabe lors d’un cours intensif sur terrain.  Professeur John Borrows a mené ce cours avec l’aide des Ainés de la communauté et cela a pris lieu sur la terre et dans l’eau.  Pendant quatre jours, les étudiants ont appris à propos des traditions juridiques autochtones en travaillant avec différentes sources du droit Anishinaabe qui se trouvent dans les histoires traditionnelles, dans l’environnement, dans les traités, les déclarations, et les coutumes.

Dans le cadre du premier thème du blog d’ILADA sur les langues et les traditions juridiques autochtones, nous avons invité ces étudiants à partager leurs pensées sur les connexions qu’ils ont remarquées entre la langue et le droit pendant ce cours intensif.  Les paragraphes qui suivent font état de leurs réflexions.


André (3L)

The Anishinaabe law course at Nayaashiinigmiing pushes the boundaries of what law school offers students. A small group of us, from 2L to 4L, came together along the Western shores of Georgian Bay at summer’s end to listen and learn from nature and a community that has inseparable connection with their environment. The Anishinaabe law course required us to use our senses, it opened our minds and hearts to new epistemologies, and allowed for new relationships to emerge with our classmates, instructors, and the community.

One of the main lessons that I took away from the 4-day course was that Anishinaabe law and language are inextricably linked. Anishinaabe linguistic structure frames and delivers messages on how a community perceives the world around them. Examples of Anishinaabemowin (Anishinaabe language) were showcased time and time again over the intensive field course. Language and linguistics were emphasized in nearly every lesson, whether when deriving law from Anishinaabe stories or using Anishinaabemowin to describe the environment around us.

Professor John Borrows highlighted how the Anishinaabemowin language structure differed greatly from English and other Western languages. He also explained how language leads to disparate worldviews between the Anishinaabe and Westerners.  One example of this is that Western languages (e.g. English or French) view the world as inanimate, Indigenous languages view the world as animate. Both the noun-oriented language of English or French and the action-oriented Indigenous languages, such as Anishinaabemowin, breathe life into their respectful worldviews.

“Indigenous legal traditions are best accessed in the context of language, stories, methods of communication, and styles of performance and discourse because these are mediums that frame understanding and encode values.”

– Sákéj Youngblood Henderson

The ways in which Western and Indigenous cultures form and value relationships with people, objects, and environment are fundamentally different. For Anishinaabe, the distinction between natural objects and humans are seldom made; therefore, Anishinaabemowin reflects the relationship that the Anishinaabe have with the world around them. These relationships, in turn, form the laws that govern Anishinaabe way of life. It is these relationships that shape concepts of law and governance.

Over the course of the four days, it became clear to me that the rhetoric of Anishinaabemowin implicitly manifests Anishinaabe law and that, in the end of it all, the two cannot truly exist without each other.

Yulia (2L)

To say that Indigenous languages and laws are intertwined would be an understatement. We had multiple occasions to understand this close relationship between the two while on the field course in Neyaashiinigmiing. Anishinabemowin is so rich in verbs,  and even nouns tell stories that naturally translate into legal principles. For instance, I particularly enjoyed my process of coming to understand land, which in the Western worldview is seen as property and an indication of one’s social status, as a source of law. Even with the shortcomings of translation, it was extremely helpful to know that the word “land” in Anishinabemowin, ‘akinoomaagewin’, is a combination of the words “Earth” and “to teach”, which is interpreted as “earth as teacher.”

I am grateful for the opportunity to see the application of legal principles but also for the realization that sources of law and guiding principles are everywhere individuals can identify them: in the water, land, plants, animals, songs, dances, everyday life situations. In short, it was challenging yet inspiring to view the world around us as resource for reasoning and a tool for teaching. This, I think, can only be achieved by being in harmony and a loving relationship with one’s surroundings, and more fundamentally, with oneself, because, as our firekeeper Ken said, we are already given everything we need.

Heather (2L)

In my experience, language has often been an afterthought in legal education; a way of articulating law, but not an integral part of the process of law itself. Aside from the few occasions where McGill’s bilingual environment had me translating legal terminology between French and English, I took for granted that the language I used to talk about law was commonly understood and distinct from the law itself.

It was surprising then, when within the first few hours of arriving at Neyaashiinigmiing, we were introduced to Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe nation. Lessons in language came up just as naturally and as often as teachings about legal actors and sources of law. Over the course of the few days I spent there, I realized that it’s actually quite difficult to conceive of Law without seeing how it relates to language, and vice versa.

Understanding just the bare basics of Anishinaabemowin has helped me grasp some of the foundational elements of Anishinaabe law. Anishinaabemowin is a verb-based language (and therefore quite different from English, which is noun-based), which means that action and relationship are emphasized. Noun forms are generally conveyed by joining together verbs, adding prefixes and suffixes, and creating descriptive phrases. My favourite example is the word for blueberry pie, miini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan, which roughly translates to “exploding blueberry sauce-layered between bread-old Frenchman-bending over oven.” It’s quite a vivid picture! The use of compound words like this produces a language that highlights processes and relationships between different elements – a pie is nothing without the process of bending over an oven – and paints a picture of an animated world in constant movement. Full of descriptive words and relational phrases, it reflects a particular pattern of living and of practicing law.

I came away from this experience with the realization that Anishinaabe law is not an inert system of rules that is imposed on a community, but rather an intellectual and personal process. “Law” might be better understood as a verb, something that people do in relationship with one another, rather than a noun.

Breanne (2L)

One thing that really struck me was the extent to which law and language are indivisible. Law exists within language, and language is both a source of law and a medium of sharing law. I noticed that this made for a lawful community- there seemed to be an overall sense of familiarity with law because it is so deeply embedded within language. For me, this was a sharp contrast to the common law and civil law, which consists of largely unfamiliar terminology and jargon.

The relationship between law and language inspired me to be mindful about more than what was being said. To learn Anishinaabe law, I felt that I had to think holistically about language. I thought about why someone would choose to say something, how they said it, who said it, etc.

Debbie (2L)

The importance of being humble was an underlying theme of the Anishinaabe law course. Humility was somehow woven into every story, song and ceremony, and even directly present in some of the translations of the word “Anishinaabe”. We learned that depending on how the components of the word are broken down, one can extract different meanings. “Anishinaabe” can be translated to mean “the pitiful people” (and being called “pitiful” is definitely the kind of thing that would humble you a little bit). However another meaning we can pull from the word “Anishinaabe” is “the good people”. Throughout the course I learned how those two translations, the pitiful people and the good people, could work together to form a beautiful picture of humility.