Law's hidden canvas: teasing out the threads of Coast Salish legal sensibility




Boisselle, Andrée

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This dissertation seeks to illuminate key aspects of Coast Salish legal sensibility. It draws on collaborative fieldwork carried out between 2007 and 2010 with Stó:lō communities from the Fraser Valley in southern British Columbia, and on the rich ethnohistorical record produced on, with, and by members of the Stó:lō polity and of the wider Coast Salish social world to which they belong. The preoccupation underlying this inquiry is to better understand how to approach an Indigenous legal tradition on its own terms, in a way respectful of its distinctiveness – especially in an ongoing colonial context, and from my position as an outsider to this tradition. As such, a main question drives the inquiry: What makes a legal tradition what it is? Two series of legal insights emerge from this work. The first are theoretical and methodological. The character of a legal tradition, I suggest, owes more to implicit norms than to explicit ones. In order to gain the kind of understanding that allows for respectful interactions with the principles and processes that inform decision-making within a given legal order, one must learn to decipher the norms that are not so much talked about as tacitly modelled by its members. Paying attention to pragmatic forms of communication – the mode of conveying meaning interactively and contextually, typically by showing rather than telling – reveals the hidden normative canvas upon which explicit norms are grafted. This deeper layer of normativity inflects peoples’ subjectivity and sense of their own agency – the distinctive fabric of their socialization. This lens on law – emerging from a reflection on the stories that Stó:lō friends shared with me, on the discussions had with them, and on the relational experience of Stó:lō / Coast Salish pedagogy, and further informed by scholarship on Indigenous and Western law, political philosophy and sociolinguistics – yields a second series of insights. Those are ethnographical, about Coast Salish legal sensibility itself. They attach to three central institutions of the Stó:lō legal order: the Transformer storycycle, longhouse governance practice and the figure of the witness, and ancestral names – corresponding to three sets of key relationships within the tradition: to the land, to the spirit, and to kin. Among those insights, a central one concerns the importance of interconnectedness as an organizing principle within Stó:lō / Coast Salish legal orders. Coast Salish people are not simply aware of the factual interdependence of people and things in the world, pay special attention to this, and happen to offer a description of the world as interconnected. There is a normative commitment at work here. Interconnectedness informs dominant interpretations of how the world should work. It is a source of explicit responsibilities and obligations – but more amorphously and pervasively yet, it structures legitimate discourse and appropriate behavior within contemporary Coast Salish societies.



Indigenous law, Indigenous law - Coast Salish law - Witnessing, Indigenous legal traditions, Indigenous names, Indigenous spirituality, Indigenous storytelling, Pacific Northwest - Indigenous peoples, Coast Salish legal tradition, Coast Salish longhouse - traditional governance, Sociolinguistics - discourse analysis - pragmatics, Stó:lō legal order, Stó:lō Téméxw, Legal sensibility, Aboriginal title, Kinship, Stó:lō traditional territory