Sovereign Rights of Indigenous Peoples
“Indigenous Rights to, and in, water flow from the relationship of Indigenous Peoples to our traditional territories. Our right to water is an inherent right arising from our existence as Peoples and includes a right of self-determination with the power to make decisions, based upon our laws, customs, and traditional knowledge to sustain our waters for all life and future generations.”
– Ardith Macklem and Nicole Schabus, Indigenous Water Rights:Briefing Paper for Forum Participants at Our Waters, Our Responsibility: Indigenous Water Rights, May, 2004
One of the most important truths to remember is that Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island (North America) were here occupying the lands, implementing their laws, and governing themselves prior to contact with the settlers, and were never conquered by the settlers or their imported governments. This is important to remember because, according to International Law, if the Indigenous Peoples were conquered then all of the laws of the settlers’ imported governments would apply to the new lands. Instead, the treaties and the treaty making process (negotiated by the Crown in Canada and the federal government in the U.S.) codify the sovereignty of independent Indigenous Nations. Recent international resolutions affirm the distinct and inherent cultural, spiritual, political and legal rights of Indigenous peoples and the right to self-determination.
First Nations and Tribal Treaty Rights
Treaties are more than agreements; they are laws between two Sovereigns that specify certain rights Indigenous peoples retained in exchange for ceding or consenting to share land. In the United States, treaty rights safeguard cultural and sustenance practices not only within the reservation boundaries, but also within the ceded territory. In Canada, Indigenous peoples never ceded land. Instead, the treaties articulate how the land is to be harmoniously shared between the newcomers and the original peoples; some land was not to be shared and was ‘reserved’ specifically for Indigenous use.
The United States constitution explicitly states that treaties are the supreme law of the land. And yet, each and every one of the 566 treaties made with Native Nations has been unilaterally abrogated. In Canada, there is currently a deliberate effort to weaken treaty rights and further violate the sovereignty of First Nations. Neither the United States nor Canada can claim to be a Nation of Laws if they do not honor the treaties made with Indigenous Nations.
Upholding treaty law is not only a means to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples. Treaties are also a way to protect the environment for all of us. Case precedent demonstrates how Tribes have defeated mines and other polluting development projects by asserting how these projects infringe on treaty rights and by establishing environmental codes that prohibit excessive damage to air, water, and land. In Canada, treaties are also the first line of defense against unsound development. The current assimilation agenda of the government in Canada is a means to break down this defense to gain further access to land and resources, especially the waters.
“In other words, the treaty cannot be understood as a contract. Much more robust than contract, it is a living framework for the complex totality of relationships between settler and Indigenous peoples. The legal traditions of indigenous societies are relationship-centred, not rights-centred. In turning to them, together we constituted a vibrant, flexible framework for political community — the conditions which organize our distinct but interdependent ways of living.” – Aaron Mills
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Indigenous Water Accords: Tribal and First Nations Water Accord.
Chiefs of Ontario water declaration
Anishanaabe Water Law
The Rise of the Native Rights-Based Strategic Framework
Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Water Declaration
Protect Penokee Hills press kit
Mother Earth Water Walkers
Water Walkers United
Short Videos on Great Lakes Indigenous Culture and Language
Workshop on Indignenous Governance
The Nibi (Water) Walks