For Indigenous Peoples, their relationships to the lands, waters, and natural world shape their responsibilities, governance, and self-determining authority.
Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel
Osiyo nigada. Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel dagwado’a. Tsalagi ayetli agwenasv’i. Echota galsgisgo’i. Jean agitsi nole Gary agidoda. Dagwaltina’i Westville, Ogalahoma nole Huntington Beach, California aneha. Agwetsi ageyutsa Leila Victoria otseha. Nigohilv tsigesvi anehe’i Ani Lekwungen nole Ani W̱SÁNEĆ ahani tsitsinela’i nogwu.
Hello. My name is Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a member of the Echota ceremonial grounds in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. My parents, Jean and Gary, live in California. I live with my family on the unceded territories of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ nations and peoples, whose relationships with these lands and waters shape their political thought, governance, and self-determining authority that should inform how we all relate to this place.
As I share this critical self-location, I pose two interrelated questions to promote accountability as a visitor to Salish lands and waters: How will the lands, waters, and communities benefit from my time here? And how do we go beyond land acknowledgments to take actions that make space for Indigenous resurgence?
A few summers ago, my daughter and I were visiting our homelands in the Cherokee Nation (Tahlequah, Oklahoma, so-called United States). As we were driving along the highway, we noticed that there was a ᏌᎵᎫᎩ (saligugi or snapping turtle) in the middle of the road. After taking my foot off the accelerator, I asked my daughter whether we should stop and help that ᏌᎵᎫᎩ out. She immediately said yes, so we pulled over and slowly approached the ᏌᎵᎫᎩ, who eyed us suspiciously. We both assured the ᏌᎵᎫᎩ that we were going to help get her out of harm’s way. I then showed my daughter how to pick up the ᏌᎵᎫᎩ from the back of the shell, as they have very powerful jaws! My daughter proudly held ᏌᎵᎫᎩ and helped her safely into the creek on the other side of the road.
Seemingly, that’s the end of the story. So why share a story that appears to have little to do with rights or even with Indigenous nationhood? I would contend that there is a lot more going on in this story than might first be perceived. The ᏌᎵᎫᎩ story actually teaches us about relationships and ways of protecting and honoring more-than-human kin. Most importantly, it teaches us about responsibility.
‘Everyday acts of resurgence’ are often unseen and unacknowledged actions that take place in intimate or familial settings and are integral to community health and well-being.
ᏓᎦᏏ (dagasi or turtle) holds a special place for Cherokees (and for other Indigenous nations). After all, Turtle Island is the name several Indigenous nations use to refer to “North America,” and the name relates to community origin stories about their homelands being formed on the back of a turtle. As late Cherokee Elder Benny Smith used to say, we come from four worlds back, and it was ᏓᎦᏏ that carried us through these worlds, since they travel on both land and water. Additionally, when Cherokee women dance at our stomp grounds, they fasten ᏓᎦᏏ shells to their ankles, and the turtle shells shake and rattle with each step to keep the rhythm of the dance. ᏓᎦᏏ is part of our ceremonies and is celebrated in our communities. By stopping to help ᏌᎵᎫᎩ across the road, we were practicing respectful relations with our kin as part of the ᏓᎦᏏ nation. This is also an example of “everyday acts of resurgence,” which are often unseen and unacknowledged actions that take place in intimate or familial settings and are integral to community health and well-being.
As Indigenous Peoples, relationships to the lands, waters, and natural world shape our responsibilities, governance, and self-determining authority, and these responsibilities extend beyond the scope of the contemporary rights discourse. For example, ᎠᏆᏚᏓᎳ (agwadudala) means “I am accountable,” while ᎢᎦᏚᏓᎳ (igadudala) means “all of us are accountable.” From a Cherokee language perspective, accountability is what drives our responsibilities and ultimately lays the groundwork for rights. To understand the linkages between inherent rights and responsibilities, it is important to contextualize Indigenous nationhood as being embedded within living land-based knowledge systems as well as sacred histories, ceremonies, stories, languages, and other community-centered forms of governance. Sharing stories, like the one above, helps us identify the everyday ways in which we embody and activate these values, principles, and responsibilities, making them intimate expressions of resurgence.
Accountability is what drives our responsibilities and ultimately lays the groundwork for rights.
There is currently a global movement to extend legal personhood and “rights of nature” to living entities such as rivers and mountains. The idea of rights of nature has its origins in a 1972 article written by Christopher Stone, who examined the question “Should Trees Have Standing?” Since that time, several communities and countries have mobilized to create a rights of nature movement. For example, in 2008 Ecuador was the first country to recognize the rights of nature in its constitution. A 2016 constitutional court case in Colombia examined the rights of the Atrato River as well as those of the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities who had relationships to the river. The Colombian court also extended rights to plants or animals living in and along the river “also in connection with the other living organisms with whom the planet is shared, understood as entities deserving of protection in and of themselves.” In 2017, Aotearoa (New Zealand) responded to the needs of the Māori peoples and granted legal personhood status to the Whanganui River. In Canada, the Innu of Ekuanitshit in Québec, along with environmental groups, initiated the first effort to affirm the rights of nature. That led to the Muteshekau Shipu (literally, “the river where water flows between square rocky cliffs,” aka Magpie River) attaining legal personhood in 2021.
Applying legal personhood to mountains and rivers runs the risk of compartmentalizing and prioritizing complex relationships.
As these examples illustrate, the rights of nature movement has gained traction in several countries and among several Indigenous nations, extending new legal protections to animals, plants, rivers, mountains, and other more-than-human relationships. The rights of nature discourse, however, can only take us so far in protecting these critical relationships. Applying legal personhood to mountains and rivers runs the risk of compartmentalizing and prioritizing complex relationships, where one aspect of the natural world, such as a river, is emphasized over other more-than-human relationships. Additionally, is a legal personhood approach imposing narrow human standards on more-than-human relations, such as plant and animal nations? Ultimately, Indigenous responsibilities and resulting actions are what uphold these enduring, intimate relationships.
To illustrate this point, I will share a Cherokee story called “How Medicine Came to the People,” which has been told in many different ways. This version is told by the late Bob Thomas under the pseudonym of G. P. Horsefly (from G. P. Horsefly, A History of the True People: The Cherokee Indians, 1979, Detroit: An Oral History Publication, which can be freely shared as part of Cherokee living history).
The way the Cherokees received help from the plants is another sacred story. I will just tell it briefly for you . . . They say that the animals were getting put out with the Cherokees because, by that time, Cherokees had invented bows and arrows and they were killing off a lot of the game. In those days animals could talk just like human beings so each animal held a council to consider what to do. The bears had a council and they said, “They Cherokees are killing too many of us bears so we are going to have to do something to stop them.” One of them said, “Why don’t we make a bow and arrow like the Cherokees and fight them back?” Then another said, “How are we going to do that?” One bear spoke up and said, “I will sacrifice myself so you can make a bowstring out of my innards.” So the bears made a bow, but when they tried to shoot the bow, they couldn’t do it because they had such long claws. One bear cut off his claws and he could shoot the bow alright. The chief of the bears spoke up and said, “Wait a minute, we can’t go around killing ourselves to get bowstrings or cutting off our claws. We will starve to death. We need our claws for digging.” He said, “That’s not going to work. Maybe we ought to get all the animals together to decide what to do.” All the animals got together and they decided that the best thing to do was for them to call disease, different illnesses, to the Indians. That would kind of thin them down a little bit. So the deer spoke up and said, “I will give them rheumatism.” Then each animal spoke up and said what particular disease it would inflict on the Cherokees. Then the animals adjourned their joint council with that course of action in mind.
Now the plants heard about what the animals had decided and since they were always friendly with the Cherokees, they decided that they would help the Cherokees out. The plants decided that for each disease the animals brought to the Cherokees, there would be a plant which would offer itself to cure the disease. That’s what the Cherokees had from the beginning. A doctor can go into the woods and it will come to him what plant to use. Sometimes there won’t be any wind and you will see a plant move, and that will be the plant for you to use to cure that particular disease.
This story gets at several themes around relational responsibilities and even consent. The animal nations were concerned about the lack of respect for their lives and families and decided to punish the Cherokees with disease. In response, the plant nations offered cures for these diseases to help bring the community back to good health. This is a story about accountability and the consequences of forgetting our inherent responsibilities, ᎢᎦᏚᏓᎳ. All of us are accountable for upholding and nurturing the relationships that promote our health and well-being.
While the rights of nature discourse and the resulting policies offer important new legal protections to the natural world, our inherent responsibilities motivate future actions to honor and respect relationships with homelands, waterways, animal nations, plant nations, and other more-than-human relatives. Stories, languages, and sacred living histories shape our connections and guide us in honoring our place-based identities. The rights of nature represent important reminders regarding how integral relationships are to healthy Indigenous futures. However, legal personhood applied to rivers, mountains, and other aspects of the natural world doesn’t fully encompass the scope of our relational accountabilities. When my daughter and I stopped the car to assist ᏌᎵᎫᎩ, the snapping turtle, across the highway, we were not motivated to do so to recognize the rights of the turtle nation; we were acting on our inherent responsibilities to honor our relations. Amidst calls for climate justice, protecting biodiversity, and regenerating planetary health, Indigenous mobilization extends beyond recognizing rights to perpetuating our inherent responsibilities.
Learn more about everyday acts of resurgence.
Watch Cherokee Spoken Here, a short film on the revitalization of the Cherokee language.
Back to Vol. 12 | Like Our Stories? Please Donate!
Acknowledgments: Wado / thank you to Cherokee language speakers Gil Jackson, who is a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Ben Frey, also a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, for their insights about accountability and rights.
Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel, PhD, is a writer, teacher, and father from the Cherokee Nation. He is a professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Victoria and Associate Director of the university’s Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement (CIRCLE).