National Congress of American Indians Adopts Rights of Nature Resolution

At its meeting in Anchorage earlier this month, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) adopted a resolution in support of the rights of nature.

Menīkānaehkem and the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights (CDER) developed the resolution. It was submitted for consideration by Menīkānaehkem’s executive director Guy Reiter.

The National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944, is the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.

The rights of nature resolution – Resolution #ANC-22-008 – reflects growing efforts by tribes across the U.S. to protect the rights of nature and indigenous rights. The resolution states:

WHEREAS, our authority and ability as Tribal Nations and Indigenous peoples to protect the natural environment is essential to our inherent sovereignty and self-determination… 

WHEREAS, to strengthen and expand our authority and ability to protect tribal and treaty rights and the natural environment on tribal and traditional lands, there is growing support within Indian Country for recognizing and protecting the rights of nature.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) supports the rights of nature legal framework and the efforts of Tribal Nations to recognize and enforce these rights within tribal law and governance…

Menīkānaehkem’s Guy Reiter stated, “The rights of nature resolution reflects the growing understanding that nature is our relative, our provider. It is an ancient, indigenous worldview, that for many people is a new way of understanding and living.”

CDER’s executive director, Mari Margil, added, “With the many environmental crises we face, the need to make a fundamental shift in our relationship with nature is clear. Recognizing that nature is a living entity with legal rights is an essential part of this.”

Tribal Nations Advancing the Rights of Nature

Tribes are increasingly seeking to protect and enforce the rights of nature.

In 2020, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin adopted a resolution recognizing rights of the Menominee River. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe enacted its “Rights of Manoomin” (wild rice) ordinance in 2018, the first to secure the rights of a plant species. The Yurok recognized the rights of the Klamath River, and the Nez Perce recognized rights of the Snake River. The Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma adopted a rights of nature law, the Ho-Chunk in Wisconsin has taken the first steps to secure the rights of nature within the tribe’s constitution, and the Oneida Nation adopted a rights of nature resolution.

Earlier this year, CDER and Menīkānaehkem worked on a proposed rights of nature resolution submitted to the Midwest Alliance for Sovereign Tribes (MAST). Made up of 36 tribal nations in the Upper Midwest of the U.S., the alliance adopted the resolution in March.

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe brought the first rights of nature case to tribal court in August 2021. The case seeks to enforce the rights of wild rice, recognized within White Earth law, to stop the State of Minnesota’s permit to the Enbridge corporation for the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. The permit authorizes Enbridge to use 5 billion gallons of fresh water for the pipeline.  Wild rice depends on fresh water habitat. CDER is assisting in the case.

In addition, the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe in Washington State brought a case to tribal court seeking to protect the rights of salmon. The case focuses on the City of Seattle’s dams on the Skagit River which block fish passage. Several salmon species in the river are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights and Menīkānaehkem partner with indigenous organizations and tribal nations to protect the rights of nature, through education and outreach, community engagement, and law and policy.

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