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  • Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa:Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships
  • Leanne Simpson (bio)

It has long been known that Indigenous nations had their own processes for making and maintaining peaceful diplomatic relationships, such as Gdoo-naaganinaa,1 with other Indigenous nations prior to colonization.2 These "treaty processes" were grounded in the worldviews, language, knowledge systems, and political cultures of the nations involved, and they were governed by the common Indigenous ethics of justice, peace, respect, reciprocity, and accountability. Indigenous peoples understood these agreements in terms of relationship, and renewal processes were paramount in maintaining these international agreements. They also viewed treaties in terms of both rights and responsibilities, and they took their responsibilities in maintaining treaty relations seriously. Although these agreements were political in nature, viewed through the lens of Indigenous worldviews, values, and traditional political cultures, one can begin to appreciate that these agreements were also sacred, made in the presence of the spiritual world and solemnized in ceremony.

According to the Canadian Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,

When the Europeans arrived on the shores of North America they were met by Aboriginal nations with well-established diplomatic processes—in effect, their own continental treaty order. Nations made treaties with [End Page 29] other nations for purposes of trade, peace, neutrality, alliance, the use of territories and resources, and protection.

Since interaction between the nations was conducted orally, and the peoples involved often had different languages and dialects, elaborate systems were adopted to record and maintain these treaties. Oral traditions, ceremonies, protocols, customs and laws were used to enter into and maintain commitments made among the various nations.

Aboriginal nations formed alliances and confederacies that continued into the contact period, with treaties serving to establish and solidify the terms of the relationship. Protocols between nations were maintained conscientiously to ensure that friendly and peaceful relations prevailed.3

More specifically, Harold Johnson, a Cree, explains traditional Cree conceptualizations of treaty relationships in his territory, Kiciwamanawak, in terms of relations and relationships. He writes that when the colonizers fi rst came to his territory, Cree law applied, the foundation of which rests in the "maintenance of harmonious relations." He sees the treaty as an adoption ceremony, where the Cree adopted the settlers as family and took them in as relatives, inviting them to live in Kiciwamanawak and live by the laws of the Cree.4

When your ancestors came to this territory, Kiciwamanawak, our law applied. When your ancestors asked to share this territory, it was in accordance with our law that my ancestors entered into an agreement with them. It was by the law of the Creator that they had the authority to enter treaty.5

Referring to the intersection of families, territory and treaties, Johnson states, when your family arrived here, Kiciwamanawak, we expected that you would join the families already here, and in time, learn to live like us. No one thought you would try to take everything for yourselves, and that we would have to beg for leftovers. We thought we would live as before, and that you would share your technology with us. We thought that maybe, if you watched how we lived, you might learn how to live in balance in this territory. The treaties that gave your family the right to occupy this territory were also an opportunity for you to learn how to live in this territory.6

For the past decade, I have been interested in understanding how my ancestors, the Mississauga of the Nishnaabeg Nation,7 understood [End Page 30] and lived up to their responsibilities to the land, their families, their clans, and their nation and with neighboring nations. Through years of learning from our elders and Nishnaabeg knowledge keepers, spending time on the land, and interpreting the academic literature through an Nishnaabeg lens, I have come to understand Nishnaabeg conceptualizations of treaties and treaty relationships in a way similar to the preceding quote, and these conceptualizations exist in stark contrast to the Eurocanadian view of treaties entrenched in the colonial legal system, the historical record, and often the contemporary academy.

In Canada, many Indigenous scholars have argued that the "Canadian state's political relationship...


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