According to the Guardian, “Te Urewera national park has been granted legal personhood, meaning nobody owns it. The park has the same rights and powers as a citizen. The ruling could set a new precedent for land rights and conservation around the world”. Way to go New Zealand!
For some people, like the Zuni in New Mexico, wild places are considered living beings. In western society, it’s companies that assume that privileged position.
In recent years, the US supreme court has solidified the concept of corporate personhood. Following rulings in such cases as Hobby Lobby and Citizens United, US law has established that companies are, like people, entitled to certain rights and protections.
But that’s not the only instance of extending legal rights to nonhuman entities. New Zealand took a radically different approach in 2014 with the Te Urewera Act which granted an 821-square-mile forest the legal status of a person. The forest is sacred to the Tūhoe people, an indigenous group of the Maori. For them Te Urewera is an ancient and ancestral homeland that breathes life into their culture. The forest is also a living ancestor. The Te Urewera Act concludes that “Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself” and thus must be its own entity with “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person”. Te Urewera holds title to itself.
Although this legal approach is unique to New Zealand, the underlying reason for it is not. Over the last 15 years I have documented similar cultural expressions by Native Americans about their traditional, sacred places. As an anthropologist, this research has often pushed me to search for an answer to the profound question: What does it mean for nature to be a person?
A majestic mountain sits not far north-west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like a low triangle, with long gentle slopes, Mount Taylor is clothed in rich forests that appear a velvety charcoal-blue from the distance. Its bald summit, more than 11,000 feet high, is often blanketed in snow – a reminder of the blessing of water, when seen from the blazing desert below.
The Zuni tribe lives about 40 miles west of Mount Taylor. In 2012, I worked with a team to interview 24 tribal members about the values they hold for Dewankwin K’yaba:chu Yalanne (“In the East Snow-capped Mountain”), as Mount Taylor is called in the Zuni language. We were told that their most ancient ancestors began an epic migration in the Grand Canyon.
Over millennia they migrated across the south-west, with important medicine societies and clans living around Mount Taylor. After settling in their current pueblo homes, Zunis returned to this sacred mountain to hunt animals like deer and bear, harvest wild plants like acorns and cattails, and gather minerals used in sacrosanct rituals that keep the universe in order. Across the generations Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalanne has come to shape Zuni history, life and identity no less than the Vatican has for Catholics.
But unlike holy places in the western world, Zunis believe Mount Taylor is a living being. Zuni elders told me that the mountain was created within the Earth’s womb. As a mountain formed by volcanic activity, it has always grown and aged. The mountain can give life as people do. The mountain’s snow melts in spring and nourishes plants and wildlife for miles. Water is the mountain’s blood; buried minerals are the mountain’s meat. Because it lives, deep below is its beating heart. Zunis consider Mount Taylor to be their kin.
There is a stereotype that Native American peoples have a singular connection to nature. And yet in my experience, they do see the world in a fundamentally different way from most people I know. Whether it is mountains, rivers, rocks, animals, plants, stars or weather, they see the natural world as living and breathing, deeply relational, even at times all-knowing and transcendent
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