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Feature - Issue #13

Rights and Responsibilities

Native American lawyer, author, teacher and activist Sherri Mitchell proposes how we can take back our power and build a rights-based society that is balanced, just and harmonious.

Much of the conflict that exists in the world is linked to people feeling that their rights are being violated. Human rights, civil rights and the very right to live are being debated on the public stage with growing frequency. Everywhere we look, people are crying out to have their rights honoured, respected and upheld. Though society has done a good job of declaring and defining the rights of human beings, it has done a poor job of applying those rights evenly to all populations. And, in most instances, it has completely failed to harmonise those rights with the rights of Mother Earth and all other living beings. Though we have made significant progress, in many ways the equation involving our rights is still largely aspirational and grossly imbalanced. In my opinion, this inequity is caused by our failure to balance the rights that we demand with a set of humane responsibilities toward one another and the rest of the creation.

Rights are defined as legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement. They are the rules by which a society defines itself. Among the many rights that we have defined for ourselves are a set of evolving human rights. Human rights have been expressed and guaranteed by law in countless ways. They have been outlined by treaty; identified in the practices of customary international law; embedded in the tenets of constitutional law; and incorporated into the language of numerous human rights acts, conventions, declarations and resolutions. These laws place obligations on governments and government agencies to act in certain ways, or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect the rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

Human rights fall into several categories: 1. Civil and political rights, which consist of the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; 2. Economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to work, social security, education, cultural continuity; and 3. Collective rights, which include the right to development and self-determination. All of these rights are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The development of any individual right enables advancement of the others and the deprivation of any adversely affects them all.

‘Taking active responsibility for our obligations under this agreement provides a natural balance and a solid footing for the rights that we claim as human beings.’

— Sherri Mitchell

Though these rights have not been equally protected or supported for all, they have been globally acknowledged as the foundation of protections that are required for the safety of all human beings. Most world governments, and countless human rights organisations, have declared that these basic human rights are inherent and inalienable. But what does that mean? An inherent right is one that is “existing in someone or something as a permanent and inseparable element, quality or attribute.” An inalienable right is often described as a “right that no one can give to you, but that no one can take from you.”

Without deeper thought, it would seem that these rights stand alone as self-originating truths. However, when we begin to look deeper, we begin to realise that the world rightfully operates under principles of balance. This suggests that there is some countermeasure necessary to stabilise these rights within the society. Throughout history, we have been seeking to find this balance, often looking to some other to provide it for us. Perhaps it would be more effective if we stopped looking and actively worked to create the balance that is needed. The countermeasure that we are seeking is responsibility. And its enormous weight is one that must be shouldered by us all.

As a Penobscot woman, I have been raised with a specific cultural understanding of the correlation between rights and responsibilities. This understanding is based on traditional teachings that are designed to remind me of my place in a balanced and harmonious world; a world that appears to be little more than mythology at the present time.

My tribal stories have taught me that our inherent rights as Penawahpskwe are derived from our first treaty or agreement; the agreement that we made with the Creator when we first emerged into this world. This agreement was formulated under the balanced laws of creation, and it provides us with the foundational authority for all of the rights that we stand on today.

Under this agreement, we have the right to live unencumbered on this land, with full access to the sources of our survival, such as food, water and shelter, as long as we uphold our responsibility to live in balanced harmony with the rest of creation. We understand that these rights are not self-evident or self-generating. They are strengthened or weakened by the degree of responsibility that we take to uphold our agreement.

The way that we have honoured that agreement is by living in respectful balance with our land and waterways for thousands of years. The evidence of our continued adherence can be found in the core principles that have been woven into our tribal governance structures. It can be seen in the conscious steps that we have taken to honour and protect the lands and waters that we inhabit. It can be seen in the harvesting limits that are found in our forestry programmes; in fish and game laws that take careful measure to ensure the sustainability of our traditional food sources, in decades-long restoration projects that have restored and revitalised the waters of the Penobscot River; and in the creation of water quality standards that protect and sustain the health of our waterways for all current and future generations.

Taking active responsibility for our obligations under this agreement provides a natural balance and a solid footing for the rights that we claim as human beings. Without this balance, we would destroy the very ground that these rights are built on. If we want evidence of this truth, we only have to look at the unchecked destruction of the natural world that is being caused by capitalist greed. The failure of industry to take responsibility for the well-being of the natural world and other human beings, and our complacency and complicity in the destruction that has resulted, are quickly taking away our right to live on this planet.

The original agreement that we made with the Creator is held under the laws of creation. The unchanging laws of creation are no longer aligned with the laws of man. As human beings, we have fallen out of step with the rest of creation. We have lost our way and overinflated our sense of value. In doing so, we have walked away from the Creator’s natural law, which keeps this world in balance. As a result, the entire creation has become endangered. Man’s attempt to manipulate this balance has resulted in a series of legal obligations that inform us how we are to treat one another. These laws are the basic human rights that have been outlined above. Though these laws are vital to securing our freedoms and liberties, they fail to take into consideration the need to balance the place of human beings within the larger context of creation. In order to achieve true balance, we must work to extend those rights to all living beings and to the Earth herself.

If we hope to live in a society where rights are valued, then we have to be willing to adopt an ethical stance toward our inherent responsibilities as human beings. First, we must recognise that an exclusive and empty insistence on rights creates a vacuum that can never be filled. Demanding rights without taking responsibility for creating and maintaining those rights for others creates a warped sense of entitlement that often leads to violence, injustice and chaos. Second, we have to acknowledge that the rules of law pertaining to our rights are only as strong as the men and women who are willing to act with honour and commitment toward securing those rights for all.

When my tribe decided that the Penobscot River needed to be cleaned of decades of toxic waste created by industry, they didn’t simply stand up and claim a right to clean water. Instead, they worked in concert with others and took on the responsibility of cleaning those waters for the benefit of all current users, and for the enjoyment of all future users. We recognised that if we wanted to claim the right to clean water for our own people, then we had to take responsibility for ensuring clean water for everyone.

When we looked at our right to subsistence living, we recognised that this also came with a set of unique responsibilities. In order to properly claim those rights, we had to work to protect the rights of Mother Earth to exist with all of her ecological systems and biodiversity intact. We had to ensure that the wildlife in our territories had the ability not only to live but to thrive upon the lands that we shared. In doing so, we acknowledged that our rights were interdependent, tied to the rights of all of the other living beings that share our homelands.

‘When we looked at our right to subsistence living, we recognised that this also came with a set of unique responsibilities.’

— Sherri Mitchell

This same principle translates into our individual lives, and the work that we are doing collectively to protect both human and Earth-based rights. It helps us to remember that our demand for rights must be balanced with a set of clear responsibilities. We must be willing to do more than make a demand; we must be willing to actively work to create a world where that demand can be met. We cannot claim a right to clean water without taking responsibility for actively protecting the water from contamination and overuse. We cannot claim a right to clean air without taking responsibility for the creation of healthy and sustainable energy sources. We cannot claim a right to a more equitable economy without taking responsibility for where and how we spend our money. We cannot claim a right to ethical leadership without taking responsibility for voting in candidates that we believe in, rather than those we believe can win. We cannot claim a right to life without taking responsibility for the lives that have already been created. And we cannot claim a right to peace without taking responsibility for cultivating peace within ourselves and in our relationships with others, even those that we oppose.

When our rights are not balanced with a solid sense of responsibility, we lean toward dependency and begin blaming others for the problems that we face. And we begin demanding that others step in and solve those problems for us. We point fingers, accuse and condemn all those who are refusing to do what we ourselves have failed to do. When our demands aren’t met, we become increasingly angry and lash out in response to that anger.

This is where we depart decisively from humanity’s most basic moral compass: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When we demand something for ourselves that we are not willing to ensure for others, our demand loses all of its power. When we fail to take responsibility for the condition of our lives and the lives of those around us, we relinquish the power to chart our own course and the course of humanity. We also surrender our ability to create meaningful change. However, if we begin to take even small steps toward accepting the responsibility needed to balance our demands, we immediately and tangibly change the world around us.

If we truly hope to create change, we must stop forgetting that we have the power to make change happen. We have incredible power. We have the power to completely divest our lives and financial resources from the harmful practices that threaten all life on this planet; we have the power to disengage from fearmongering, sensationalism, and all other divisive tactics that are used to fragment us. We have to be willing to stand up for one another and to communicate with one another in the spirit of unity and see one another as kin. When we work together, we have the collective power to direct our economic and political systems away from the practices of domination and destruction and back toward a more humane and restorative path.

When we balance our demand for rights with an acceptance of our responsibility toward one another and all other living beings, we take back our power. When we do so, we build a foundation for a rights-based society that is balanced, just and harmonious. This work won’t be fast, and it won’t be easy. And it will never be completed if we don’t take responsibility for making it happen.

From Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change by Sherri Mitchell, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018 by Sherri L. Mitchell. Used by permission of North Atlantic Books.

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