All My Relations
Updated: Sep 8
What would the world be like if we truly believed that the waters of the Great Lakes are our sisters? That the fish in Lake Ontario and the trees around Lake Huron are our brothers? That the flowers along Lakes Michigan or Superior are our cousins? For those of us who are indigenous, that may seem obvious, but for someone like me who grew up white and Christian in rural Indiana, it’s been a journey to even consider the questions.
The Christian tradition is wide, with a variety of approaches to Creation. For example, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they?” (Matt. 6:26) And in the Jewish book of Genesis, God says to humans in the first creation story, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all living things that move on the earth.”
There’s clearly a hierarchical view towards the non-human world found within the Christian tradition, with humans on top. But also in that same tradition, Saint Francis of Assisi wrote of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Water” in his Canticle. As I said, it’s a wide tradition with different approaches to the questions of our relationship with the non-human world.
I was reminded of these questions when I read the latest update on the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) passed by the voters of Toledo, OH in February of 2019. Within LEBOR was the statement Lake Erie has the right “to exist, flourish and naturally evolve.” Part of the impetus for LEBOR was the toxic algal bloom on Lake Erie in 2014 that shut down the water system of Toledo. Human pollution is blamed for the blooms that have continued to plague Lake Erie, which has struggled with flourishing over the last few decades.
A court struck down LEBOR soon after it was approved by Toledo voters, and following other court defeats, it is now facing what some call its last chance at survival, with a hearing before a state appeals court.LEBOR is another step in the “rights of nature” movement that has seen similar legal efforts passed in Pittsburgh, PA and Santa Monica, CA, along with nations like Ecuador, Bolivia and New Zealand.
In a wonderful TED Talk, legal scholar and water policy expert Kelsey Leonard spoke about the need to grant personhood to water and the all of the non-human world, which would recognize the rights of water, plants and animals to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve. A member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, she serves as a member of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission, and she also represents the Shinnecock Nation as the Tribal Co-Lead on the Mid-Atlantic Committee on the Ocean, which is charged with protecting and managing the coastal resources of five Mid-Atlantic states.
In her talk, Leonard shares the stories of communities, particularly indigenous communities, struggling to cope with unsafe drinking water. She goes on to say that “many of these water injustices are the result of the Western legal system’s failure to recognize the legal personhood of water. And so we must ask ourselves, who is justice for? Humanity alone?”
In contrast to these stories of water injustice, Leonard cites instances of the American legal system granting personhood to corporations. She then asks if we can do that, “why not the Great Lakes?” In order to address the global water crises we are facing, she argued that we need to “fundamentally change the way in which we value water.”
“This is not something new for us as Indigenous peoples,” she added. “Our Indigenous legal systems have a foundational principle of understanding our non-human relations as being living and protected under our laws.”
Non-human relations... a perspective I’ve heard often from Indigenous people and communities, but not a common view within the Christian tradition I know. I would agree with Ms. Leonard that we need to fundamentally change how we value water and all our non-human relations. Really, though, I need to start with myself and what kind of relationship I want with Sister Water, Mother Earth, and all my relations on this planet.