‘Indigenous people are on the frontlines of movements fighting for a just relationship between humanity and the land.’ Photograph: Helen H Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images
We live in a world dominated by the principle of private property. Once indigenous people were dispossessed of their lands, the land was surveyed, subdivided and sold to the highest bidder. From high above, continents now appear as an endless property patchwork of green and yellow farms, beige suburban homes and metallic gray city blocks stretching from sea to shining sea.
The central logic of this regime is productivity, and indeed it has been monstrously productive. In tandem with the industrial revolution, the fruits of billions of acres of dispossessed and parceled indigenous land across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Ireland and Australia enabled two English-speaking empires – first the British and then the American – to rise to global dominance. The latter remains the most productive economy in the world.
Property also embodies and upholds a set of values and relationships to land. It propagates a utopian vision called the American Dream, wherein hard work, land and a home are platform for boundless opportunity – or at least escape – from capital domination. It separates humanity from all other animals and cements man’s mastery over the natural world and all living things.
While property has transformed the world, its flaws have never been more apparent. Open land on the frontier, if it ever actually existed for the common man’s taking, is long gone. Homeownership no longer provides the economic security it once did, and appears out of reach for younger generations. The richest 1% holds more wealth than the rest of the world combined. At the same time, environmental degradation and climate change proceed at a terrifying pace.
Our capitalist property regime and economic system have succeeded at producing remarkable surplus. But the benefits of this system too often flow to a small fraction of the population, while land, water, air and people pay the long-term price.
Prior generations responded to similar crises by turning to communism. But today, Marx, Lenin and Mao no longer offer a scythe sharp enough to fell the stalks of capitalism.
Another, more cutting-edge possibility is to heed the diverse indigenous voices displaced and drowned out by imperialism. From Standing Rock to Queensland, colonized and indigenous people are demanding new relationships to water that sustains the life and land which provides for the people.
This approach entails returning lands and resources to indigenous control and rethinking our relationship to the environment by recognizing and protecting indigenous values and the rights of nature through the law.
While indigenous values, beliefs and practices are as diverse as indigenous people themselves, they find common roots in a relationship to land and water radically different from the notion of property. For indigenous people, land and water are regarded as sacred, living relatives, ancestors, places of origin or any combination of the above.
My own, Tsq’escenemc Secwepemc people, for example, express these views daily through our words and place names. Both the word Secwepemc, which is the name of our nation, and Tsq’escenemc, the name of our community, contain the suffix emc, which has multiple uses and translations, including person, the people, land, ground or soil, and even to milk or to nurse.
Versions of this suffix, which are common to all Salish languages, derive from the proto-Salish word tmícw, which means world, dirt, nature, earth, land and spirit in many Salish languages. Linguistic models suggest that all Salish-speaking peoples, whose homelands span parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia, shared a common ancestral language between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago.
Ingrained in each Salish community then is the idea – even older than our indigenous languages – that the people are of the land and the land is of the people. These kindred spirits are alive and inseparable.
Indigenous epistemologies were all but eliminated by colonization. British and American empires dispossessed indigenous people of their lands in the name of property and productivity. Many indigenous children were sent to church and government schools where their languages and cultures were literally beaten out of them.
Despite this brutal and enduring history, indigenous people today stand on the frontlines of global movements fighting for a more just relationship between humanity and the land.
One promising precedent on this path to a post-imperial future has emerged in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where the Whanganui Maori iwi just won a 140-year legal battle to recognize that their ancestral Whanganui river has legal rights equal to a human being.
The Whanganui settlement, which was signed by the Whanganui iwi in 2014 and enacted into law by New Zealand parliament last week, established two guardians to act on behalf of the river, one from the crown and one from the iwi. In addition to legal recognition of the personhood of the Whanganui river, the settlement provided financial redress to the iwi of NZ$80m, and an additional NZ$1m contribution to establish the legal framework for the river.
Less than a week after the legislation went into effect, India’s Uttarakhand high court cited the Whanganui decision when it ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers have the legal status of a person.
While the implications and effects of these legal experiments are yet to be seen, these are potentially revolutionary precedents that offer a path forward to redefine relationships between governments, indigenous peoples and the land in the 21st century.
At their core, these decisions recognize what indigenous people have believed all along: that land and water are sacred, living relatives and ancestors whose well-being humanity depends upon for our continued health and existence upon this earth.
Between the productivity of property and the recognition of indigenous rights and the rights of nature, there lies the potential for a more just future for the land, the water and their human relations.