Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River. Photo by Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Creative Commons

For Native Americans, a river is more than a 'person.' It's also a sacred place

(The Conversation) The environmental group Deep Green Resistance recently filed a first-of-its-kind legal suit against the state of Colorado asking for personhood rights for the Colorado River.

If successful, it would mean lawsuits can brought on behalf of the river for any harm done to it, as if it were a person.

In the past, several environmental groups in India, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and New Zealand have successfully sought protection for rivers and landscapes based on this argument. As a Native American scholar of environment and religion, I seek to understand the relationship between people and the natural world.

Native Americans view nature through their belief systems. A river or water does not only sustain life – it is sacred.

Why is water sacred to Native Americans?

In the past year, the Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” became a new national protest anthem.

It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. this spring, and during protests last year as the anthem of the struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.

There was a reason: For long years, the Lakota, the Blackfeet and the other Native American tribes understood how to live with nature. And it was based on the knowledge of how to live within the restrictions of the limited water supply of the “Great American desert” of North America.

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Water as sacred place

Native Americans learned both through observation and experiment, arguably a process quite similar to what we might call science today. They also learned from their religious ideas, passed on from generation to generation in the form of stories.

I learned from my grandparents, both members of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, about the sacredness of water. They shared that the Blackfeet believed in three separate realms of existence – the Earth, sky and water. The Blackfeet believed that humans, or “Niitsitapi,” and Earth beings, or “Ksahkomitapi,” lived in one realm; sky beings, or “Spomitapi,” lived in another realm; and underwater beings, or “Soyiitapi,” lived in yet another. The Blackfeet viewed all three worlds as sacred because within them lived the divine.

The water world, in particular, was held in special regard. The Blackfeet believed that in addition to the divine beings, about which they learned from their stories, there were divine animals. The divine beaver, who could talk to humans, taught the Blackfeet their most important religious ceremony. The Blackfeet needed this ceremony to reaffirm their relationships with the three separate realms of reality.

The Soyiitapi, divine water beings, also instructed the Blackfeet to protect their home, the water world. The Blackfeet could not kill or eat anything living in water; they also could not disturb or pollute water.

The Blackfeet viewed water as a distinct place – a sacred place. It was the home of divine beings and divine animals who taught the Blackfeet religious rituals and moral restrictions on human behavior. It can, in fact, be compared to Mount Sinai of the Old Testament, which was viewed as “holy ground” and where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

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Water as life

Native American tribes on the Great Plains knew something else about the relationship between themselves, the beaver and water. They learned through observation that beavers helped create an ecological oasis within a dry and arid landscape.

As Canadian anthropologist R. Grace Morgan hypothesized in her dissertation “Beaver Ecology/Beaver Mythology,” the Blackfeet sanctified the beaver because they understood the natural science and ecology of beaver behavior.

Morgan believed that the Blackfeet did not harm the beaver because beavers built dams on creeks and rivers. Such dams could produce enough of a diversion to create a pond of fresh clean water that allowed an oasis of plant life to grow and wildlife to flourish.

Beaver ponds provided the Blackfeet with water for daily life. The ponds also attracted animals, which meant the Blackfeet did not have to travel long distances to hunt. The Blackfeet did not need to travel for plants used for medicine or food, either.

Beavers were part of what ecologists call a trophic cascade, or a reciprocal relationship. Beaver ponds were a win-win for all concerned in “the Great American desert” that modern ecologists and conservationists are beginning to study only now.

For the Blackfeet, Lakota and other tribes of the Great Plains, water was “life.” They understood what it meant to live in a dry arid place, which they expressed through their religion and within their ecological knowledge.

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Rights of rivers

Indigenous people from around the world share these beliefs about the sacredness of water.

The government of New Zealand recently recognized the ancestral connection of the Maori people to their water. This past spring, the government passed the “Te Awa Tupua Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill,” which provides “personhood” status to the Whanganui River, one of the largest rivers on the North Island of New Zealand. This river has come to be recognized as having “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” – something the Maori believed all along.

The United States does not have such laws. This new lawsuit hopes to change that and give the Colorado River “personhood” status. Indigenous people would add, a river is more than a “person” – it is also a sacred place.

(Rosalyn R. LaPier is associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)


  1. The world understands the personhood of water, yet cannot understand the personhood of a baby in the womb.The old word borne, is to be carried on the water. Like the Rule of Law was conceived before the flood and was borne on the water to this side of the flood, a child is conceived and borne on the water before the mother gives birth.

  2. Actually I doubt very much that “the world understands the personhood of water”. And no – borne does not mean carried on the water. Borne means carried; on water, on the wind, in someone’s arms etc..
    Your third sentence fails because it relies on the first two and they are not clearly correct (also it’s not exactly rational is it?).

    Look – I get that water is a vital asset; I get that it needs to be protected and managed for the benefit of all that depends upon it. I get it.

    What I don’t get is why some rather odd beliefs, unsupported by evidence or rational argument, mean that water becomes personified ( Important – yes, vital – yes, but personhood? – how the heck does one go from “Regarded as too valuable to be interfered with; sacrosanct” (sacred) to “The quality or condition of being an individual person” (personhood – / – “A human being regarded as an individual” (person)).

    Human beings may be largely water but water is not largely human.

    And yes – I guess that this is a convoluted way of trying to invoke protection via legislation that wasn’t intended to be relevant. Clever, but is it sensible? What else might be accorded personhood because someone claims to have conviction unsupported by evidence or reason – air? soil? – do we have to breathe in a respectful way or plough without cutting the soil’s skin?

  3. So … people should be awarded control over things, on the grounds that they believe those things are “sacred”? The ramifications of that reasoning are, quite simply, staggering. Has anyone other than myself considered that? 

  4. The author is trying to describe Native American concepts or institutions using English words rather than Native American words.

    For example, take the word “sacred”, together with its antonym “profane”. These two words have force in a culture that has the concept of Satan. The same two words lose force when they are used in a non-Abrahamic culture that does have the concept of Satan.

    Likewise, the words “rights” and “personhood” acquired a specific meaning because Western law discussed these words for many years in order to solve complicated legal tangles. Those legal tangles did not take place in the Native American culture, so it is likely that “rights” and “personhood” may not describe the Native American scenario properly.

    Perhaps the author could use Native American words directly, rather than using “sacred”, “rights” and “personhood”. The meanings of the Native American words could be explained in footnotes.

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