Five Native Groups Have Established Rights of Nature

"For Ho-Chunk, rights of nature has always been around.”

Craig M. Kauffman & Pamela Martin April 17, 2023

In recent years, legal provisions to grant formal rights to ecosystems and nonhuman entities—“rights of nature”—have spread across the globe. Several Native groups in the United States have developed such rights of nature, beginning with the Ho-Chunk Nation, which contains several communities in the Midwest, primarily in Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk environmental activist who helped spearhead these efforts, Bill Greendeer of Cashton, Wis., passed away Nov. 5, 2020. The following is excerpted and adapted from The Politics of Rights of Nature: Strategies for Building a More Sustainable Future by Craig M. Kauffman and Pamela L. Martin. © 2021 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It is published here as part of a Barn Raiser special report on Enbridge pipelines.

In 2018, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin became the first Native American nation in the United States to amend its tribal constitution to recognize Rights of Nature (RoN). This effort was led by Bill Greendeer, a Ho-Chunk member who studied law to be able to translate Ho-Chunk values and cosmology into Western law in order to protect his tribal lands from the Enbridge [Line 66 oil] pipeline that is planned to enter Ho-Chunk territory from Western Canada through Lake Superior and down through Wisconsin to Illinois. The Ho-Chunk Nation’s constitutional recognition of RoN marks a new legal strategy in its long battle to protect its homeland. 

Greendeer relayed his story at the Rights of Nature Symposium at Tulane Law School in New Orleans in October 2017. He told conference members that far from being a new concept, RoN “has been around for thousands of years. For Ho-Chunk, rights of nature has always been around.” The tar sands mines that are in his tribe’s territory were leveling the forests, disturbing the animals and contaminating the waters. Greendeer explained that for Ho-Chunk people “the tar sands, the water, the forests are sacred, like altars.” 

Around 2014, Greendeer began studying law, attending lectures at the University of Wisconsin and Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) workshops. Explaining his motivation, he noted, “I want to know about laws and use white man’s system to be able to protect nature.” Even though the notion of rights is a Western legal construct foreign to many Indigenous peoples, RoN laws can constitute Western legal tools for protecting and strengthening peoples’ deep spiritual connection to their land and instill a responsibility to protect it. The formal RoN laws that are crafted are mere words that reflect much deeper understandings, meanings and responsibilities. 

For this purpose, in 2015, Bill Greendeer and Julie de la Terre presented a RoN amendment to the Ho-Chunk Nation through its General Council. It passed in 2016, but was rescinded and rewritten by Greendeer in 2017 to fix a procedural requirement needed to amend the constitution. The vote to continue the process passed by over 1,000 votes. In December 2019, the Ho-Chunk were preparing to send ballots to all tribal members for a second vote, as required for constitutional amendments. But in order for a new constitutional amendment to pass, the U.S. secretary of the interior must approve it, a factor that often dissuades tribal nations from pursuing constitutional changes. At the time of this writing, the constitutional amendment was awaiting approval by the Bureau of Indian Affairs—a process that will provide lessons for other tribal communities considering RoN amendments in tribal constitutions.

The Ponca Nation

RoN networks fostered new laws in the Ponca Nation as well. Around 2015, Greendeer traveled to Oklahoma to meet with the Ponca, a tribal community of about 4,000 members headquartered in White Eagle, Okla., to discuss RoN. During the same time period, Casey Camp-Horinek, Ponca tribal leader and member of the Ponca Business Committee (the seven-member, elected, governing body), traveled to Hawai’i for a conference on women and RoN. 

Camp-Horinek admits that when presented with the idea of RoN, she did not like it. “It didn’t feel right,” she explains; “I thought that no law should be created around Nature. Nature is not law. It was like building cages to put ourselves in this. Over time, I realized that colonists need to understand [our way of life and cosmology].” Creating RoN laws, she notes, is “reacting and becoming responsible to our mothers, grandmothers.” She and the Ponca viewed RoN as a codification of their responsibilities to previous and future generations. 

Camp-Horinek explains that RoN is a form of “reviving sacred natural sites. We didn’t choose the sites; they chose us.” The Ponca sacred sites are threatened by a Philips 66 refinery and the Keystone pipeline that is scheduled to traverse their territory. Camp-Horinek claims that oil wells in the territory, and more recently hydraulic fracturing and injection well sites, have caused between 600 and 800 cancer and autoimmune diseases, over 10,000 earthquakes, and numerous methane leaks. Given these threats to her community, Camp-Horinek held community meetings and, in January 2019, the Resolution Recognizing the Immutable Ponca Tribal Rights of Nature was passed by the Ponca Business Council. This is now a statute, and tribal members are considering how and when to enforce it to protect themselves from oil pipelines and further fracking and wastewater injection wells. 

Unlike the Ho-Chunk, the Ponca Nation elected not to work at the constitutional level in order to move quickly. The resolution gives the Ponca Tribal Court the power to enforce penalties for crimes against Nature, punishable by up to one year in prison and $5,000 for each day of each offense. If a crime against Nature is committed by a corporate entity, the resolution states that the chairman of the board of the corporation should be held personally responsible for the crime. Secondary laws establishing indicators for these crimes have yet to be developed. 

The Ponca RoN resolution recognizes that Nature “gives sustenance and the opportunity for all people for all intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth,” and states that the well-being of all “people throughout the world” depends on the protection of Nature. Like New Zealand’s RoN laws, the Ponca resolution establishes a duty and responsibility “to not harm all things in Nature which are related to us and are a part of us.” It is based on the Ponca belief of original instructions from Wakanda that “human beings are a part of Nature; that water is the container of all life, and that all life is the container of water.” 

The Chippewa and Ojibwe Nations

Neighbors of the Ho-Chunk, the Chippewa of Minnesota are similarly fighting the Line 3 oil pipeline as well as new copper and nickel mines in the region. In response to a rollback of environmental protections for manoomin (wild rice) in Chippewa and Ojibwe territory, Gov. Mark Dayton (D) of Minnesota created the Task Force on Wild Rice. Just before he left office in 2018, Dayton removed all but two Indigenous representatives from the Task Force. To secure better tribal participation, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (which makes up six of the seven Ojibwe bands in Minnesota) established its own Tribal Wild Rice Task Force with representatives from 11 of the state’s Chippewa bands and Dakota communities. After extensive community discussions and evaluation of different models of RoN legislation, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the 1855 Treaty Authority [which represents Chippewa tribal members] passed laws recognizing the rights of manoomin for today and for future generations.

Wild rice growing in the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs on the Bad River Reservation in Northern Wisconsin. (Bad River Department of Natural Resources)

The Resolution Establishing Rights of Manoomin cites manoomin as a “gift to the Anishinaabe people from the Creator or Great Spirit and an important staple of their diets for generations,” and notes the “central element of manoomin for Anishinaabe culture, heritage and history, as well as the integral part of the wetland ecosystems and natural communities of their traditional lands.”  

The resolution echoes rights in Ecuador’s constitution [which includes RoN], recognizing the right of manoomin to “exist, flourish, regenerate and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery and preservation.” The resolution reserves members’ right to harvest manoomin and guarantees their right of sovereignty in doing so. The resolution sets punishment for harm to manoomin as the maximum fine allowed under tribal law. 

The Yurok Tribe

Having for centuries lived off the Klamath River and claiming sacred places along it, the Yurok Tribe in May 2019 passed the Resolution Establishing the Rights of the Klamath River. 

The Yurok are the largest tribe in California, numbering about 5,600 members. The resolution recognizes rights for the “whole land” of the Yurok territory, “to include the river, the trees, the salmon, elk, deer” and other forms of life. It also recognizes that “all native species within and dependent on the Klamath River ecosystem are vital to the cultural, legal, subsistence and economic interests” of the tribe. Further, the Yurok weave in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, articles 26 and 29, to sustainably harvest plants and fish and to conserve and protect territory. 

The tribal RoN legal provisions model an approach that integrates Indigenous and Western epistemologies and legal systems. They show how a recognition that human well-being is tied to the health of the ecosystems that provide the conditions for all life may be incorporated into Western legal frameworks.

For more on Enbridge pipelines, see our Barn Raiser special report.

Craig M. Kauffman

Craig Kauffman is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Political Science at the University of Oregon, where he is also Participating Faculty in Environmental Studies. He can be contacted at his website here.

Pamela Martin

Pamela Martin is professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University. Her research and writing focus on global environmental politics, energy, sustainable development, and international relations and policy. Martin is also the Executive Director and founder of the RISE Center, a United Nations Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. She currently works to link the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda to local communities and to campus. This includes a partnership with the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation to provide paid internships in sustainable development to CCU students, as well as community education on sustainability and resilience.

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