Speaking for Those Who Cannot Speak

One of the things that I love about attending a tribal college is the opportunity to explore ideas that might be considered outside the ordinary in a standard academic setting. One of my favorite assignments was to propose a policy for my public policy class and give an accompanying presentation about it to my peers. The topic that I chose was a “declaration of the rights of nature.”

Recognition of the legal rights of nature is an interesting legal theory that’s been around since the 1970s. The landmark paper on this topic, “Should Trees Have Legal Standing?” was written in 1972 by a young legal philosophy professor named Christopher Stone while he was at the University of Southern California. That was an exciting time for environmentalism all around, but it was also an exciting time for Indigenous philosophy. Many Indigenous writers, including Vine Deloria Jr., expressed appreciation for Stone’s work.

Even with this level of acclaim, at first mention of this topic I have found that many people who do not consider themselves environmentalists laugh at the very idea. How can a tree have legal rights? Why should a river have legal standing? Many of us talk about the importance of viewing the rest of the natural world as relatives rather than objects, but the concept of being sued by a lake is just a bit too much. Yet the more that I explore the idea, the more interesting it is.

One frustration of the legal system has always been the need to show damages. That is easy enough to do in some situations, but in times of environmental destruction it can be difficult to prove damages in a strictly anthropocentric sense. Nature does not have the same intrinsic value in the legal system that it does in our values system. You cannot argue that it should be illegal to destroy vital parts of an ecosystem just based on the destruction itself—you have to prove that another human is harmed, physically or financially, in very specific conditions. This is part of the reason why so many environmental issues go unresolved in a satisfactory way—if a tree falls in the woods and no human with a legal interest in that tree is directly harmed, no sound can be made. What would have happened if, for example, the Missouri River had legal rights when the conversation started in Standing Rock? What would happen at Bears Ears? Granting legal rights to “objects” in nature with humans as attorneys could be a way to change the way these problems are approached. It could be a way to fulfill what many of us view as an inherent responsibility to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

There are already some places that have adopted a recognition of the rights of nature as part of their legal system. Ecuador has accomplished this, as has the Ho-Chunk Nation. The more Indigenous and allied legal minds that come up in the world, ready to listen to new and interesting ideas, the more I think those ideas will get their due consideration.

Jasmine Neosh (Menominee) is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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