Indigenous Law in Language: Introduction

Rocky shoreline in BC

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the “UN Declaration”) recognizes that Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination and to revitalize, use, develop, and transmit to future generations their history, language, and culture, among other important rights.

Language is intertwined with law and is a crucial way Indigenous peoples express their laws. Indigenous languages embody an understanding of human relationships with the natural world and among all beings – including supernatural and spiritual beings – through time and space. These understandings are foundational to distinct Indigenous legal orders and the specificity of Indigenous peoples’ connection to their particular territories, and thus their inherent title and jurisdiction.

Indigenous languages offer rich meaning and provide descriptors, shape narrative, and embody legal principles within their words. This richness is essential as we discuss land and water relationships, rights and responsibilities, and all that goes along with them. 

In their work on Indigenizing biodiversity conservation, M’s-it No’kmaq writes that “re-imagining biodiversity conservation must simultaneously respect and promote the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples. This entails centring and privileging Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing.” Honouring the law and knowledge embedded in, and expressed through, Indigenous languages is foundational to doing so.

The BC government has recently committed to making a paradigm shift – after 150 years of prioritizing resource extraction – to now: 

Declare conservation of ecosystem health and biodiversity …as an overarching priority and enact legislation that legally establishes this priority for all sectors.

Further, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act requires BC to, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples, take all measures necessary to ensure the laws of BC are consistent with the UN Declaration. These important commitments have the potential to catalyze law reform in BC to maintain and restore thriving ecosystem relationships.

Ethically fulfilling this potential, however, will require that the laws and languages of inherent title holders are held on at least equal footing with western scientific and legal understandings of biodiversity and ecosystem health in the co-development of a new law and its implementation. Indeed, prioritizing ecosystem health, i.e., maintaining and restoring ecosystem conditions and processes that allow all beings to thrive, cannot be separated from an understanding of the Indigenous laws and stewardship practices that created and maintained these conditions over millennia. 

Indigenous languages provide a unique pathway to deeper understanding of ecosystem relationships, rights and responsibilities within particular Indigenous legal orders and in particular Indigenous territories that cannot be achieved through the sole use of western terminology. Rather than a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, the specificity and diversity of Indigenous legal orders points toward new provincial legislation that expands the Province’s legal toolbox to align with Indigenous law and governance of conservation initiatives in their particular territories, while enshrining a shared legal imperative to maintain and restore thriving ecosystem relationships and uphold "natural law."

Further, it points towards the importance of direct involvement of knowledge holders and language speakers in the decision-making process. As Trish Rosborough, chuutsqa Layla Rorick and Suzanne Urbanczyk write in their paper on revitalizing Indigenous languages:

Indigenous Elders and first language speakers offer important knowledge about the worldview expressed through their languages and thus are important collaborators...

As we have written previously, embodied in current Crown legal frameworks is a worldview that sees humans as separate from the environment, the web of life as an agglomeration of resources to be extracted, and environmental protection measures as a "constraint" on the rights of resource companies. The result has been a disregard for inherent Indigenous title and governance as well as a biodiversity crisis increasingly evident on the ground, for example in the steep decline of species such as salmon and caribou. Both Indigenous and Western science has too often been ignored in economically-driven decision-making enabled by colonial laws. 

For our upcoming series of blogs, we engaged in several interviews with Indigenous language speakers, as well as with Western-trained scientists to explore words and concepts related to biodiversity and ecosystem health, to shine a light on the richness and importance of language in this work. The goal is to contribute to an ethical space where genuine dialogue can occur and Indigenous law and linguistic terms take their rightful place.

We begin this series by talking to Simalgyax language speaker and Hereditary Chief, Simogyet Watakhayetsxw, Deborah Good from Gitanyow. The series also includes interviews with nsyilcxn language speaker Rob Edwards from Lower Similkameen, ethno-ecologist Jonaki Bhattacharyya, and Rachel Holt, a conservation biologist. 

As we learn how each of the Indigenous languages expresses ideas of biodiversity and ecosystem health, we also look to synergies and tensions with scientific understandings, and how both can inform ongoing work toward a new law for thriving ecosystem relationships. 

Top photo: Kevin via Unsplash

Indigenous Law in Language Series

Whitney Lafreniere-Vicente, Staff Lawyer
Jessica Clogg, Executive Director & Senior Counsel