Circles as Part of the Cree Legal Tradition

The Importance of Circles in Cree Legal Traditions (TRC Final Report: Vol. 6)


This Legal Summary is provided in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “Canada’s Residential Schools: Reconciliation,” in The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 6, (Ottawa: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 58-59. 

“The Cree peoples of the Prairies and the Hudson Bay watershed use the circle as a symbol of and vehicle for reconciliation. The circle reminds people of the broader motions of life, which must eventually be reconciled in relation to Mother Earth. The earth’s shape is a circle, her seasons move through a circle, and all peoples’ journeys through life are part of this circle. People are born as infants, before growing into small children, who then become adults, parents, and possibly even Elders, before they return to their mother, who gave them life. When actions must be taken to facilitate reconciliation, Cree people often gather in circles to conduct such business. These circles exist to remind participants of these sacred teachings and of the impact that their deliberations will have on a person’s and community’s progression through life. By using circles, the Cree reaffirm their unity under the Creator’s laws and their understanding of the larger wheel of life. Black Elk, a well-known and highly respected nineteenth-century spiritual leader from the Plains, expressed the importance of the circle.

Everything the power of the world does is always done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children

Although other traditions and approaches to reconciliation are apparent within Cree society, circles are critically important in working towards reconciliation within Cree law. In fact, there are many types of circles that can be convened in a Cree context, including prayer circles, talking circles, and healing circles. Such circles can be activated when someone is unbalanced and does something harmful. These circles provide a place where such people can discuss the causes and consequences of their actions with family members, Cree Elders, leaders, and medicine people in an attempt to restore proper balance in their lives and within their communities.

These laws were discussed at a gathering of Cree Knowledge Keepers and Treaty 6 territory Elders on March 22 and 23, 2011. At this meeting, nêhiyaw wiyasowêwina (Cree law) was identified as residing within an intricate matrix of complex principles. The Elders identified eight principles within their laws that helped to balance their communities. These principles are pimâtisiwin (life), pimâcihowin (livelihood), pâstâhowin (breaking laws against humans), ohcinêwin (breaking laws against anything other than a human), manâtisiwin (respect), miyo-ohpikinâwasowin (good childrearing), wahkôtowin (kinship), and tâpowakêyihtamowin (faith, spirituality). All were recognized as being an essential part of Cree life. These legal principles have obvious value for reconciliation since each concept is directed towards healthier relationships.

Legal scholar Val Napoleon has likewise discussed aspects of Cree law that can help to reveal truth and facilitate reconciliation. In her graphic novel Mikomosis and the Wetiko, she explains the importance of seeing Cree law as a mechanism for ensuring that people are accountable to one another. She does this by demonstrating how Cree law must be principled and collaborative. She says that

'Cree Law, like any other law[,] is about contestation, collective problem solving and collaborative management of large groups.'

This partly occurs through the recognition that there are four groups of decision makers in the Cree legal order: medicine people, Elders, family members, and the larger group. She says that each group is important because ‘unquestioned truths’ might be privileged without broader practical engagements. In this respect, she particularly cautions against having single Elders as sole legal authorities because of gender, culture, or other biases that might be reproduced in the absence of a more holistic approach. Her work also suggests that Cree law must incorporate community safety and respect for people affected by the search for reconciliation.”