Water personhood

 In all the readings that helped inform “Water Connections,” one of the more interesting included a statement by a Native American headman who lived along the Presumpscot River in Maine.

The setting was a hearing before British authorities in Boston in 1739. The headman, who is identified in the transcript simply as Chief Polin, had traveled to Boston to complain about a water power dam that had been built on the river that blocked the passage of migrating fish.


It was the first documented dispute regarding a dam in North America.

Here’s how the chief introduced his complaint:  “I have something to say concerning the river which I belong to. It is barred over in sundry places…”

That he would “belong to” a river shed important light on indigenous thinking. A European would say that the river belongs to humans, not the other way around; a European would say that a river is an object to be used.

This story is all the more interesting today due to some relatively new thinking about the status of rivers and other water bodies.  In this new thinking, rivers and lakes are people, and therefore are due the legal rights and protections of persons.

Interest in formally assigning personhood to water bodies is growing around the world. Among others, scholars at Yale have stayed on top of the movement.

 Here’s more from the American Indian Law Review.

 The move toward assigning rights to rivers isn’t limited to any one country. The Christian Science Monitor recently reprinted an account of water personhood in New Zealand and Ecuador.

The point of all this is to grant water bodies (and their designated representatives) legal standing to pursue claims against polluters and challenge plans to build dams on rivers.

The reasoning behind this rights-of-nature movement is that, if corporations in the United States can have personhood status, why not water bodies?

 Earlier this year voters in Toledo, Ohio passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. The action is being challenged in court by people who fear the consequences including farmers whose fertilizer run-off has been blamed for recent massive algae blooms in the lake. What would Chief Polin say to all this? I suspect that that he’d say, “About time!”