Environmental And Indigenous Rights Attorney Visits Eugene

Mar 14, 2019

Minnesota Honor the Earth tribal attorney Frank Bibeau, stopped by Eugene last week for an event on the Rights of Nature movement. KLCC spoke with the Chippewa lawyer about a recent ordinance his tribe passed giving legal rights to Manoomin, or wild rice.

A boat load of fresh picked Manoomin, known as wild rice, from a Minnesota river.
Credit Frank Bibeau

Last December the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, a tribe in Minnesota, granted Manoomin legal protection to grow in unpolluted waters. This tribal ordinance is based on a treaty between the Chippewa and the federal government

BIBEAU: “For us, wild rice is probably the central most important pivotal cultural part of our world. We were guided from the east coast to where to where the food grows on the water.” 

Frank Bebeau helped draft the law that’s based on the Rights of Nature movement that suggests that plants, water, animals, and anything living, should be allowed to exist without interference from human caused pollution.

BIBEAU: “We’re able to point to wild rice ‘cause it’s two words that are in our 1837 treaty and it’s in our culture, it’s in our historical record”

For other tribal nations though, he says it depends on what treaties the tribal governments have with the U.S.

Minnesota Honor the Earth tribal attorney Frank Bibeau. Bibeau was part of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe’s move to pass a tribal ordinance giving rights to wild rice.
Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News

BIBEAU: “Our treaty history goes back a long way, the Chippewa have 44 treaties with the United States, so I have a lot to draw from. Other places, other tribes often have 1 or 2 treaties, so you end up with a harder way to figure it out”

In 1953, the federal government wanted to decrease its role in tribal affairs, so Congress established Public Law 280 for certain states.

BIBEAU: “We were characterized as being lawless because we didn’t have laws that were written down and we didn’t have court system to resolve our disputes.”

Bibeau says Minnesota, along with 15 other Public Law 280 states, including Oregon, has jurisdiction over criminal and civil issues related to tribal affairs. But, states can’t supersede federal treaties. This gives them unique opportunities for preserving the environment.

BIBEAU: “We are separate from state government and can make our own laws and we also have a different relationship with nature because of our rights to hunt fish and gather so we have a right to nature already, so we already have the obligation to protect nature.’

Treaty tribes, Bibeau says, are able look into what’s culturally significant and find ways to put that into today’s context. But, it’s up in the air whether Minnesota’s state government will honor the new ordinance.

BIBEAU: “The state of Minnesota I think is gonna wonder what it means because they’re not fully accustomed to respecting our tribal law yet.”

Regardless of any potential litigation, Bibeau says the rights of manoomin is a win for tribal governments, environmentalists and water.