Thinking about “The Law of Evidence” through the Structure of Indigenous Language

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My new favourite book

With classes nearly over this term, I happily turned to my “Books to Read!” pile.   At the top of the pile was a new book by Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace, Secwépemc People, Land and Laws (McGill-Queen’s Press, 2017).

So many of the summers of my life have been spent on the shores of the Shuswap Lake. The smell of the forests, the feel of the winds, sound of the water, the taste of thimbleberries… all that has been imprinted deep in my heart.  I had been looking forward to spending some time with this book, to continue to learn about the history of the land, the people, and the laws of this place that I so love.  I am only into the 4th chapter, but I am not disappointed.  I can already see that this is going to be a book I will be carrying around with me.

In line, then, with my new goal for myself (to do at least one blogpost a week on what I am learning), let me share one of the amazing things I learned today from the this book.  I learned that the Secwepemc Language is an amazing resource for learning about law!  I finished reading Chapter 4 (“Secwepemctsin: The Shuswap Language”) this afternoon, and then spent the next hour walking up and down the halls of the law school, hunting down colleague after colleague to make them listen to what I had learned (Val, Pooja, Jess, Simon, Tim, and Bob have got to hear my enthusiasm first hand!).

The big discovery for me (on p. 138 of the book) was something called “Evidentials”.  This is a form of suffix that does not exist in English grammar.   In Secwepemctsin, as I understand it from the chapter, a suffix can attach to a verb, in a way that lets the speaker tell the listener about the evidentiary support for the statement.  That is, it indicates how the speaker comes to know the truth of the statement:

  1.  from first hand knowledge,
  2. from hearsay (what others have said), or
  3. because there is physical evidence of the action.

In short, as the Ignaces point out here, when people are telling each other about things that happen in the world, they are also sharing information about the evidence that exists for the statements made.

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Page 138

Of course, we can share information about evidentiary support in the English language: it is just a matter of adding more detail.  And when it comes to legal action, those evidential details matter a lot: if you appear as a witness in  a common-law court, you will be asked how it is you come to know what you know; the presence of physical evidence to support the claim is alway relevant; there are all sorts of rules to govern hearsay evidence.  That is, there is much to explore around evidentiary rules related to the relevance, credibility, reliability and sources of statements.

But there is something so interesting in how such questions are organized in Secwepemctsin in part through grammar.  Questions of evidence seem to be woven into the structure of speech and thought (rather than being separate questions emerging primarily in the context of formal legal settings.)  An orientation towards evidence is embedded in grammar itself.

What is so beautiful to me (or do I just mean mean ‘surprising’?)  is that the structure of Secwepemctsin itself, as a language, orients itself towards transparency in the  practices of validating knowledge.  Grammatically, people tell each other not only what they know, but HOW they know it.  This means speakers are grammatically required to make (suffix based) choices about the actions they describe, and listeners have the capacity to make choices about further inquiries needed on the basis of what they hear. Given suffixes, they can determine whether to seek further information from others, or to validate information by looking to physical traces to support what they have heard.  Certainly, this requires speakers and listeners to engage their own faculties of reasoning in conversation, by reminding them that all statements have an evidentiary status of some sort.  This is such a sophisticated and nuanced structure of thought.   I have been reading a number of Secwepemc stories in English, and I have a new appreciation for the ways that that the stories, in their original language, would be carrying additional information and nuance.

This encouraged me to go back to the TRC calls to action, and the section on Language.   Call #14 says “We call upon the federal government to enact an Aboriginal Languages Act that incorporates the following principles:

(i) Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.

There are interesting challenges in thinking about how each of us is invited to make the TRC Calls to Action “our own”.  Call 14 aims at the federal government, and it asks for legislation:  it is easy to see this call as within purview of others.  And yet, there is something important in acknowledging that we are each in some way called to think about our relationship to the PRINCIPLES that are identified here.  In learning more about Secwepemctsin (the language of the Secwepemc peoples), and about the place of evidentials in that language, I came to appreciate the importance of the principle expressed in TRC Call to Action #14: ‘that Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society’.   There are very good reasons for all Canadians to begin to learn with and about the Indignenous languages of this country.

One starting point might be this book.  Certainly, its discussion of Evidential Suffixes, is a wonderful way to draw insights from Indigenous Language and Indigenous Law into the Evidence Law classroom!  Can’t wait to learn more from what Marianne Ignace and Ron Ignace have brought together in this book!

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Pulling the Weeds – by Suzanne Lenon, Kara Granzow & Emily Kirbyson

As non-Indigenous faculty and graduate student teaching in the disciplines of Sociology and Women & Gender Studies, we regularly include discussions of settler colonialism in our course material. And, as teachers in disciplines that encourage critical thinking about societal power arrangements, we wish to develop learning resources in ways that build accountability to the TRC’s calls for reconciliation and Indigenous scholars’ calls for decolonization.To this end, we were awarded a small grant from our university in which we proposed to develop pedagogical tools that would more tangibly speak to the colonial politics of knowledge production, trouble the idea that settler colonialism is of the past, and ‘unsettle’ the racial and heteronormative colonial logics of identity and belonging.

Situated as we are at a post-secondary institution built into Blackfoot territories and in close proximity to the largest land-based reserve in the nation, we have a student body that seems to experience settler colonialism in a variety of ways, directly and/or recognizing its importance, or as completely disconnected from their everyday life. It is this full range of student experiences that we attempt to invite into an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy.

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Spotted Knapweed in bloom [http://mtweed.org/weeds/spotted-knapweed/]
We offer here a discussion of one assignment we designed called “Pulling the Weeds.”[1] The assignment was designed to foreground land as crucial to decolonization and to provoke student thinking on the relations between themselves, land, property, and nationhood in a local context (Tuck & Yang, 2012). Students were to (1) read the Wikipedia entry for spotted knapweed and submit a hard copy, marked with notes and/or highlighted excerpts; (2) go out on to the prairie and find the knapweed; (3) document the experience of picking it; and (4) write short responses to versions of the following questions:

  1. Describe the experiences of seeking out the knapweed.
  2. Describe the sensory elements of picking the knapweed (how did the soil smell, what was the texture of the weed, etc.).
  3. Where did you pick the weeds? Whose land were you on?
  4. What is your relationship to the patch of land that you picked the weed on?
  5. Write on your (dis)identifications with the knapweed or the plants that you left in the ground.
  6. Why do you think I asked you to pull an invasive plant species in this course?
  7. What connections can you make to this week’s readings?

The activity was assigned in a second year feminist theory course, a third year sociology of race and ethnicity course, and in a graduate level methods and theory course. The readings that students were required to complete varied from course to course, and ranged from Leanne Simpson’s (2014) Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation, Adrienne Rich’s (1994) Notes Toward a Politics of Location, and chapters from Audra Simpson’s (2014) Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States.

Students were encouraged not to worry about having the correct answer. They were encouraged to be creative and thoughtful, and to respond even if they were unsure of a question’s meaning. In spite of the bewildered looks when we asked them to go weed-picking, the very physical nature of the assignment expressed in their papers (the heat of the sun, the toughness of the weed’s roots, the itchiness of the weed, the pleasure of being outside), and the anxiety expressed about not being able to ‘find’ knapweed and hence complete the assignment, students wrote rich, varied, complicated, and thoughtful reflection papers. In their course evaluations, some students articulated the transformative learning that occurred from this assignment, suggesting that we delivered in fulfilling our institutional motto, “Fiat Lux” (Let there be Light).

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Rocks painted by Alice Matisz, artist

However, we also wish to reflect here on two inter-related sets of limitations to the assignment.

The first set of limitations is related to the mechanics of the assignment and the strictures placed around it by virtue of being developed and carried out in the context of a post-secondary institution. We asked students to pick knapweed only once, but now wonder about requiring multiple knapweed pulls over the early fall months of the semester as part of an ongoing reflexivity-praxis assignment. Leanne Simpson (2014) writes in “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation” that theory is not just an intellectual pursuit – “it is woven within kinetics, spiritual presence and emotion, it is contextual and relational. It is intimate and personal, with individuals themselves holding the responsibilities for finding and generating meaning within their own lives” (p. 7). This beautifully captures our aspirational desires for this assignment.

We wonder, then, what effect(s) several knapweed pulls might have on students, on their intimate engagements with the prairie, on their meaning-making of social locations, on fostering the process of an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy? Moreover, how would a focus on the restoration or identification of native plant species (rather than only on the eradication of invasive ones) shift the performative and meaning-making axis of this assignment? Yet, as Simpson also reminds us, neither the practice of picking knapweed nor the restoration of native plant species can be performative of land as pedagogy when the necessary conditions are not in place. For Simpson, such conditions include the requirement that our post-secondary institutions ensure “the full, valued recognition of [Indigenous] freedom, sovereignty and self- determination over bodies, minds and land” (p. 17).

The second set of limitations has to do with some of the oversimplifications of the assignment. We required students to identify knapweed with the help of a Wikipedia page that, among other things, describes the weed’s ‘systematics and taxonomy.’ We chose this website because it is highly likely that it would be among the first sites a student might otherwise visit to find out more about knapweed, and because the literary practices constituting the webpage’s knowledge production remind us of those employed in the classificatory work at the heart of scientific racism and the colonial project. What we did not foresee, however, was the extent to which students would rely on the language of the Wikipedia entry to explain their processes of weed identification thereby unwittingly reproducing and reifying colonial systems of classification. This constitutes more than a limitation for us; it is also a failure of the assignment.

Complicating this, students’ papers drew parallels between the tenacious ability of knapweed to stunt the growth of other plants and the white settlers who worked to invade and take over Indigenous bodies, lands, and lifeways. This raises a number of concerns for us. First, despite our attempt to heed Tuck and Yang’s (2012) warning, the assignment provokes primarily metaphorical understandings of knapweed as settler colonialism and its eradication as decolonization. Second, this metaphor relies upon and reproduces a settler/Indigenous dyad as ahistorical and naturally existing. Third, it naturalizes a hostile relationship between the two, the outcome of which is both anticipated and assumed final. How can this then constitute the assignment as an ‘unsettling’ pedagogy? As problematizing settler colonialism “as a living phenomenon?” (Monture 2007, p. 207). Moreover, we worry that in attempting to address “the settler problem” (Regan 2010, p. 11), we inadvertently re-centered precisely that which we hoped to unsettle. This is a failure for us. One of the unforeseen outcomes in attempting ‘unsettling’ pedagogy is producing communities of individuals who embody and enact another version of settlerhood, that of the enlightened settler. We realize that we must be vigilant about the subtle and less obvious forms that uphold settler colonialism: we worry that success in teaching about colonization that leaves any room for a redeemable enlightened and benevolent settler subject (including ourselves as teachers), whose governments have apologized and who ‘know better’ than earlier generations, is part of the ongoing remaking of settlement.

One of our intimate attachments is to be ‘good’ teachers, that is, to teach anti-colonization and antiracism on the Blackfoot territories occupied by the University of Lethbridge in a way that avoids the pitfalls of pedagogies of inclusion and the fallacy of ‘safe spaces’. We share our experience of this assignment in the conviction that the moments of disorder, failure and uncertainty that arise within our teaching practices are sometimes necessary mis-steps. Though such practices may propel us towards imagining other, perhaps less colonial, ways of being in and of the world, they are also only made because of the colonial foundations on which our presence here as teachers and citizens resides.

 

[1] Pulling the Weeds was inspired in part by a published conversation between Snelgrove, Dhamoon, and Corntassel (2014) wherein Corntassel describes efforts, largely on the part of Cheryl Bryce of the Songhees First Nation, and a “Community Tool Shed”, to revive Lekwungen “foodscapes and landscapes” (p. 25). The Community Tool Shed, located in what is now commonly called Victoria, B.C., is a site that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks who work to rid Lekwungen homelands of invasive plant species and to foster traditional plant growth.

 

References

Monture, P.A. (2007). Racing and erasing: Law and gender in white settler societies. In S. P. Hier and B.S. Bolaria, eds. Race & racism in 21st century Canada: Continuity, complexity, and change (197-216). Peterborough: Broadview Press.

Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Rich, A. (1994). Notes towards a politics of location (1984). In A. Rich (Ed.), Blood, bread and poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (210-231). London: Little Brown & Co.

Simpson, A. (2014). Mohawk interruptus: Political life across the borders of settler states. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 1-25.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R., & Corntassel, J. (2014). Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(2), 1-32.

Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.