nêhiyaw (Cree) Laws and Guiding Principles

nêhiyaw Lawyer, Author, and Professor, Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum), from Big River First Nation (Treaty 6) published her book, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems, in 2015. Please note, nêhiyaw is written in lower-case as capitalized characters are not part of nêhiyaw linguistic characters - McAdam explains this in her book. 


The following are quoted selections from Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems, which is available through the University of Saskatchewan Library, or Purich Publishing.

nêhiyaw Pre-colonial Laws and Governance


“The physical laws speak to matters of stealing, adultery, murder, proper child rearing, sexual offences, hunting laws, environmental laws, and other such matters of human actions...The verbal laws of pâstâmowin and ohcinêmowin address the use of language against human beings (pâstâmowin) as well as to creation (ohcinêmowin); matters such as gossiping, uttering threats, using profanity against animals or creation. There are laws that speak to every area of a person’s life.

It is also important to state that silence and non-action do not exempt any human being from breaking the laws. It’s considered a pâstâmowin to remain silent or to take no action while a harm is being done to another human being or to anything in creation. In common law, it is called acquiescence; acquiescence is compliance, or when you are silent it is considered consent from a reasonable person. In other words, if a person is getting assaulted and you do nothing to stop or assist, then you have committed a pâstâmowin because you failed to prevent or protect another human being. This same idea applies to sharing and speaking to others about know-ledge or other such matters; if you do not speak to your children about the laws then you are likely breaking pâstâmowin. This applies in cases where people have this knowledge but do not share it or speak of it.

Most important in all of these laws is to remember that they are sacred and are a gift from the Creator. Indigenous peoples are not a lawless people. The nêhiyawak have diverse and multi-dimensional laws that are both physical and spiritual. It is believed no human has enough knowledge to write down the spiritual laws; that belongs to the keepers of this knowledge, and they are not human. All the laws have a spiritual connection; each ceremony is a renewal and reaffirmation to follow them for all time. Even when the human being corrects the laws through the remedies provided, they are reminded that the laws need to be corrected through their relationship with the Creator. It is that relationship that will sustain and nurture them through all trials and tribulations.” McAdam, Sylvia. Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems. Purich Publishing Limited, 2015. 39-40.



“The women’s teachings are the educational system of the nêhiyaw Nation. There existed a group of women called okihcitâwiskwêwak whose role was to provide the legal “system” of the nêhiyaw people. These women invoked the laws and provided remedies on a case-by-case basis, depending on the situation or circumstances before them. As well, the women are the first to carry each child born into the nation.” McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems. 24.

“The criterion to become an okihcitâwiskwew is strict and sacred. Most are “born into” this role or are later identified and raised in the teachings and knowledge. Usually there are nine okihcitâwiskwêwak, but seven deal with matters of everyday concerns. The other two are not called upon unless the incident is serious and needs their attention.

The criterion itself is based on knowledge, teachings, and ceremony. The women would be raised to become “doctors” or shamans. They must have extensive knowledge about the plants of the land and their uses; generally this knowledge is utilized in a ceremony called the mitêwiwin (midewin). The women must be gifted with various ceremonies and their knowledge must be quite extensive. Their primary knowledge would be the laws of the people. If a law is broken, the okihcitâwiskwêwak would be summoned. The law breaker would be brought before the okihcitâwiskwêwak to answer for his or her deed.” McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems, 56.

pâstâhowin and ohcinêwin



“There are two laws that describe the “act of breaking” a law or laws, but there are subcategories identified from these two main laws. The first one is called pâstâhowin, meaning “the breaking of a law(s) against another human being.” pâstâhowin has also been described as going against natural law: you will suffer retribution for an action against creation. However, this is not quite an accurate description of pâstâhowin; it says creation, but pâstâhowin applies only when a human breaks a law physically against another human being, not against creation per se. Breaking these laws can bring about divine retribution with grave consequences.

The core of pâstâhowin is the root pâst-, meaning to “go beyond or over” as in ê-pâstohtêt, which translates as “stepping over” something. The verb pâstâhw- indicates that one transgresses against another, while a more gen-eric verb, pâstâho-, indicates a transgression, and this verb is nominalized by the ending -win; hence, pâstâhowin, “transgression.” Imagine yourself surrounded by lines of laws all your life; there is a line for stealing, murder, etc.; these lines must not be stepped over. When you step over those lines, then you have broken a law and that law needs to be identified. pâstâhowin and ohcinêwin can apply to any circumstance where the law is not followed, either by action or omission…. There is a subcategory to pâstâhowin which is called pâstâmowin. pâstâmowin ‘refers to what someone said which led to something undesirable happening,’ or is blasphemous or dangerous speech thought to bring misfortune to the speaker. This law is broken when the person utters threats, gossip, or profanity." McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems, 42-43.



“The second law is called ohcinêwin, meaning “the breaking of a law(s) against anything other than a human being.” ohcinêwin is part of the concept of pâstâhowin, and means to suffer in retribution for an action against creation. This law is applied when animals are tortured, land is being polluted, there is an over-harvesting of resources, or nêhiyaw hunting laws are broken — in other words, the physical activities of human beings that have a negative impact on their environment. Animals are regarded as persons in their own right; the relationship between the Cree and animal-persons is governed by the same legal considerations that govern human relationships.

ohcinêwin does not exclusively apply to hunting. Other elements such as over-harvesting of trees, polluting the environment, and various acts that harm all of creation are included. When Treaty 6 was negotiated, the leadership of the day expressly demanded prohibiting the free use of poison (strychnine): it has almost exterminated the animals of our country, and often makes us bad friends with our white neighbours. The chemicals used and the effects of corporations harvesting various resources from the territories of Indigenous peoples has historically been of great concern to nêhiyaw people. This is expressed time and again in the literature on the subject. It stems from these laws of pâstâhowin and ohcinêwin.” McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems, 44-46.


nêhiyaw pimâtisiwin (Life)

“Everything has a beginning, so it is for pimâtisiwin. nêhiyawak understand pimâtisiwin as a gift from the Creator. This gift of pimâtisiwin is to follow the strict truths that a person seeks; once the knowledge is shared, there are formal and respectful submissions of gratitude. To be born nêhiyaw is to be born into the lands, cultures, and languages of the people as well as the responsibilities and obligations.

The Indigenous nêhiyaw birth of each citizen has been disrupted. In fact, there are multiple disruptions, causing nations of Indigenous people to lose their connection to the laws that the Creator has given them to live by. These disruptions are the genocide and colonization of the nêhiyaw people in Treaty 6 territory.

Many outstanding authors have written about the impacts of genocide and colonialism, and their continued effects on a Nation of Indigenous people in what is now called Canada. Many communities are experiencing epidemic proportions of violence and suicide. Family violence is in a crisis state for many Indigenous communities…Needless to say, it is the impacts of genocide and colonialism that have disrupted the sacred birth of the nêhiyaw people.

When a nation does not understand their laws or live by them, it creates a void, a state of lawlessness. This lawless state has created an imbalance that has spanned several generations. This is not to say it is irreparable: this lawless state is reparable, but the transference and transmission of nêhiyaw laws have been disrupted, along with other aspects of nêhiyaw life.

This is especially true when exploring effects on the role of nêhiyaw women; this is not to minimize the impacts on men. The law keepers are the nêhiyaw women, but with the advent of the Indian Act, the status of women and the illegalizing of nêhiyaw ceremonies had a terrible consequence on parenting and the transferring of Indigenous knowledge. It is this knowledge that is crucial and critical in creating a foundation of laws in which each child is nurtured and raised. Each nêhiyaw ideally should have been raised with these teachings and knowledge from cradle to death; it is their inherent knowledge.” McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems. 27-28.

“The role of women has been decimated through colonialism and genocide. The term Indian is used to identify Indigenous peoples in Canada through the Indian Act. This term is a legal term and is government controlled to access Aboriginal and treaty rights. This system of delineating rights controls and undermines nêhiyaw women’s authority and jurisdiction over the citizenship of their people. Registration under the Indian Act is complex, with many confusing and illogical rules that give preference to Indian men. The unfortunate result is discrimination against women and their descendants as well as undermining the jurisdiction for nêhiyaw nations to determine who their citizens are.” McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems. 34.

Additional Laws

“Other laws such as nipahtâkêwin (murder), kimotiwin (stealing), ohpikinâwasowin (child rearing/raising), nipahisowin (suicide) are defined and understood in the nêhiyaw legal systems. If an individual committed murder, then they have committed pâstâhowin. The physical act of killing a human being is subjected to the scrutiny of pâstâhowin. However, if a person were to utter “death threats” or “death wishes,” then they are subject to the law of pâstâmowin. Even thinking of committing murder is contrary to the mental gift.” McAdam, Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems. 48.