Manoomin (wild rice) now has legal rights. Both the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the 1855 Treaty Authority have passed laws recognizing the “Rights of Manoomin” and establishing the authority to enforce those rights. The resolutions state that “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.”
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
“Look what’s happened to the sturgeon” said Terry Tibbetts, Chairman of White Earth Band of Ojibwe, “our most important foods have always been fish and wild rice. These are important treaty rights that are essential to protect and require consent and co-management with the State throughout our ceded territories.”
The Rights of Manoomin are modeled after the Rights of Nature, which have just recently begun to gain legal status but are now building momentum internationally. Several communities in the US have adopted Rights of Nature legislation, including the City of Pittsburgh, and both Ecuador and Bolivia have added Rights of Nature clauses to their constitutions. In 2016, as water protectors were being brutalized and arrested in the NoDAPL camps at Standing Rock, the Ho Chunk Nation in Wisconsin became the first US tribe to adopt the Rights of Nature, and in 2017 the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma became the second, in part in order to ban fracking on their lands. Also in 2017, New Zealand granted the Whanganui River the full legal rights of a person, as part of its settlement with the Whanganui Iwi, the Maori tribe that lived there for millenia. Just days later, India granted full legal rights to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.
However, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe’s adoption of the Rights of Manoomin is 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 draft law.
“Manoomin is sacred to the Anishinaabeg, and it is time the law reflects this. Manoomin has given us life for thousands of years. That life and covenant is recognized in our traditional laws, and now in our regulatory system,” said Winona LaDuke, Executive Director of Honor the Earth.
“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,” said 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,” added Bibeau. “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 1855 Treaty Authority is comprised of treaty beneficiary members of the 1855 Treaty between the Chippewa and the US Government. They regulate off-reservation harvesting rights in the ceded territory and protect and oversee the resource management rights and responsibilities of the signatory Chippewa bands and tribal members. The 1855 Treaty Authority hosted the rice harvest direct action at Hole-in-the-Day Lake in August of 2015 that resulted in several citations and almost immediately forced Governor Dayton to pass an Executive Order exempting tribal members from state license requirements for wild rice harvest. They also authorized a one day “FISH-OFF” on Lake Bemidji in May 2018, the day before the Minnesota State fishing opener, to assert our treaty-protected fishing rights.
The Rights of Manoomin ordinances also outline the enforcement of those rights. They declare it illegal for any business or government to violate the rights of manoomin, and declare invalid any permit or 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. They grant powers of enforcement to the White Earth Nation and the 1855 Treaty Authority, and prohibit 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 intervene, if the tribal authorities fail to do so, by taking non-violent direct action to protect the rights of manoomin.
The recognition of legal rights for manoomin is clearly a response by White Earth and the 1855 Treaty Authority to the ongoing onslaught of environmentally destructive industrial projects proposed in and upstream of the ceded territories, including the Line 3 pipeline and the first copper-nickel mines in the region. To make way for this new, ecologically disastrous form of mining, the State of Minnesota has been working for years to rollback environmental protections of manoomin by abolishing the Wild Rice Sulfate Standard (though that effort is on hold after an Administrative Law Judge ruled against it in early 2018). In May 2018, Governor Dayton issued an Executive Order to establish a Wild Rice Task Force to advise on these decisions, but shortly before leaving office, amended it to remove all but two of the tribal seats and give the other 13 to industry, academics, and bureaucrats. In response, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (the federally recognized tribe made up of 6 of the 7 Ojibwe bands in Minnesota) passed a resolution declining the Governor’s offer to participate in the Task Force and instead establishing a separate Tribal Wild Rice Task Force with representatives from all 11 of the state’s Chippewa Bands and Dakota Communities (read that full resolution here).
All this comes as seven lawsuits challenging Line 3 permits make their way through the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the US Army Corps begins the federal permit review process for Line 3, with a public comment period open until January 21st.
After years of intervention in the state’s regulatory process for Line 3 proved unsuccessful, the Ojibwe tribes are taking bolder steps to assert sovereignty and self-determination.