May 11, 2014
A recent landmark decision granting the Whanganui River, the third largest river in New Zealand, the status of legal ‘personhood’ poses deep problems for individuals /companies who think of the earth and its resources in terms of ownership. The decision follows a long court struggle for the river’s personhood initiated by the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the water.
Addressing a river in terms of personhood reflects the spirituality of indigenous peoples. Indigenous spirituality in aptly summed up in the words of Chief Seattle. When the US government requested him to sell them the lands which his people had ‘walked gently on’ for generations he replied:
The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy and sell the sky, the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them from us? The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth. Chief Seattle 1854
These sentiments resonate with the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. He called the elements, the planets, and all beings his sisters and brothers. He addresses water as sister, wind as brother and earth as mother. Those who follow in his footsteps have no difficulty in recognizing the personhood of a river: they treat all beings with mutuality and respect. Our Celtic ancestors, too, lived out of a similar spirituality. They knew that the earth is a living organism pulsating with the divine. They also knew that all things were interconnected in the intricate web of life. The mystical tradition articulates a similar vision: mystics knew that the earth and its beings are alive with the energy of God.
Humans have moved very far from a spirituality that treats all beings with respect and dignity. Not only have we destroyed the habitats of many species but we have polluted our air and water, depleted our soil and exploited the earth for its resources. Environmentalists, forced to defend the rights of nature, are seeking that these rights be enshrined in law. Thomas Berry claims that every being, not just the human, in the Earth Community has three rights: