Kelsey Leonard
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Aquay Wunne Kesuk. Kelsey Leonard Nooweesuonk. Hello, good day, everyone. I'm from the Shinnecock Nation. Tabutni to the Cahuilla peoples, whose land we gather on today.

I was taught that water is alive. It can hear, it holds memories. And so I brought a water vessel up with me today, because I want it to hold the memories of our conversation today.

Who gets legal rights? History has shown us some people but not others. In the United States, Indigenous peoples like myself were not citizens under the law until 1924. My Shinnecock ancestors, pictured here, were not citizens under the law. Then why do we claim to be nations governed by the rule of law if some people are protected, but not others? Because it remains one of the best ways to fight injustice. And, as Indigenous people, we know injustice.

A dear friend, mentor, water walker, Nokomis, Grandmother Josephine Mandamin-ba, she told me of a prophecy that comes from her people, the Anishinaabe of the Midewiwin Society. And in that prophecy, she told me that it tells of a day that will come where an ounce of water costs more than an ounce of gold. When she told me that prophecy, I sat for a moment, and I thought about all of the injustices we see in our world today, the water crises we see in our world today, and I said, "Nokomis, Grandmother, I feel like we are already in that time of prophecy." And she looked back at me directly, and she said, "So what are you going to do about it?" That's why I'm here with you today, because I believe that one of the many solutions to solving the many water injustices we see in our world today is recognizing that water is a living relation and granting it the legal personhood it deserves.

So to do so, we need to transform the way in which we value water. We have to start to think about how do we connect to water. Usually, someone might ask you, "What is water?" and you would respond with "Rain, ocean, lake, river, H20, liquid." You might even understand the sacred essentiality of water and say that water is life. But what if I asked you, instead, "Who is water?" In the same way that I might ask you, "Who is your grandmother?" "Who is your sister?" That type of orientation fundamentally transforms the way in which we think about water, transforms the way in which we make decisions about how we might protect water, protect it in the way that you would protect your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your aunties. That is the type of transformation that we need if we are going to address the many water crises we see in our world today, these harrowing water crises that have streamed across our digital devices in countdowns to Day Zero, the point at which municipal water supplies are shut off.

Places like Cape Town, South Africa, where in 2018, residents were limited to two-minute showers and 23 gallons of water per day per person, or just this past summer, where the mismanagement of water led the streets of Chennai to be lined with thousands of plastic water jugs as residents waited hours for water tankers to deliver water, first by rail, then by truck, to meet their daily needs. Or even here in the United States, one of the most developed nations in the world. Today, Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water.

But you are likely unfamiliar with these water crises, such as Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario, Canada, where residents have been on a boil water advisory since 1995. Or Grassy Narrows First Nation, which for decades has been dealing with water contamination from the paper mill industry and where a recent study found that nearly 90 percent of the Indigenous population has some form of mercury poisoning, causing severe health complications. Or even among the Navajo Nation.

Pictured here is the Animas River on an early morning in 2015, prior to the Gold King Mine spill. After the spill leaked millions of hazardous mine waste into the river system, this was it later that day. Today, the Navajo Nation and the Diné People and the river itself are still trying to recover from contamination. Or even right here in Palm Springs, California, where the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has been fighting for decades to protect groundwater from exploitation so that future generations can not only live but thrive in their homelands, as they have since time immemorial.

You see, a recent study by DIGDEEP and the US Water Alliance found that race, in the United States, is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access, and that for us, as Native American people, we are the group most likely to have access issues as it comes to water and sanitation. So, as an Indigenous legal scholar and scientist, I believe 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? We've granted legal personhood to corporations. In the US, the Supreme Court found in "Citizens United" that a corporation was a person with similar protections under the Constitution, such as freedom of speech, and applied similar reasoning in "Hobby Lobby," finding that a corporation had the right to freedom of religion in defense against the implementation of the Affordable Care Act for its employees.

Now, these are controversial cases, and as a Shinnecock woman and a legal scholar, they make me question the moral compass of the Western world, where you can grant legal personhood to a corporation but not nature. You see, legal personhood grants us the ability to be visible in a court of law, and to have our voices heard as a person protected under the law. And so if you can grant that to a corporation, why not the Great Lakes? Why not the Mississippi River? Why not the many waterways across our planet that we all depend on to survive?

We know we are in a global climate crisis, but globally, our waters are also threatened, and we are facing a global water crisis, and if we want to address these crises in our lifetime, we need to change. We need to fundamentally transform the way in which we value water. And this is not something new for us as Indigenous peoples. Our Indigenous legal systems have a foundational principle of understanding our nonhuman relations as being living and protected under our laws. And even for the Western world, environmental legal theorists have argued for the rights of nature since the 1970s. But we need to do better. We need to change. And we need to grant legal personhood to water, because it affords the following rights and protections. It grants water the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve, and most of all, it protects the water from us, from human beings that would do it harm, from human-caused climate-change impacts, from pollutants, and from man-made contamination. Moreover, it reverses the accepted hierarchy of humanity's domination over nature. As human beings on this planet, we are not superior to other beings on this planet. We are not superior to the water itself. We have to learn how to be good stewards again.

We often imagine that the world is filled with infinite water. In fact, it's not. This planet, Ohke, Mother Earth, has very finite freshwater resources. Currently, nearly two billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress. It is also estimated that by 2030, up to 700 million people could be displaced, worldwide, due to water scarcity.

We have to address this crisis. And so it's time for us to change. We have to transform the way in which we value water. And we can do that. We can learn to be good stewards again. We can create laws through which we grant legal personhood to water. We can start to honor the original treaties between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples for water protection. We can appoint guardians for the water that ensure the water's rights are always protected. We can also develop water-quality standards that have a holistic approach, that ensure the well-being of the water before our human needs. And moreover, we can work to dismantle exclusive property ownership over water.

And there are amazing successful examples of this around the world. The Whanganui River in Aotearoa, in New Zealand, and the Ganges River in India were both granted legal personhood in 2017. And even this year, the residents of the city of Toledo recognized the legal personality of Lake Erie. And right here in California, the Yurok Tribe granted legal personhood to the Klamath River.

You see, I imagine a world where we value water as a living relation, where we work to restore our connection to water. As women, we are water carriers. We nurture water in our wombs for nine months. It's the first medicine that each of us as human beings is exposed to. See, we are all born as human beings with a natal connection to water, but somewhere along the way, we lost that connection, and we have to work to restore it. Because I imagine a world in which water is healthy and ecosystems are thriving. I imagine a world where each of us takes up our right of responsibility as water citizens and protects water.

So, in the words of Nokomis, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do for the water? Well, you can call your local politician. You can go to a town meeting. You can advocate for granting legal personhood to water. You can be like the residents of the city of Toledo and build from the grass roots, and craft your own legislation if the politicians won't write it, recognizing legal personality of water. You can learn about the Indigenous lands and waters that you now occupy and the Indigenous legal systems that still govern them. And most of all, you can connect to water. You can restore that connection. Go to the water closest to your home, and find out why it is threatened. But most of all, if you do anything, I ask that you make a promise to yourself, that each day, you will ask, "What have I done for the water today?" If we are able to fulfill that promise, I believe we can create a bold and brilliant world where future generations are able to form the same relationship to water that we have been privileged to have, where all communities of human and nonhuman relations have water to live, because water is life.

Tabutni. Thank you.

(Applause)