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← Why lakes and rivers should have the same rights as humans

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Showing Revision 8 created 12/13/2019 by Erin Gregory.

  1. Aquay Wunne Kesuk.
    Kelsey Leonard Nooweesuonk.
  2. Hello, good day, everyone.
  3. I'm from the Shinnecock Nation.
  4. Tabutni to the Cahuilla peoples,
  5. whose land we gather on today.
  6. I was taught that water is alive.

  7. It can hear,
  8. it holds memories.
  9. And so I brought a water vessel
    up with me today,
  10. because I want it to hold the memories
    of our conversation today.
  11. Who gets legal rights?

  12. History has shown us
    some people but not others.
  13. In the United States,
    Indigenous peoples like myself
  14. were not citizens
    under the law until 1924.
  15. My Shinnecock ancestors, pictured here,
  16. were not citizens under the law.
  17. Then why do we claim to be nations
    governed by the rule of law
  18. if some people are protected,
    but not others?
  19. Because it remains one
    of the best ways to fight injustice.
  20. And, as Indigenous people,
    we know injustice.
  21. A dear friend, mentor, water walker,

  22. Nokomis, Grandmother
    Josephine Mandamin-ba,
  23. she told me of a prophecy
    that comes from her people,
  24. the Anishinaabe of the Midewiwin Society.
  25. And in that prophecy,
  26. she told me that it tells
    of a day that will come
  27. where an ounce of water
    costs more than an ounce of gold.
  28. When she told me that prophecy,
    I sat for a moment,
  29. and I thought about all of the injustices
    we see in our world today,
  30. the water crises we see
    in our world today,
  31. and I said, "Nokomis, Grandmother,
  32. I feel like we are already
    in that time of prophecy."
  33. And she looked back at me directly,
  34. and she said,
  35. "So what are you going to do about it?"
  36. That's why I'm here with you today,
  37. because I believe
    that one of the many solutions
  38. to solving the many water injustices
    we see in our world today
  39. is recognizing that water
    is a living relation
  40. and granting it the legal
    personhood it deserves.
  41. So to do so, we need to transform
    the way in which we value water.

  42. We have to start to think
    about how do we connect to water.
  43. Usually, someone might ask you,
  44. "What is water?"
  45. and you would respond
    with "Rain, ocean, lake, river,
  46. H20, liquid."
  47. You might even understand
    the sacred essentiality of water
  48. and say that water is life.
  49. But what if I asked you, instead,
  50. "Who is water?"
  51. In the same way that I might ask you,
    "Who is your grandmother?"
  52. "Who is your sister?"
  53. That type of orientation
  54. fundamentally transforms the way
    in which we think about water,
  55. transforms the way
    in which we make decisions
  56. about how we might protect water,
  57. protect it in the way that you
    would protect your grandmother,
  58. your mother, your sister, your aunties.
  59. That is the type of transformation
  60. that we need if we are going to address
    the many water crises we see
  61. in our world today,
  62. these harrowing water crises
  63. that have streamed
    across our digital devices
  64. in countdowns to Day Zero,
  65. the point at which municipal
    water supplies are shut off.
  66. Places like Cape Town, South Africa,

  67. where in 2018,
  68. residents were limited
    to two-minute showers
  69. and 23 gallons of water
    per day per person,
  70. or just this past summer,
    where the mismanagement of water
  71. led the streets of Chennai
  72. to be lined with thousands
    of plastic water jugs
  73. as residents waited hours
    for water tankers
  74. to deliver water,
    first by rail, then by truck,
  75. to meet their daily needs.
  76. Or even here in the United States,
  77. one of the most developed
    nations in the world.
  78. Today, Flint, Michigan
    still does not have clean water.
  79. But you are likely unfamiliar
    with these water crises,

  80. such as Neskantaga First Nation
    in Northern Ontario, Canada,
  81. where residents have been
    on a boil water advisory since 1995.
  82. Or Grassy Narrows First Nation,
  83. which for decades has been dealing
    with water contamination
  84. from the paper mill industry
  85. and where a recent study found
  86. that nearly 90 percent
    of the Indigenous population
  87. has some form of mercury poisoning,
  88. causing severe health complications.
  89. Or even among the Navajo Nation.
  90. Pictured here is the Animas River
    on an early morning in 2015,

  91. prior to the Gold King Mine spill.
  92. After the spill leaked millions
    of hazardous mine waste
  93. into the river system,
  94. this was it later that day.
  95. Today, the Navajo Nation
    and the Diné People
  96. and the river itself are still
    trying to recover from contamination.
  97. Or even right here
    in Palm Springs, California,
  98. where the Agua Caliente Band
    of Cahuilla Indians
  99. has been fighting for decades
    to protect groundwater from exploitation
  100. so that future generations
  101. can not only live but thrive
    in their homelands,
  102. as they have since time immemorial.
  103. You see, a recent study
    by DIGDEEP and the US Water Alliance

  104. found that race, in the United States,
  105. is the strongest predictor
    of water and sanitation access,
  106. and that for us,
  107. as Native American people,
  108. we are the group most likely
    to have access issues
  109. as it comes to water and sanitation.
  110. So, as an Indigenous
    legal scholar and scientist,
  111. I believe that many
    of these water injustices
  112. are the result of the Western
    legal system's failure to recognize
  113. the legal personhood of water.
  114. And so we must ask ourselves --

  115. who is justice for?
  116. Humanity alone?
  117. We've granted legal personhood
    to corporations.
  118. In the US, the Supreme Court
    found in "Citizens United"
  119. that a corporation was a person
  120. with similar protections
    under the Constitution,
  121. such as freedom of speech,
  122. and applied similar reasoning
    in "Hobby Lobby,"
  123. finding that a corporation
    had the right to freedom of religion
  124. in defense against the implementation
    of the Affordable Care Act
  125. for its employees.
  126. Now, these are controversial cases,

  127. and as a Shinnecock woman
    and a legal scholar,
  128. they make me question
    the moral compass of the Western world,
  129. where you can grant legal
    personhood to a corporation
  130. but not nature.
  131. You see, legal personhood
    grants us the ability
  132. to be visible in a court of law,
  133. and to have our voices heard
    as a person protected under the law.
  134. And so if you can grant that
    to a corporation,
  135. why not the Great Lakes?
  136. Why not the Mississippi River?
  137. Why not the many waterways
    across our planet
  138. that we all depend on to survive?
  139. We know we are in a global climate crisis,

  140. but globally, our waters
    are also threatened,
  141. and we are facing a global water crisis,
  142. and if we want to address
    these crises in our lifetime,
  143. we need to change.
  144. We need to fundamentally transform
    the way in which we value water.
  145. And this is not something new
    for us as Indigenous peoples.
  146. Our Indigenous legal systems
    have a foundational principle
  147. of understanding our nonhuman relations
  148. as being living and protected
    under our laws.
  149. And even for the Western world,
  150. environmental legal theorists
  151. have argued for the rights of nature
    since the 1970s.
  152. But we need to do better.
  153. We need to change.
  154. And we need to grant
    legal personhood to water,
  155. because it affords the following
    rights and protections.
  156. It grants water the right to exist,
  157. flourish, and naturally evolve,
  158. and most of all,
    it protects the water from us,
  159. from human beings that would do it harm,
  160. from human-caused climate-change impacts,
  161. from pollutants,
  162. and from man-made contamination.
  163. Moreover, it reverses
    the accepted hierarchy
  164. of humanity's domination over nature.
  165. As human beings on this planet,
  166. we are not superior
    to other beings on this planet.
  167. We are not superior to the water itself.
  168. We have to learn
    how to be good stewards again.
  169. We often imagine that the world
    is filled with infinite water.

  170. In fact, it's not.
  171. This planet, Ohke, Mother Earth,
  172. has very finite freshwater resources.
  173. Currently, nearly two billion people
  174. live in countries experiencing
    high water stress.
  175. It is also estimated that by 2030,
  176. up to 700 million people
    could be displaced, worldwide,
  177. due to water scarcity.
  178. We have to address this crisis.

  179. And so it's time for us to change.
  180. We have to transform
    the way in which we value water.
  181. And we can do that.
  182. We can learn to be good stewards again.
  183. We can create laws through which
    we grant legal personhood to water.
  184. We can start to honor
    the original treaties
  185. between Indigenous peoples
    and non-Indigenous peoples
  186. for water protection.
  187. We can appoint guardians for the water
  188. that ensure the water's rights
    are always protected.
  189. We can also develop
    water-quality standards
  190. that have a holistic approach,
  191. that ensure the well-being of the water
    before our human needs.
  192. And moreover, we can work to dismantle
    exclusive property ownership over water.
  193. And there are amazing successful examples
    of this around the world.

  194. The Whanganui River in Aotearoa,
    in New Zealand,
  195. and the Ganges River in India
  196. were both granted
    legal personhood in 2017.
  197. And even this year,
  198. the residents of the city of Toledo
  199. recognized the legal
    personality of Lake Erie.
  200. And right here in California,
  201. the Yurok Tribe granted legal personhood
    to the Klamath River.
  202. You see, I imagine a world
    where we value water

  203. as a living relation,
  204. where we work to restore
    our connection to water.
  205. As women, we are water carriers.
  206. We nurture water
    in our wombs for nine months.
  207. It's the first medicine
    that each of us as human beings
  208. is exposed to.
  209. See, we are all born as human beings
    with a natal connection to water,
  210. but somewhere along the way,
    we lost that connection,
  211. and we have to work to restore it.
  212. Because I imagine a world
  213. in which water is healthy
    and ecosystems are thriving.
  214. I imagine a world
  215. where each of us takes up
    our right of responsibility
  216. as water citizens
  217. and protects water.
  218. So, in the words of Nokomis,

  219. what are you going to do about it?
  220. What are you going to do for the water?
  221. Well, you can call your local politician.
  222. You can go to a town meeting.
  223. You can advocate for granting
    legal personhood to water.
  224. You can be like the residents
    of the city of Toledo
  225. and build from the grass roots,
  226. and craft your own legislation
    if the politicians won't write it,
  227. recognizing legal personality of water.
  228. You can learn about the Indigenous lands
    and waters that you now occupy
  229. and the Indigenous legal systems
    that still govern them.
  230. And most of all, you can connect to water.
  231. You can restore that connection.
  232. Go to the water closest to your home,
  233. and find out why it is threatened.
  234. But most of all, if you do anything,
  235. I ask that you make a promise to yourself,
  236. that each day, you will ask,
  237. "What have I done for the water today?"
  238. If we are able to fulfill that promise,
  239. I believe we can create a bold
    and brilliant world
  240. where future generations are able to form
  241. the same relationship to water
    that we have been privileged to have,
  242. where all communities
    of human and nonhuman relations
  243. have water to live,
  244. because water is life.
  245. Tabutni. Thank you.

  246. (Applause)