Algonqian Jurisdiction

“Jurisdiction is not an abstract concept but grounded in care” concluded Shiri Pasternak’s Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake against the State (University of Minnesota Press 2017) makes the signal contribution of highlighting the importance of Indigenous concepts and practices of jurisdiction as a grounded form of care and politics. Pasternak details the Algonquins of Barriere Lakes’ struggle to assert control over their lands against Canadian Federal institutions and a broader settler-colonial society that insist on reducing “jurisdiction” to black letter definitions of “private property” and “sovereignty”. Much is lost in this legal translation from customary governance to contractual obligation.

Jurisdiction is not an abstract concept but grounded in care

State governance via the Indian Act is layered by other tangles of authority of various orders of government. Conflicts over land use are rendered unsolvable unless Indigenous people without treaties surrender to the system and definitions that place all sovereignty in the hands of the Crown, effectively conceding defeat. The book is a carefully researched account of the struggle to maintain a governance framework, the 1991 “Trilateral Agreement”, which will accommodate the importance of relationality to Indigenous societies. It is also a model presentation of Indigenous political philosophy and ethical understandings of human-nonhuman-land relations. Algonqian practices and systems of jurisdiction offers a politics grounded in a system of ethical relations. This system of law, “flows from relationships of respect and love for the land that are witnessed . . . through everyday practices, stories from the bush, formalized through wampum belts, and strings, and told by the fire” (27).”

Commonwealth settler-colonial legal tradition refuses to recognize Indigenous land-based social relations as a political basis of Indigenous rights and authority because it is foreign to the European foundations of Law. The settler-colonial legal system systematically misrecognizes the Indigenous claim to authority because it an anathema to individualistic notions of private property and rights that can be conferred and expropriated by a sovereign.

Pasternak’s political ethnography is bracketed by a discussion of her own family positioning as Israeli settlers. This sets up the ironies of collective complicity in colonial projects that both strive for self-actualization yet oppress others. Reviewed when the book came out in 2017, it is odd that no one comments on the poignant Preface and Conclusion that do the essential work of positioning the author. Pasternak diagnoses a deep insecurity in Canadian institutions and law that has failed to displace Indigenous forms of governance. She finds in the conception of jurisdiction over land rather than property an exit from this zero-sum dilemma. Five years on, Grounded Authority remains essential reading in the Settler-Indigenous curriculum.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)