The Rights of Wild Rice

Winona LaDuke February 21, 2019

A ricer harvests manoomin (wild rice) on Big Rice Lake on the White Earth Reservation.

Manoomin (wild rice) now has legal rights. 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.” White Earth, the largest Ojib­we tribe in Min­neso­ta, relies on wild rice for sus­te­nance, not only mon­e­tar­i­ly, but as food for the spir­its.” This new White Earth law is sim­i­lar to one adopt­ed by the 1855 Treaty Alliance, and reflects tra­di­tion­al laws of Anishi­naabe people.

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.” manoomin

The Rights of Manoomin are mod­eled after the Rights of Nature, rec­og­nized in courts and adopt­ed inter­na­tion­al­ly for the last decade. In 2008, Ecuador became the first coun­try in the world to adopt Rights of Nature arti­cles into its nation­al con­sti­tu­tion. Soon after, Bolivia passed the 2010 Law of Moth­er Earth.” This phe­nom­e­non is not exclu­sive to Latin Amer­i­ca; in 2016, the Ho Chunk Nation in Wis­con­sin became the first U.S. tribe to adopt the Rights of Nature, and in 2017 the Pon­ca Nation in Okla­homa became the sec­ond.

Ricer Veron­i­ca Ski­n­away of the Sandy Lake Ojibwe

Rights of Nature arti­cles have con­tin­ued to spread. In 2017, New Zealand (known as Aotearoa” in the Maori lan­guage) grant­ed the Whanganui Riv­er, the third largest riv­er in the coun­try, the full legal rights of a per­son as part of its set­tle­ment with the Whanganui Iwi, the Maori peo­ple. India also recent­ly grant­ed full legal rights to the Ganges and Yamu­na rivers, and rec­og­nized that the Himalayan Glac­i­ers have a right to exist. This inter­na­tion­al work is intend­ed to bring jurispru­dence into accor­dance with eco­log­i­cal laws of the nat­ur­al world by address­ing the inad­e­quate pro­tec­tion of nat­ur­al ecosys­tems under cur­rent legal sys­tems. 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.”

The Rights of Manoomin, which reaf­firm the Anishi­naabe rela­tion­ship and respon­si­bil­i­ty to the plant, are 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,” says Mari Margil, asso­ciate direc­tor of the Com­mu­ni­ty Envi­ron­men­tal Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). 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 reaf­firm the Anishi­naabe rela­tion­ship and respon­si­bil­i­ty to the plant, and 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,” says 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 adds, 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 also pro­vide for enforce­ment. The law declares it ille­gal for any busi­ness or gov­ern­ment to vio­late the Rights of Manoomin, and inval­i­dates any per­mit, 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 to the 1855 Treaty Author­i­ty, and it 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 take non-vio­lent direct action to pro­tect the rights of Manoomin in the event that the trib­al author­i­ties fail to do so.

Since the 1855 treaty was signed 165 years ago, state and fed­er­al mis­man­age­ment has caused sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to Anishi­naabe wild rice, waters, maple trees, and prairies. Over 70% of the orig­i­nal wild rice ter­ri­to­ry is now dam­aged, with more cur­rent­ly being threat­ened by recent pro­pos­als to change sul­fate stan­dards to accom­mo­date new min­ing and pipeline projects. Ulti­mate­ly, these actions threat­en the very exis­tence of wild rice. At the turn of this past cen­tu­ry, the Anishi­naabe suc­cess­ful­ly bat­tled against Uni­ver­si­ty pro­pos­als to genet­i­cal­ly engi­neer wild rice, argu­ing that not only did the treaties pro­vide for wild rice – not rice deliv­ered in a sack by the gov­ern­ment, as then Min­neso­ta Chippe­wa Trib­al Pres­i­dent Nor­man Descampe would argue – but also for wild rice har­vest­ed from lakes of the Anishi­naabe. In U.S. case law, cor­po­ra­tions are pro­tect­ed legal­ly because they are con­sid­ered nat­ur­al per­sons by law. In the mean­time, much of the com­mons” or nat­ur­al world includ­ing water, sacred places, and sacred land­scapes have not been pro­tect­ed. The Rights of Manoon­im begin to address this inequal­i­ty, and chal­lenge 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.

Winona LaDuke is Anishi­naabe, a writer, an econ­o­mist and a hemp farmer, work­ing on a book about the Eighth Fire and the Green New Deal. She is ready for the Green Path, and would pre­fer not to spend her gold­en years clean­ing up the mess­es of enti­tled white men.LaDuke lives and works on the White Earth reser­va­tion in north­ern Min­neso­ta, where she found­ed the White Earth Land Recov­ery Project. She is pro­gram direc­tor of Hon­or the Earth and a two-time vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with Ralph Nad­er on the Green Par­ty ticket.
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