Native-led Guidebook Empowers Tribal Nations to Embrace Rights of Nature Laws for Environmental Protection

In recent years, countries such as Ecuador, New Zealand, and India have passed laws recognizing the rights of nature. This growing movement aims to protect the environment by legally acknowledging its inherent right to exist and thrive independently of human use. Now, tribal nations in the United States are taking the lead in incorporating the rights of nature into their governance structures.

A newly published guidebook, titled “Guide to Rights of Nature in Indian Country,” offers strategies and resources for Indigenous communities interested in enacting laws that grant legal rights and personhood to ecosystems, landscapes, and species. The guidebook, published by the Native-led Bioneers Indigeneity Program, provides practical guidance on various steps, including surveying community perspectives, holding educational gatherings, and forming planning committees.

The 30-page guidebook presents real-world challenges and pathways for passing laws, featuring case studies of tribes that have already enacted rights-of-nature laws through constitutions, ordinances, and resolutions. These case studies highlight different methods and their pros and cons, offering examples of how tribes have navigated these decisions.

Rights of Nature laws often emerge in response to immediate threats, such as mining, drilling, development, and pollution that endanger ecosystems and species fundamental to Indigenous cultural and life practices. Resolutions are a quick way to address urgent threats, while ordinances carry more permanent legal force. Amending constitutions provides the strongest protection but involves lengthy approval processes.

The guidebook also showcases specific examples of Tribal nations that have passed resolutions and laws recognizing the rights of nature. For instance, the Ho-Chunk Nation became the first to propose a constitutional amendment incorporating the rights of nature in 2016. The Ponca Nation granted nature the right to exist and established rights to clean air, water, and freedom from pollution in 2017. The White Earth Ojibwe acknowledged the rights of wild rice to flourish in 2018. Moreover, the Sauk Tribe sued Seattle with salmon as the plaintiff, resulting in an agreement to provide fish passages in new permits or permit renewals for hydro dams in 2022.

Apart from case studies, the guide includes tools and templates for community engagement, such as sample fliers, surveys, and presentations. The guidebook emphasizes that passing rights-of-nature laws demonstrates Tribal sovereignty. However, it notes that the ability of such policies to support and advance Tribal sovereignty is subject to case law and has yet to be tested in U.S. courts.

Despite this caution, the guidebook highlights that now is the time to protect ancestral homelands for future generations and ensure the passage of Tribal values through Rights of Nature laws. These laws communicate to the world what matters to Indigenous communities.

In conclusion, the Guide to Rights of Nature in Indian Country provides Indigenous communities in the United States with strategies and resources for enacting laws that grant legal rights and personhood to nature. By incorporating the rights of nature into their governance structures, tribal nations aim to protect the environment and preserve their cultural practices. The guidebook presents real-world challenges, case studies, and practical guidance to assist tribes in their efforts to recognize the rights of nature.