By Winona LaDuke
At the close of 2018, the White Earth band of Ojibwe recognized the “Rights of Manoomin” as a part of tribal regulatory authority. The resolution states, “it has become necessary to provide a legal basis to protect wild rice and fresh water resources as part of our primary treaty foods for future generations.”
These laws reflect traditional laws of Anishinaabe people, now codified in tribal government regulatory authority. White Earth’s action follows a similar resolution at the l855 Treaty Authority.
The law begins: “Manoomin, or wild rice, within all the Chippewa ceded territories, possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery and preservation.”
The Rights of Manoomin include: “… the right to clean water and freshwater habitat, the right to a natural environment free from industrial pollution, the right to a healthy, stable climate free from human-caused climate change impacts, the right to be free from patenting, the right to be free from contamination by genetically engineered organisms…”
The Rights of Manoomin are modeled after the Rights of Nature, recognized in courts and adopted internationally for the last decade. In 2008, Ecuador and Bolivia both added Rights of Nature clauses to their constitutions. In 2016, the Ho Chunk Nation in Wisconsin became the first US tribe to adopt the Rights of Nature, and in 2017 the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma became the second. Also in 2017, New Zealand (Aotearoa) granted the Whanganui River the full legal rights of a person, as part of its settlement with the Whanganui Iwi, the Maori people. That’s the third largest river in Aotearoa. India granted full legal rights to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, with the Himalayan Glaciers are also recognized to have rights to exist. This work internationally is intended to bring jurisprudence into accordance with ecological laws, and addresses the protection of natural ecosystems which have fallen short under most laws.
As the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature explains, “Under the current system of law in almost every country, nature is considered to be property, a treatment which confers upon the property owner the right to destroy ecosystems and nature on that property. When we talk about the “rights of nature,” it means recognizing that ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned, but are entities that have an independent right to exist and flourish. Laws recognizing the rights of nature thus change the status of natural communities and ecosystems to being recognized as rights-bearing entities with rights that can be enforced by people, governments, and communities.”
White Earth’s Rights of Manoomin is groundbreaking. “This is a very important step forward in the Rights of Nature movement. This would be the first law to recognize legal rights of plant species,” Mari Margil, Associate Director of the Community Environ-mental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) explains.
White Earth and the 1855 Treaty Authority worked with CELDF and its International Center for the Rights of Nature to develop the law.
The Rights of Wild Rice reaffirms the Anishinaabe relationship and responsibility to the plant, the sacred landscape of wild rice and traditional laws. Wild rice is also the only grain explicitly listed in a treaty as a guarantee.
“Treaties are the supreme law of the land and we Chippewa have (U.S.) constitutionally protected, usufructuary property rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather wild rice,” said Frank Bibeau, Executive Director of the 1855 Treaty Authority. “We understand that it is the individual tribal members’ usufructuary rights to gather food and earn a modest living that are essential to our lives and important for the success of future generations’ ability to maintain our culture and traditions, essentially to be Anishinaabe,” he added. “We understand that water is life for all living creatures and protecting abundant, clean, fresh water is essential for our ecosystems and wildlife habitats to sustain all of us and the Manoomin.”
The Rights of Manoomin authority also provides for enforcement. The law declares it illegal for any business or government to violate the rights of manoomin, and declares invalid any permit or authorization or activity that would allow those rights to be violated. Offenders will be punishable under tribal law and held financially liable for any damages to the manoomin or its habitat. The law grants powers of enforcement to the White Earth Nation and the 1855 Treaty Authority, and prohibits law enforcement personnel from arresting or detaining those directly enforcing these rights. The 1855 Treaty Authority ordinance explicitly grants individual tribal members the right to intervene, if the tribal authorities fail to do so, by taking non-violent direct action to protect the rights of manoomin.
For the past 165 years since the l855 treaty, significant damage to Anishinaabe wild rice, waters, maple trees, and prairies has taken place due to state and federal mismanagement. Over 70% of the original wild rice territory is now damaged, and today proposals to change sulfate standards to accommodate mining projects and new pipeline projects threaten more wild rice. Ultimately these actions threaten the very existence of wild rice.
In U.S. case law, corporations are considered natural persons under the law, and protected legally. In the meantime, much of the “commons” or natural world including water, sacred places, and sacred landscapes have not been protected. This law begins to address that inequality and challenges the inadequacy of U.S. and Canadian legal systems.
“Remember, at one time, neither an Indian nor a Black person was considered a human under the law”, Bibeau reminds us. “Legal systems can and will change”. And in the meantime, the Ojibwe move forward.