The Rights of Mother Earth

From the May 2012 PNL #814

Lindsay Speer

When Jake Edwards, of the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs, explains the significance of the Two Row Wampum, he always ends with the same point.

“We agreed that we would travel down the river of life together, in peace and friendship, forever, obeying natural law,” he states.

While many Haudenosaunee ideas were adopted by the fledgling United States, natural law was not among them. A growing movement seeks to change this.

Attendees gather for a traditional Pawnee dinner, prepared by Haskell Indian Nations University students. Photo: Lindsay SpeerAttendees gather for a traditional Pawnee dinner, prepared by Haskell Indian Nations University students. Photo: Lindsay SpeerOn April 4-7, “The Rights of Mother Earth” conference was held at the Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. It was sponsored by the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Pachamama Alliance, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, and the Community Environmental Defense Legal Foundation, among others.

Many of these groups have been working for years for the incorporation of the rights of nature (or Mother Earth) into law.

Why Recognize the Rights of Mother Earth?
It’s an old story. People in a community suddenly find that their way of life will change drastically because some big new industry is coming to town. It’s the story of hydrofracking; it’s the story of industrial agriculture; it’s the story of climate change. It’s the story of corporations getting their way over the objections of communities.

The same story occurs for ecosystems. Any ecologist can tell you that we are a part of a complex web of life. Yet our current patterns of development destroy the very web of life upon which we depend. Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons often warns, “Do not challenge the laws of nature. You will not prevail.”

At the heart of the struggle is the inherent right of people and ecosystems to healthy lives vs. the “property rights” codified in US law.

Under the current system, “a few people can control parts of the planet,” noted Ben Price, of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, adding that this concept is not native to our hemisphere. He traced the origins of protecting the privileges of the elite, property “rights,” to a papal bull written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493.

In 1977, the Haudenosaunee delegation to the UN wrote, “The European legal systems had, and apparently have developed, no machinery to recognize the rights of peoples, other than dictators or sovereigns, to land.”

They pointed out that this carried over to the Americas with colonization: “[Modern multinational corporations] obtain a charter, or some form of sanction from a Western government, and they send what amounts to a colonizing force into the area.”

If you’ve been thinking that the land grab by the gas industry and their landmen seems reminiscent of “what happened to the Native Americans” (as I’ve heard some say), you are in fact, correct.

US environmental law accepts this framework of property rights and dominion. Many establish systems of permitting environmental harm. States grant permits for corporations to pollute, so long as they’ve done the right paperwork. Many laws are written by the “regulated” industries themselves, particularly since the Citizens United case gave corporations unparalleled access to US lawmakers.

Our ship sailed off our side of the Two Row long ago. Would incorporating the rights of Mother Earth into local, state, and federal laws steer it back?

Indigenous Perspectives
On the first day of the conference, we split into groups to discuss our thoughts. The report-back from the indigenous groups conveyed skepticism and concern, but also agreement.

“‘Rights’ is a very European idea,” one elder explained, “we talk about responsibilities.”

A consensus existed that Indigenous peoples already have the rights of Mother Earth in their traditional laws.

“What would this look like in practice?” another group asked. “Could this be used against native peoples and their traditional practices by environmentalists?”

There was an equally strong consensus that the Western legal system is broken and needs to be fixed if humanity is to survive.

“We have to challenge this model that depends on the commidification of nature and human domination,” explained Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Steve Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape scholar on the Doctrine of Discovery, questioned whether it was worthwhile to adopt such laws within the US justice system. “If we can’t address the framework of domination, we haven’t done much,” he said, and advocated instead for recognition of Indigenous laws by the US.

The issue is complicated for one short article and deserves more thought and discussion. Could developing such laws locally be a way to enact the vision for healing between peoples and the earth as laid out in the opening of the Onondaga Nation’s Land Rights Action?

Many conference participants will travel to Rio de Janeiro in June, for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development—or “Rio+20,” referring to the Earth Summit in 1992. They all expressed concern that Rio+20 is shaping up to be less an earth summit and more about perpetuating the commodification of nature under the guise of a “green economy.” They go with the intention of shifting that paradigm.

“Indigenous peoples will unite at Rio+20 to oppose the use of the ‘green economy’ and its oppression of indigenous peoples,” explained Marlon Santi, [former] President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. “This is the time for the condor and the eagle to unite.”

 There is a goal to get over one million signatures in support of the Rights of Mother Earth prior to Rio+20. Add your name at

Video of this event is available at

Click here to see a timeline of the Rights of Mother Earth.


Lindsay is active with NOON and works as an organizer on environmental issues for the Onondaga Nation.