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Law & order among ancient Aboriginals

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BROCKET, Alberta - While the sharp rap of a gavel contrasts with the soft wafting plume of smoke from burning sweetgrass, these symbols of order are interchangeable for author Reg Crowshoe.

The gavel is commonly known as the instrument to initiate order within western parliamentary systems; sweetgrass is its counterpart for traditional Native culture. Any further similarities between the official venues where these objects were used are few, yet that doesn't mean Aboriginals, in the absence of a gavel, were without formal procedures when conducting local government.

Co-author of "Akak'stiman," published in 1997, Crowshoe's purpose for this book was to dispel the myth that past generations of Aboriginals ruled only by ad-hoc committees. Along with Sybille Manneschmidt, a teacher at the University of Lethbridge, their research determined an oral structure of rules did exist among the Blackfoot tribe and was based upon community involvement towards collective decision-making.

However, western societies didn't acknowledge these customs and practices, in part because there was no written documentation.

"Our governments were complex and with authority but western society failed to recognize them," Crowshoe said. "The system is a gift from Creator and what's important is we don't want it to be called that we didn't have a (formal governing) system."

Following an introductory history of the Peigan tribe and its social structures, "Akak'stiman" details the law-making ceremonies of the traditional Blackfoot in two chapters regarding bundles and transfer rites. Those who are the custodians of bundles have a high social standing and are respected as the community's caregivers with the responsibility as knowledge-carriers. Transfer rites are the oral certification and acknowledgement by the community to be able to perform songs, stories and handle sacred material.

With specific roles and procedures, these ceremonies were conducted in open circles and ultimately shaped a non-confrontational form of governing with full community participation. Contrasting sharply were the western forms of management that tended to be linear, operating from policies that flow from the top, down.

Crowshoe mentions that goals become secondary to the decision making process in the western style of management and it's the keepers of these rules who will foster their own self-preservation. Whereas in historical Native governing, it's the goals which are the primary objective while secondly is the community's requirements for those goals and lastly, the needs of the law's caretakers.

"You make a vow to the organization and its objectives and the person responsible for those will help you achieve what you're asking for," Crowshoe said about Blackfoot traditions.

"Akak'stiman" states how western hierarchies favor experts and outsiders when decisions are rendered and policies developed. Citing the example of early contact with the settlers, Aboriginal medicines and health care that were only performed by certified practitioners in the Peigan tribe were ignored by the non-Natives who, in their rule, forced doctors into the community with their medical philosophies.

"Who is protecting the traditional healer when he used the oral system to attain all his information, training and knowledge?" Crowshoe rhetorically asked, pointing out the validity of the community's medicine men. "For the community to survive, you need a system of oral, social control to protect the oral practitioner."

Presently "Akak'stiman" is in at least half a dozen colleges and universities across North America as course material. However, what gives additional credence to the book is that its discoveries about social circles have a practical use and are not just theoretical. The findings by Crowshoe were implemented even before the book was published. In 1994, Crowshoe was invited to the Beardy's & Okemasis First Nation (50 miles north of Saskatoon) to share his knowledge.

For almost a decade the Saskatchewan tribe has used a release circle to assist in the discipline, healing and parole of prisoners. Under the watchful eyes of elders and community leaders, those convicted of crimes enter the circle and it's the locals who determine his fate.

Eugene Gamble, the community mobilization coordinator for Beardy's & Okemasis, says that with modifications his band has implemented, suggesting there are minor differences as to what the Cree do versus the Blackfoot, the concept of governing circles can be universal.

"The judges and prosecutors (in western society) have a role to play but ultimately it's the community that makes the final decision," Gamble said.

He added that because of the circle's success meeting the needs of convicts, the victims and the community, the Correctional Service of Canada has taken the step toward building healing lodges as part of its mandate to assist Aboriginal offenders, who make up a disproportional percentage of Canada's incarcerated.

Now Crowshoe is preparing another book, this one with a working title of "Keep Our Circle Strong" that is expected to be published later this year. Before going to print, Crowshoe is seeking sponsorship but not just financial, which is available through provincial and federal programs. Instead he is looking for corporate support by companies that will implement the circle philosophy.

"We've identified another management option that we can use in this post-industrial society," Crowshoe stated in the hopes that both Native and non-native companies can incorporate.

"Akak'stiman" is published by University of Calgary press. To learn more about the book, visit www.uofcpress.com