Working with Indigenous Law

Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland speak at Truth and Reconciliation Education Day
Dr. Val Napoleon and Hadley Friedland speak at Truth and Reconciliation Day in Edmonton. Photo credit: Katherine Thompson (U of A Faculty of Law).

In Canada there is increasing acknowledgment that we are a multi-juridical country. Various American Tribal Judges have called for practical and respectful ways to engage with Indigenous legal traditions in an ongoing way. Our work takes one approach toward drawing on and drawing out the rich intellectual traditions available to Indigenous people for reasoning through legal problems and the issues Indigenous communities are struggling with today.

Like other laws, Indigenous laws are about citizenship, governance, managing conflict and providing tools for challenging power imbalances, and interacting with other peoples beyond one’s own society. A robust engagement with Indigenous laws includes making these laws more accessible, understandable and applicable today, considering law’s legitimacy and authority, how law changes over time, and the ways in which law is about relationships. This work can and should reinvigorate deliberative traditions and respectful debate between and within Indigenous communities.

Shifts in Assumptions

Engaging Practically and Respectfully

AJR Research Coordinator, Hadley Friedland, explains that we may have to make certain shifts in our thinking and perspectives in order to do the necessary intellectual work with Indigenous legal traditions in order to move from a philosophical view to a practical one:

The first shift is a shift in assumptions: To move past stereotypes in materials.

  1. Reasoning and Reasonable: Indigenous peoples were and are reasoning people with reasonable social and legal orders.
  2. Present Tense: Use present tense to talk about and consider Indigenous law – not relegated to the past.
  3. Particular: Think about Indigenous laws as a particular response to universal human issues.

The second shift is a shift in our questions: To move from generalizations to specifics.



What is aboriginal justice?

What are the legal concepts and categories within this legal tradition?

What are the cultural values?

What are the legal principles?

What are the “culturally appropriate” or “traditional” dispute resolution forms?

What are the legitimate procedures for collective decision-making?


What are the rules?

What are the legal principles and legal processes for reasoning through?

What are the answers?

What are the issues?