Rivers, Rights, and the Case for Wolves

October 9, 2017

Today is Indigenous People’s Day.

Raw Story:

The environmental group Deep Green Resistance recently filed a first-of-its-kind legal suit against the state of Colorado asking for personhood rights for the Colorado River.

If successful, it would mean lawsuits can brought on behalf of the river for any harm done to it, as if it were a person.

In the past, several environmental groups in India, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and New Zealand have successfully sought protection for rivers and landscapes based on this argument. As a Native American scholar of environment and religion, I seek to understand the relationship between people and the natural world.

Native Americans view nature through their belief systems. A river or water does not only sustain life – it is sacred.

Why is water sacred to Native Americans?

In the past year, the Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” became a new national protest anthem.

It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. this spring, and during protests last year as the anthem of the struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.

There was a reason: For long years, the Lakota, the Blackfeet and the other Native American tribes understood how to live with nature. And it was based on the knowledge of how to live within the restrictions of the limited water supply of the “Great American desert” of North America.

Native Americans learned both through observation and experiment, arguably a process quite similar to what we might call science today. They also learned from their religious ideas, passed on from generation to generation in the form of stories.


I learned from my grandparents, both members of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, about the sacredness of water. They shared that the Blackfeet believed in three separate realms of existence – the Earth, sky and water. The Blackfeet believed that humans, or “Niitsitapi,” and Earth beings, or “Ksahkomitapi,” lived in one realm; sky beings, or “Spomitapi,” lived in another realm; and underwater beings, or “Soyiitapi,” lived in yet another. The Blackfeet viewed all three worlds as sacred because within them lived the divine.

The water world, in particular, was held in special regard. The Blackfeet believed that in addition to the divine beings, about which they learned from their stories, there were divine animals. The divine beaver, who could talk to humans, taught the Blackfeet their most important religious ceremony. The Blackfeet needed this ceremony to reaffirm their relationships with the three separate realms of reality.

The Soyiitapi, divine water beings, also instructed the Blackfeet to protect their home, the water world. The Blackfeet could not kill or eat anything living in water; they also could not disturb or pollute water.

The Blackfeet viewed water as a distinct place – a sacred place. It was the home of divine beings and divine animals who taught the Blackfeet religious rituals and moral restrictions on human behavior. It can, in fact, be compared to Mount Sinai of the Old Testament, which was viewed as “holy ground” and where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

Water as life

Native American tribes on the Great Plains knew something else about the relationship between themselves, the beaver and water. They learned through observation that beavers helped create an ecological oasis within a dry and arid landscape.


As Canadian anthropologist R. Grace Morgan hypothesized in her dissertation “Beaver Ecology/Beaver Mythology,” the Blackfeet sanctified the beaver because they understood the natural science and ecology of beaver behavior.

Morgan believed that the Blackfeet did not harm the beaver because beavers built dams on creeks and rivers. Such dams could produce enough of a diversion to create a pond of fresh clean water that allowed an oasis of plant life to grow and wildlife to flourish.

Beaver ponds provided the Blackfeet with water for daily life. The ponds also attracted animals, which meant the Blackfeet did not have to travel long distances to hunt. The Blackfeet did not need to travel for plants used for medicine or food, either.

Beavers were part of what ecologists call a trophic cascade, or a reciprocal relationship. Beaver ponds were a win-win for all concerned in “the Great American desert” that modern ecologists and conservationists are beginning to study only now.



11 Responses to “Rivers, Rights, and the Case for Wolves”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Yep, those Native Americans were on to something, and they figured it out a long time ago. Air (oxygen), water, and food—the three necessities for most forms of life on Earth (along with an environment that isn’t too cold or especially—-too warm)—-and they need to be protected and respected.

    Modern man (particularly the greedy white capitalist ones who view the natural world as something to be exploited and converted into personal wealth) don’t seem to understand the science behind what may appear to be simply the Native American’s religion and mysticism.

    (And I wonder if it could be said that the NA practiced as a matter of fact centuries ago what we had to invent the EPA, BLM, FDA, and all those other “regulatory” agencies for)

  2. Bob Doublin Says:

    Peter, thank you very much for sharing this on your page. I am a long time member of DGR and I am very excited about this lawsuit. I think it is one of our best actions and has a lot of potential to be a real game changer in trying to protect our living communities. The lawyer involved, Jason Flores-Williams , is a real bundle of energy who understands fully the approach necessary for successfully arguing his case in the American justice system. Below are links to transcripts of a two part interview he did on Derrick Jensen’s radio program a little over a month ago. He clearly sets forth what is involved and what he needs to do to be heard. Hopefully, this will succeed or at least pave the way for other attempts by getting a foot in the door.
    I haven’t had the chance yet to listen to it,but yesterday there was an interview with Thomas Linzey of CELDF, the organization that helped get the personhood of nature laws passed in other countries. Linzey is a great speaker,so even if the subject isn’t this lawsuit he is well worth listening to. The interview should be up soon on Jensen’s You Tube page if anyone is interested.
    Again Peter,thank you for posting this article.



  3. webej Says:

    In our society we confer personhood on corporations (literally bodies). Corporate personhood is even better than “natural” personhood, bringing mostly rights and advantages with a lot fewer countervailing obligations.

  4. Bob Doublin Says:


    For anyone in the Denver area, or who might like to attend,the first hearing for this case is scheduled for Nov 10. There is also a facebbok page for it. Thanks.

  5. Bob Doublin Says:

    PRN missed the Linzey interview on Jensen’s program on the 8th,but aired it on the 15th. And it is on the lawsuit. Thomas Linzey is an excellent source on the legal ins and outs of all of this. And early on in the interview he discusses important differences between corporations and persons. Great interview as always with Linzey. I heard him speak at the 2014 Earth at Risk conference in San Francisco. And he is a frequent guest on Resistance Radio.

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