Casey Camp-Horinek: Aligning Human Law with Natural Law
This keynote talk was given at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.
According to Casey Camp-Horinek (Ponca), for as long as Mother Earth and Father Sky have blessed all life on Earth with sustenance, there has been a Sacred System honored by all species. Only humans have strayed wildly from these original instructions to live in harmony with all and to recognize our place in the Great Mystery. Now, she says, in this crucial moment, we must find our way back to Balance if we are to avoid the unraveling of the web of life.
Casey Camp-Horinek, a tribal Councilwoman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and Hereditary Drumkeeper of its Womens’ Scalp Dance Society, Elder and Matriarch, is also an Emmy award winning actress, author, and an internationally renowned, longtime Native and Human Rights and Environmental Justice activist. She led efforts for the Ponca tribe to adopt a Rights of Nature Statute and pass a moratorium on fracking on its territory, and has traveled and spoken around the world.
Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.
Introduction by Alexis Bunten, Co-Director, Bioneers Indigeneity Program
So it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce Casey Camp to the main stage today. I started hearing about Casey about two and a half years ago, when Cara Romero and I were just in the beginning of our work with the rights of nature tribal governance. People in and around the movement kept saying to me, “You’ve got to meet Casey Camp, she’s…” and what I heard from them was that she was leading the movement for the Ponca Nation, her nation, to be the first tribe in America to adopt the rights of nature. [APPLAUSE]
The Ponca were removed from their ancestral territory in what’s now called Nebraska, and forcibly taken to what’s now called Oklahoma. When fracking started causing earthquakes in their reservation territory in Oklahoma, they’d had enough. They needed—they knew—Casey knew they needed stronger protection than current environmental law to stop the destruction of land, for everybody. Sure enough, not shortly after I started hearing about Casey, the Ponca Nation did adopt a rights of nature tribal law in January 2018, and I was thrilled.
And at the same time, our Indigeneity Program director, Cara Romero, had just started an information sharing and knowledge-creation campaign about rights of nature with her own tribe, the Chemehuevi. And over the next few months, Cara presented this idea of tribal rights of nature to her community. This is the idea that tribes can write their own policy to protect nature in perpetuity.
Rights of nature forces those who dare to harm ecosystems not just to pay for damages done but to ensure that the ecosystem, all life forms – water, air – must be allowed to thrive and evolve. And tribal rights of nature law is extremely exciting because US federally recognized tribes are not like states, whose authority is underneath that of the federal government. They have a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government which means that our nations have sovereign immunity. And what that means in regular terms is that if a tribe adopts rights of nature law and that law is challenged by, say, a transnational corporation wanting to frack, that the corporation can’t sue the tribe. [APPLAUSE] We’re ready to test it out.
Since the Ponca Nation adopted rights of nature into their tribal law, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe have adopted the rights of manoomin, or wild rice, and many other tribes are really interested and excited to build this movement. They are looking for the legal, financial and capacity-building support, and that’s what Cara and I are trying to build with our tribal rights of nature movement.
So I hope that you’re starting to understand the historical and monumental magnitude of what it meant when the Ponca tribe adopted the rights of nature. What Casey set in motion was a not-getting-in-the-back-of-the-bus, paradigm-shifting moment.
I finally got to meet Casey at the Protecting Mother Earth conference hosted by the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Nisqually tribe last May… Her poised leadership, intelligence, and innate beauty blew me away.
So then I just did what I usually do when I want to get to know someone better, and help to raise awareness and support for the incredible work they’re doing, I invited her to come speak at a conference with me in New York. Sadly, she wasn’t able to come, but I’m very dogged, so then I invited her to come speak at a conference in London with me. And the highlight of our time together, which was about three weeks ago, was getting to spend time with Casey and her absolutely beautiful granddaughter, Casey.
And I learned that Casey’s got this incredible vision for her tribe. Besides rights of nature, she’s leading a number of other initiatives for food sovereignty, restoring ancestral seeds, and indigenous-led regenerative economy, and acquiring her tribe’s ancestral territory in Nebraska. [APPLAUSE] That’s true decolonization. Some people call it the Native Land Return movement. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about it in the next few years, gifting ancestral territory back to the original tribal caretakers. [APPLAUSE]
And when Casey and her tribe get their ancestral territory back, she’s got some big plans. Casey is so many things. She’s a traditional person, a grandmother, a leader, a movement builder, a peacemaker and a revolutionary. And I just learned backstage that she sewed her own dress, so I think she can literally do everything. So with no further ado, let’s all give a warm welcome to my friend Casey Camp. [APPLAUSE]
My relative. You are everything. You are life itself. You are me and I am you. All of my relatives here, they love you like I love you. We appreciate you beyond words. We ask you to carry our blessings to the Coastal Miwok and the Pomo ancestors, who are sustaining us in this beautiful place. We ask you in your beauty to talk to the sacred air for us, to talk to the Thunder Nation for us, to talk to the water of the oceans, to talk to the mountains, to flow through us in a sacred manner and give us words, give us a way forward, help us to honor you as you honor us, help us to understand that you are all that is and we are your children, that you as you flow through our Mother Earth within her veins, with you as you come down from the skies, with you as you live within our wombs, with you that take care of us, we come today and we offer this song. I thank you. I love you. I’ll do my best because of you and for our future generations, for all the unborns. We say thank you for this life.
The song says [NATIVE WORDS] and that is simply: We thank you for this sacred gift of water and the blessing that it brings to us. Water is in everything and everything is within the water.
[SINGS NATIVE WORDS] [APPLAUSE]
I’ve been told in the ways of the Ponca, which means sacred head, that we’re supposed to have witness wherever we travel so that we could be sure that we have told the truth when we go back home and our people ask us: What was said, what was done? So I’m asking this water to stand witness for you and for I, and for all the things that are said and done in this sacred manner.
I want to say thank you to Alexis for the beautiful words she said about me. It’s kind of tricky. I think my daughters and sons might have sent her that note to say, “And you better say this about our mama, ‘cause…” [LAUGHTER] ‘Cause she’s an incredible human being and it’s an honor to work with her.
It’s an honor to be here among you. It’s an honor to be among warriors. It’s an honor to be alive at this time of crisis. It’s an honor to be with relatives.
We talk about the rights of nature as if that’s a separate thing from us. And so in our way, when we wrote this statute, we wrote the immutable Ponca rights of nature, because how are we to say that we are inventing something new but know we are recognizing what has always been? So in coming to you today and bringing this sacred water to you, as she brought me, I believe that we need to take this moment to recognize the interconnectedness to all things, not in the esoterical way but in the truth and reality of what this human body is made of.
In the Ponca way, I was told by my mother that a long time ahead ago – she said it that way – a long time ahead ago, there was a being that lived in the red star area. I think the white folks call it the Pleiades. And among those seven sisters, on that red star, this being focused on this beautiful blue-green jewel that was floating through and around the heavens. Among all the sparkly things, this attracted that being, this red star child. And this red star child was constantly talking to the Great Mystery, to the Creator, and saying, “My spirit longs to be there. When I look at this place, this beautiful star in my sky, it calls me. I see how the four legs walk there. They understand each other. They understand where to feed, when to move on, how to give birth, and I long to be part of them. There’s these winged things. Some of them are small and fluttery, some of them are huge and soaring. Some of those four legs got big noses. But every one of them already loves me. Can I go there, Creator? Can I be part of that great mystery?” “Nah, you haven’t grown up enough. You don’t understand the oneness that exists in this place.” “Oh, but look at the snow fall. Isn’t that what you call it? It’s called [NATIVE WORD] in our language. And that Mija[ph] is so beautiful and sparkly, and it falls into these beautiful piles of softness. I want to jump in those. Oh, and look where the earth has this portion of sand. I think I’ll call her that. I like the sound of that word. I think she might be my mama.” Great Mystery said, “No, you’re just a child, yes, but that’s not your mama. You live here. You’re part of this. Millenniums. Eons.” Red Star child begged for the oneness here in this place that felt like his mother, the earth, until finally the Great Mystery said, “If you arrive there, look at those things with their roots deeply inside the mother and loving her. Do you promise to honor that way of life if I let you put your roots down there? Those buffalo that roam that area that you’re looking at, those can be your brothers, but there must be a way forward where you honor one another, and besides that, you’re just a spirit, Red Child, how are you going to embody yourself?” the Great Mystery said.
And the Great Mystery thought, “What if over that spirit that you are, I built a body from your mother, the earth, to birth you? What if I gave you a way to be part of that harmony? Would you honor it? Would all of your children’s children’s children’s children’s children children and on honor that? I’ll make you different. I’ll give you two legs instead of four. I’m not going to let you fly because you haven’t earned that right. [LAUGHTER] But I will allow you to be part of that if you honor the sacred system of life that’s already in place there.” That’s where the first Ponca came was with the idea, with the understanding that those beautiful things with their roots in the ground would have a breath that Red Star Child would share. And as Red Star Child built a body out of eating the grains, the corn, out of sharing life with the four legs, out of drinking the sacred water, out of listening to the Thunder Nation and the directions that came, there became a sacred way of life that happened, and he built a body to wear over his spirit, her spirit. Because Red Star Child was genderless at that time, because within that body was also self-determination of what Red Star Child chose to be.
And that is us. That is us. That is you. That is I. That is this particular group of two-legged beings that are blessed sharing one mother, one mother, one father, the sky. This incredible mother who sustains us no matter what we do to her, she has unconditional love for us. The sacred pact that we made with the Great Mystery, with the Creator, with the earth Mother is something that is beginning to seep into the consciousness of the two-legged, something that’s beginning to be remembered, and that’s why we gather at a time like this, you and I, that’s why we come together as warriors for her, warriors in peace, warriors in love, but warriors with no way back, only forward. [APPLAUSE]
[NATIVE CALL] [AUDIENCE RESPONDS]
And at this time of imbalance, when humans have gotten their egos so berserk that they think because we speak a particular language that we share, we’re the boss. Yeah. That shows you just how stupid we are. [LAUGHTER] We’re still that little child. We haven’t even hit adolescence. We’re still those little guys that say, “No, no, no, no, no! I want it my way! I want creature comforts! Give me something to eat. Give me something to drink. Take care of me right now!” And she does. And she does.
And those green things that taste our breath as we breathe out oxygen and they breathe it in and shoot that oxygen back to us, they take care of us. Those sacred things in the ocean that have the same pH level and the same saline solution as the womb of the woman still tries to care for us. Those relatives, whether they are of plant life, whether they are of rock, whether they have four legs or whether they have fins, or creepy crawlers that live way underneath the earth, they still take care of us.
So now what? Now what? If you realize that you’re this embodiment, if you take responsibility because you ate this morning, because you drank this morning, because you breathe, what further responsibility will you take? We are beyond the seventh generation, but we haven’t gone so far as to step out of our creature comforts, like that 3 year old. What will do next?
The Ponca Nation has chosen to follow the rights of nature, the immutable rights of nature by recognizing those rights of nature, and recognizing that we as human beings are not separate from but part of this sacred system of life. And so what we have to do, and we cannot wait, is we have to allow ourselves to grow to the point to take chances, to believe that there is a just transition away from fossil fuels, and that we can say that, we can demand that, we can vote people into office, or just kick them out and do it ourselves. [APPLAUSE]
Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today. We need to make that difference. And within our community, we do it in the kitchen-table way. All of our conversations looking for native rights to be upheld and environmental rights, which are one, was begun around our mama’s kitchen table, being taught. All of my daughters and granddaughters go to MIT. I myself am a graduate of Matriarch in Training. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] Two fists for that one! [CHEERS] And down to the babiest one. They know how to listen to our Mother and to receive instructions from her, and to follow through with those fearlessly, as you must do.
We have strong, strong men in our family, and they’re beautiful warriors. They stand around us. Have you ever seen a herd of buffalo protecting the weakest in the center? They stand facing out taking on any obstacles. That’s my family. [APPLAUSE] I’m proud of them. I didn’t even know this word called activist and environmentalist was something separate from what being a human entails. [APPLAUSE]
And that’s what I’m here asking you to do: Take responsibility. Pay back to the Earth herself what she has gifted to you. Take responsibility today. Gather your family around your kitchen table, talk to them about what is going to happen in the next seven generations. Do you want to breathe? Do you want to eat? Do you want to drink? If you do, do something. Go to your state government. Go to your local government. Go to your federal government and say: We are part of nature. We want you to enact these laws, like in New Zealand with the Wanganui River. [APPLAUSE] And if they don’t do it, you do it. You do it. [APPLAUSE] And if you want to look in the mirror this evening, in the morning, any day, see yourself, really see yourself, you have the capabilities, you have the innate understanding, you have the spirit living within you that’s connected to all. Honor that. Honor yourselves. Honor all of creation.
And then we get to hang around here, because I really hate to say this to you, but human beings right now are kind of like ticks are fleas on the Mother Earth. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] We’re kind of like…and pass around some diseases and refuse to let go…[LAUGHTER] Mosquitoes, all of that kind of stuff.
Don’t we want to be honored as a part of all that is? Yeah. We’re going to do that. We’re going to do that, you and I, all of our relations. All things are connected. We appreciate you very much.
I’m going to ask my nephew, Rain[?], to come out here. We are beginning to make treaties, as we have in the past. We have a woman’s treaty that was made just for women and our supporters, indigenous women to begin with, and then everyone, and I wanted to be able to introduce another form of a treaty to you, because we want to honor all living things in that manner.
[NATIVE WORDS] It’s an honor to be here, honor to be here with my aunt. We have very, very little time. So I just want to tell you that in the indigenous space we have a first treaty that’s ever been written under the indigenous rights of nature. This treaty is called the Wolf Treaty. We use the wolf just because it is symbolic. You think about all the misconceptions and stereotypes that people have attached to the wolf, and you think about all the stereotypes and misconceptions people have attached to indigenous people to justify heinous acts. We had a treaty for the grizzly bear. I don’t know if you know this. Two hundred tribal nations signed that treaty, most signed treaty in history. We ended up taking that treaty, going to federal court, and we fought the Trump administration, State of Montana, State of Wyoming, State of Idaho, National Rifle Association, Safari Club International. We were defending not just our sacred relative, the grizzly bear, the first two-legged to set foot upon the Earth, we were defending treaty rights, spiritual, religious freedoms, the Federal Indian Trust responsibility. And you know what? We won. [CHEERS]
So we don’t have a whole lot of time to share [CROSSTALK] to share this with you. But I want to remember a dear friend of mine who passed of ours. His name was John Trudeau. [APPLAUSE] And if our brother John Trudeau was here today, he would say to you, each and every one of you is descended from a tribe. You may not know what that tribe is, but you are descended from a tribe. And he would remind you that you are all indigenous because you are indigenous to the planet, you are indigenous to our Mother Earth.
I’m going to leave you with this thought, briefly. Crazy Horse, he said that we would end up living in a shadow world, but the real world is the world behind this one. It is the world of dreams. So today, I ask you to dream.
There was another prophet, and he sang a song, and he said, You may say I’m a dreamer, but [CROSSTALK] [CASEY: But that’s not the only way.] but I’m not the only one. [LAUGHTER] And here today we see [CROSSTALK] we’re not the only one.
They’re asking us to leave right now, but all of our stuff is over at the indigenous tent. We’re trying to raise youth awareness. We’re trying to bring this treaty to light. And we’re trying right now to create some women’s retreats in a beautiful place. And Earth Rights is the name of it. [APPLAUSE]