Rights of Nature: Giving Voice to the More-Than-Human

August 10, 2021

By Chelsea Fairbank and Barbara With

On June 4, the Minnesota DNR unilaterally granted the controversial Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline project a Water Appropriation Permit Amendment, increasing the initially permitted volume of water ten-fold, from 510.5 million gallons to 4.98 billion gallons.

On August 4, Tribal Court of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe filed an action in Minnesota by Manoomin (wild rice), the White Earth Band, and several tribal members to stop the State from allowing Enbridge access to these public waters. Plaintiffs assert that the diversion of five billion gallons of water for an oil pipeline will interfere with both the rights of Manoomin, as well as the rights of tribal members to use Treaty lands to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice. This is the first case brought in a Tribal court to enforce the rights of nature, and the first rights of nature case brought to enforce Treaty guarantees.

Wild rice beds on the Crow Wing river a few hundred feet downstream from the Enbridge Line 3 crossing. Photo by Rebecca Kemble

In December 2018, White Earth adopted a “rights of Manoomin” tribal law, recognizing wild rice as having the rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation. This law also enforces the rights held by the Tribe and tribal members recognized in the 1825, 1837, 1854, and 1855 Treaties. These Treaties guarantee the rights of the Tribe to gather wild rice and other aquatic plants from public waters on Treaty lands. This is the first time in contemporary history that a plant has been recognized as a rights-bearing entity.

Drought conditions affecting the region show no signs of letting up. Surface waters are at record lows. River and lake levels are fluctuating during the most critical growth time for wild rice. Manoomin is the Chippewa’s primary treaty-reserved food, along with fish and maple trees, all dependent on an abundance of high-quantity water resources.

Gone is the time of thinking about justice as only human-based. As we face global environmental changes, including a crescendo of climate crises accelerated by emergent oil and gas projects like Line 3, working for a multi-species justice based on our interdependence with nature may be our only hope.

Blackfoot scholar Dr. Leroy Little Bear reminds us that we live in a narrow range of existence. How do we acknowledge our interdependence with these ecosystems—defined here as “more-than-humans”—that support all life? One way is through a rights-based framework.

Across the world, Indigenous nations, states, and local municipalities have utilized jurisprudence to pass ordinances and laws that protect the inherent rights of water, entire ecosystems, grasslands, forests, and even glaciers. These Rights of Nature change the dominant narrative that considers anything non-human to be property and resources of the rights-bearing humans, and conveys a greater understanding of our interdependence with nature as the web that our species exists within.

The Anishinaabe’s practice of ricing across their territories for 10,000-plus years, as Winona LaDuke often reminds us, is a model of a sustainable economy. They consider Manoomin a sentinel species. Not only their primary food, Manoomin alerts them to imbalances within the ecosystem; it filters water and supports conditions to maintain their other relations, like Nmé (sturgeon). Water and Manoomin are viewed as relatives, and these interdependencies are considered acts of friendship that the Anishinaabe literally cannot live without.

White Earth Tribal members Frank Bibeau and his father ricing. Photo: Frank Bibeau

A rights-based framework demonstrates how our economy is a sub-set of the ecological world, and that a healthy economy can only exist within the limitations of that ecological world. Often these non-human communities who support our existence are eclipsed by energy corporation propaganda, claiming it’s their “energy”—tar sands—that provides for and sustains our lives. What a dangerous mirage. While living without oil would require a necessary shift to green energy and economy, humans can only survive for two or three days without water.

Beyond this distortion, we must remember our responsibilities as humans to protect the more-than-human communities which sustain our “narrow conditions of existence.” Without nature, we simply cannot and will not continue to exist. In establishing the rights of nature for our more-than-human relatives, we engage in reciprocal acts of friendship that are needed to protect the networks of non-humans that support all human life.

This is not a poetic, romantic gaze. All of us, as treaty people, literally need to center our more-than-human constituents as political agents in their own right while acknowledging the impacts of on-going settler colonialism, what Candace Fujikane calls the “developer tactics to wasteland the earth.” Our non-human allies continue to be harmed by this predatory extractivism. Rights of nature reinstate more-than-human autonomy and prevent wastelanding, which is always disproportionately adjacent to Indigenous, black, people of color, and low-income communities.

Signage: Chelsea Fairbank. Photo: Rebecca Kemble

Now the Manoomin and the fresh waters which have supported Anishinaabe sustainable agro-economy for more than 10,000 years are at risk. These things are indivisible. The Anishinaabe must remain diligent in refusing the wastewatering of the Manoomin’s territories in order to survive.  

Currently U.S. environmental laws focus on pollution control, and are unequipped to respond to the immediate challenges of our shared climate crises. Colonial and capitalist ideologies that narrate land as a commodity and non-humans as resources for their profits have swept across these last centuries, producing genocide, ecocide, and racial and economic injustices. We are seeing glimpses of what environmental philosopher Danielle Celermajer terms ‘omnicide’ – the destruction of all life. The most dangerous omission we can make is to take these historical realities and adept warnings as hyperbole.

Minnesota has witnessed an unfolding of environmental changes this summer, from the bright greens of late Spring, to the crescendo of a drought whose severity has not been seen in 30 years, to walking through our days cloaked in wildfire smoke as great portions of the northern continent burn. Throughout this arc of a season, not taking water for granted is a profound lesson not to be missed. Now protecting more-than-human communities is simply an imperative for continued existence of not only life, but all of the intermeshing factors which enrich all existence upon this earth.

Chelsea Fairbank is researcher, adjunct lecturer, and PhD candidate out of the University of Maine with a focus on environmental anthropology.­ Shown here at the Shell City Water Protector Camp with her water maps. Photo: Rebecca Kemble
“For that last five years, I’ve been studying how the tar sands pipeline and the pipelines that extend out from the tar sands intersect with and cross Treaty lands and First Nation or native territories. I look at the more-than-human relations in those regions that are impacted by emergent oil and gas pipeline infrastructure, which are also the nexus of climatic changes. I had been focused on Keystone KL, and luckily that was defeated. Line 3 intersects with all the same pressing issues: tribal sovereignty, indigenous environmental governance, climate change, and the more-than-human political agents like Manoomin, the waterways, and the rivers. At the center of my concerns are ecological, environmental, and social justice.
“When Line 3 was green-lighted, I shifted my research focus to northern Minnesota and began reaching out to activists and concerned community groups who were working to interrupt the construction of Line 3. I moved to Duluth to do just that.”


  1. Little Bear, L. (2016). Big thinking and rethinking: Blackfoot metaphysics. Waiting in the wings. Lecture at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Calgary. Access date: Feb., 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_txPA8CiA4
  2. Celermajer, D, Chatterjee, S, Cochrane, A, Fishel, S, Neimanis, A, O’brien, A, Reid, S, Srinivasan, K, Schlosberg, D & Waldow, A 2020, ‘Justice Through a Multispecies Lens’, Contemporary Political Theory.
  3. Institute for Social Justice. Podcast. Giving Voice to the Non-Human. Access: https://anchor.fm/isj/episodes/Giving-Voice-to-the-Non-Human-e157itg/a-a68ajpt?fbclid=IwAR1-ORnFdl-7F88R1RrWys_GxEBwJUTzII_ylLbrvyUMHIgtWpAGmSGFNfQ
  4. Todd, Z. Commentary: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism, Part I – Engagement. Anthropology and Environmental Society Engagement Blog. https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/commentary-the-environmentalanthropology-of-settler-colonialism-part-i/


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