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Two societies, two very different approaches

Wade Hemsworth
Hamilton Spectator
(Jun 16, 2006)

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. Mainstream media often presents biased and distorted information, lacking pertinent facts and/or context. Inclusion of this article on our site should not be considered an endorsement by SISIS.]

Strip away the land-claim issue, the barricades, the anger and the violence, and the conflict at Caledonia comes down to two sets of people living in the same place with totally different approaches to organizing their societies.

While non-natives live under a written, codified system of jurisprudence, native life in the various territories of the Iroquois Confederacy is governed by a tradition called the Great Law of Peace.

The non-native side makes and refines its laws in an adversarial political and legal system. The native side believes in a natural law that says all of its people should think and act with one mind, one heart and one body.

The Great Law covers leadership and governance, problem-solving, crime, personal conduct and even diet. Proponents say it demands reason and consensus, equality for all, and peaceful coexistence. It rejects assimilation and subordination.

It does it all without statutes or books, in a sophisticated oral tradition dating back hundreds of years, that really has no direct comparator in Western tradition.

But the Great Law is almost unknown to non-natives.

Western society believes in hierarchical leadership, one voice representing many people, and operates under rules set out in documents such as the Criminal Code that very specifically lay out laws and punishments.

The people of Six Nations rely on a diffuse sharing of power and a more holistic set of guiding philosophies that have sustained their civilization for centuries, dating back to well before contact with European settlers.

And in Caledonia, these differences make finding a solution all the more difficult.

"That all sounds terribly philosophical and remote and abstract, but that's exactly where the conflict is: it's two different cultures and two different mindsets," said Douglas Leighton, an associate professor of history at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario.

The Great Law has been compared to the Magna Carta, even the Ten Commandments. But none of those quite captures it. For the people of the Six Nations, the Great Law of Peace is the foundation for all human relations.

"Essentially, it's our constitution," said Dawn Martin-Hill, academic director of the indigenous studies program at McMaster University and a resident of Six Nations. "If you want to put it into a legal, Western framework, you're going to have a tough time shoving it into a square hole. It's holistic. It's spiritual. It comes from the Peacemaker. It comes in a sacred manner. It's not man-made."

The Six Nations reserve is governed by an elected council that operates within the confines of Canadian law, as does the native police. The Confederacy -- the traditional leadership -- was stripped of power many years ago by the federal government. The two groups are often at odds.

In the context of the current conflict at Caledonia, the Great Law is the explanation for the Confederacy refusing to turn over the six people wanted in connection with violent incidents last Friday.

Taken out of context, it might seem bizarre to outsiders for the people of Six Nations not to turn over the fugitives wanted in crimes as serious as attempted murder and assault.

But as Martin-Hill explained, for the people of Six Nations to do so would be to subordinate themselves to the laws of outsiders.

"It's important that people understand that we have every intention of not just ignoring what happened," she said. "We're hoping people understand that anarchy and lawlessness isn't our goal here."

Still, Leighton said, non-native society needs to know what will become of the people accused in attacks upon members of the public, police and television cameramen last Friday.

One of them is now wanted for attempted murder.

"What they need to make clear is that they are not simply harbouring these folks as fugitives and hiding them -- that they will be dealt with," he said. "They need to make it clear to larger society what those procedures are."

The Confederacy has not yet done so.

The Great Law of Peace dates back hundreds of years to the original unification of the five nations of Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga and Oneida. The specific date is disputed. The original Five Nations would later take in the Tuscarora to create Six Nations.

Native theology teaches that the Five Nations developed harmonious relations between themselves following a mission by a Huron Peacemaker, travelling in a stone canoe to deliver the message of the Creator to stop making war with one another.

Though he was initially repelled, he persisted and brought together the leadership of those peoples in support of the Tree of Peace, each sharing responsibility for helping to keep the tree standing. They created a federation that some call the original United Nations.

A system of participatory democracy stabilized the structure, including equal participation of women and men, checks against the abuse of power and safeguards for the welfare of women and children through a network of clans. The system promoted communal living and the sharing of wealth.

In fact, Martin-Hill says some scholars believe the precepts of the Great Law eventually provided the foundations for American democracy, from which the founding fathers borrowed selectively.

They also borrowed important emblems from native beliefs. She said the American eagle clutching a bundle of arrows, for example, comes directly from Iroquois philosophy, in which the eagle sits atop the Tree of Peace, clutching a bundle of five arrows, each representing one nation -- stronger together than individually.

Meanwhile, Martin-Hill explained, the Great Law endured European settlement.

Following the principles of the Great Law, Six Nations leaders established that when non-native settlement took root in what is now known as North America, each would respect, but not follow the other's rules.

They used the metaphor of two boats, each carrying its people and their ways. Both boats would travel down the same river together -- separately, but in parallel.

While the non-native justice system, for example, sets out specific crimes and punishments, the native system, according to the Great Law, continued to follow its holistic view, based on healing, rather than punishment, restitution as opposed to retribution.

Often, Martin-Hill explained, non-natives wrongly regard oral cultures as unsophisticated, when the opposite is true.

The Great Law is not something that is taught from beginning to end, but rather becomes clear over the course of a lifetime.

"It's collective," she said. "If you want to live in our community and thrive, you won't get away with it if you pervert the Great Law."

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