A Bold Effort

We are undertaking a bold new effort to create a bioregional governance framework for the Great Lakes that is rooted in Indigenous and commons knowledge. In addition, we are developing a strategy to make this transformation legally, politically, economically, ecologically, and culturally possible.By drawing on the practice of Indigenous and commons governance—and understanding their complementarity—we can tap the power of long- standing models that offer us practical and holistic solutions for the future.

Indigenous and Commons Knowledge

Indigenous communities continue to demonstrate the viability of a life- affirming vision for the Great Lakes. Resurfacing the values that recognize our interdependence, engender multi-generational thinking, and foster belonging, generosity, and reciprocity above ownership are essential to our collective survival.

The commons approach includes a set of kindred principles and values. As both a worldview and practice, the commons rejects that what we buy, sell, and own in the market provides fundamental meaning to our lives. Instead, value is placed on caring for all that we share and passing this legacy on to future generations undiminished.

Both a commons and Indigenous governance approach is ecosystem based, where the ecosystem is held as a precious whole. Water is viewed as a vital gift rather than a resource to be exploited, and each of us have a role and responsibility to care for this gift.

If we are to protect and restore the health of the Great Lakes, then we must move beyond a transactional worldview and practice rooted in ownership and private gain. Both the commons and Indigenous thinking offer concrete, system-shifting approaches to transform the current market paradigm that dominates water use decisions—approaches we can use to create a new bioregional framework for Great Lakes governance.

Photo by Daphne Randall

Photo by Daphne Randall

Toward a Just Future

Our Great Lakes Commons Initiative aims to undo a centuries long dynamic in the debate around the future of the Great Lakes where Indigenous communities are excluded or marginalized.

We’re dedicated to bringing Native and non-Native peoples together in a meaningful way to emphasize how both Indigenous wisdom and the legal rights of Indigenous communities are foundational to new governance. Active recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and the cultural, spiritual, and legal rights of Indigenous peoples and Nations guaranteed through treaty and international declarations is central to our effort to craft a framework for the multigenerational care of our waters.

We also recognize that harmful water decisions disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples. Those most impacted need to have a leading voice, as sovereign Nations, in determining a just water future.

Establishing a new, just dynamic in conversations around the future of the Great Lakes will help us restore our common humanity and our water.

Current Laws

Two bodies of established jurisprudence — Public Trust and Treaty Rights — are key to a commons-based governance framework for the Great Lakes. Legal strategies such as the Rights of Nature, Wild Law, the Rights of Future Generations, and vernacular law are congruent aspects of such an overarching legal framework. These legal systems offer strategic means for upholding an ecosystem-wide approach that protects the health of the waters and all species.

The Commons Law Project is an attempt to imagine a new architecture of law and public policy that can address ecological issues while advancing human rights and social empowerment. “Commons Law” (not to be confused with common law) as a way to integrate a broader notion of economics, human rights, and commons-based governance into a compelling new paradigm of environmental protection.

Public Trust

In Western law, the most established legal foothold for establishing a Great Lakes Commons is the Public Trust Doctrine. The Doctrine, which was conceived in Europe over one thousand years ago, has withstood the test of time. It upholds the principle that certain resources, including navigable waters such as the Great Lakes, must be preserved for the public good as a duty of the state. Learn more about Public Trust law

Photo by Sara Martel

Photo by Sara Martel