The power of the Rights of Nature movement is its simplicity: Along with individuals and land owners, nature itself should be able to litigate for damages. This tool has already been adopted by Tribal Governments like the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin. The participants in the Sitka Indigenous Youth Summit wanted to take the Rights of Nature — and other revolutionary ideas — back to their home nations in the Yukon, Cape Cod, Louisiana, and Hawaii. (KCAW/Woolsey)

One of the major ideas to emerge from the Enlightenment was that individual humans have rights. In Sitka recently, a group of students from all over the country spent a week exploring how rights might be applied to nature, and what a legal framework respecting those rights might look like.

Surprisingly, this isn’t a group of legal scholars. Most are in high school, all are Indigenous, and all are committed to learning how the Rights of Nature can not only protect natural resources, but also preserve culture.

Britt Gondolfi lecturing, with PowerPoint:

“If you have a legal right, you have three things: One, you can bring a lawsuit on your behalf; two, when you bring that lawsuit, you have the right to have a court assess the injury done to you; and three, you have the right to be given relief from the court.”

In a classroom in Fraser Hall, once a dormitory for the Sheldon Jackson Training School (and later college), a mixture of about 40 mostly high school students and some older students are exploring a formidable new legal concept: The Rights of Nature. In this example, instructor Britt Gondolfi describes a scenario where landowners are suing an upstream polluter. Under current legal theory, those landowners can win damages. But what about the stream itself?

Gondofi continues…

 “The Rights of Nature movement is saying, ‘We need to be adding nature to the list of people that are harmed in these kinds of litigation.’ And so in this kind of fictional scenario, the court will assess the injury done to the stream. They’re going to put a value not only on the loss that the landowner and the community has suffered, but they’re going to put a value on what it costs to restore the ecosystem.”

Britt Gondolfi, a former high school teacher-turned law student at Loyola University in New Orleans, walked students through the principles of the Rights of Nature. She explained that tribes are the logical entities to pursue the Rights of Nature because they are sovereign. When other jurisdictions (like cities) have tried to give nature legal “personhood,” they’ve been subject to countersuits. Sovereign tribes, on the other hand, would be immune. (KCAW/Woolsey)

Once a high school teacher, Gondolfi is now a third-year law student at Loyola University in New Orleans, and the Rights of Nature project manager for Bioneers, a non-profit environmental advocacy organization.

During the pandemic, local Indigenous rights advocate Yeix Anatsees Tom Gamble gave a lesson on salmon to a Bioneers conference in San Francisco, and that was the genesis of this spring’s summit in Sitka.

Gamble says the Rights of Nature can be grasped by everyone, from a five-year old to a Ph.D.

“And some of our students recognize those rights without us ever having to explain more than ‘You’re an indigenous person, you’re in your own home, tell me what you would protect,’” Gamble said, “and the Rights of Nature just become blatantly clear to all of them.”

Yeix Anatsees Tom Gamble speaks to summit participants during the annual Blessing of Herring Rock in Sitka. After 25 years fighting for Sitka’s herring run, Gamble sees a new path forward in the Rights of Nature, and in educating young people about the possibilities. “Everything that I endured was not passed on to the youth that came to the summit,” he said. “We provided the real atmosphere that I had hoped for. They were safe, and they were learning. They’re empowered to engage their communities. In their own way, shape or form, they’re gonna change the world, and then they’re ready to go eat a hot dog (laughs).” (KCAW/Rose)

Today’s lesson is far more than an academic exercise. There won’t be a test, at least not in this room. The test for these students will be taking the ideas home and putting them into practice, to protect their heritage and way of life.

Amaya Balbeuna is a freshman in high school, and a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts. She’s determined to protect both her community’s herring resource, and what it represents for her culture. 

“I grew up going down to the herring run and getting herring with my dad,” she explained. “And when I saw they were dying out – the population was dying because of the cyanobacteria thing we have right now – it was really hurtful to me. And I know my community is hurt by it too. Our belief is the herring represent a new year every time they come. So if the herring stop, life stops for us.”

After Gondolfi’s presentation, the students break into smaller groups, one each for the Wampanoag, the Yukon Llingít, the Hawaiians, and the Houma Nation of Louisiana. Their objective today is to draft a proposed amendment to their tribal ordinances that incorporates the Rights of Nature principle. It’s to be modeled on the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, who have adopted language that reads: “Ecosystems, natural communities, and species.. possess inherent, fundamental, and inalienable rights to naturally exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve.  This includes… rights to maintain, recover, and preserve their life cycles, structures, and functions… and rights to the defense, protection, and enforcement of their rights.”

Talia Landry is the adult facilitator for the Mashpee Wampanoag in Cape Cod. She says teaching the Rights of Nature to high school students will help create the long-term commitment needed to see those rights established in law.

“Obviously, we live for the seven generations before and the seven generations after in implementing this concept within the tribal youth now and having them push this along, “ she said. “ It’s going to be their life’s work. So if you implement the youth to do something very strong now, by the time they’re adults the initiative goes all the way forward. So you do have to start with the youth.”

“I got coastal erosion, we lose a football field of land every 40 minutes down there,” said Gabe Barnett, an 11th grader from the Houma Nation in Louisiana. He’s watching his home disappear.

“And it’s due to saltwater intrusion from the oil and gas company because our land is sinking while at the same time, glaciers are melting. And like because of climate change, and the water is rising while the land is sinking. So it’s like double whammy just hitting us hard.”

Each of the four Indigenous groups at the summit has a different issue: For example, the Houma have climate action, the Wampanoag have herring, and the Yukon Lingít have language preservation. But the Rights of Nature is important across cultures. It’s no coincidence that the Indigenous Youth Summit is in Sitka in late March, during the annual herring run in Sitka Sound. No subsistence issue has been more hotly-contested in the region, or actively litigated. The Sitka herring run hasn’t yet been defined as a Right of Nature, but it’s a likely candidate. The group learned about Sitka’s millennia-old relationship to herring from Tom Gamble and tribal elders during a field trip to the Blessing of Herring Rock, in downtown Sitka.

Yeix Anatsees Tom Gamble at Herring Rock…

 “We call it *speaks Lingít*, ‘We’re gonna save it for our grandchildren.’ So some of the kids that aren’t even here yet,  they’re not even born,  are going to come back in 100 years, and you’re laying the foundation, the very first foundation, to make sure that our lives will be protected forever.”

There are other activities that give the Indigenous Youth Summit a bit of a summer camp feel – a tour of a hatchery and the Raptor Center, and a trip out on the water to harvest herring eggs. But there is an intensity to this education that can’t be overstated. The students huddle around their laptops and legal amendments like collegiate basketball teams in a championship game. The Rights of Nature won’t be won overnight. There’s got to be a strategy.

This is Houma 11th grader Gabe Barnett again.

“What we can do about it is people need to wake up to it,” he said. “More than anything people need to realize what’s happening.”

Yeix Anatsees Tom Gamble has been at the center of conflict over herring in Sitka for a long time. He believes the Rights of Nature represents a new path forward for him, and everyone who follows.

“A quarter of a century of fighting,” Gamble said. “I did not want that fight to be passed along to our youth. What we wanted to do is to hand them the tools necessary to conserve, protect, and to peacefully resolve their issues, in harmony with all the groups that need them.”

Gamble says a 2024 Indigenous Youth Summit is already being planned.