Indigenize the Law: Tribal Rights of Nature Movements with Casey Camp-Horinek | Part 2

Photography by Will Wilson ( and collage artwork by Mer Young (

This is Part Two of our conversation with tribal elder and matriarch Casey Camp Horinek. We discuss why a tribally led movement is the best hope for the planet, and how the unique legal and political relationship between tribes and the U.S. federal government is advantageous in efforts to truly protect ecosystems. Casey also discusses the journey her tribe is taking as they explore the best ways to incorporate rights of nature into their legal framework.

To listen to the first part of this program, click here.

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.

This is an episode of Indigeneity Conversations, a podcast series that features deep and engaging conversations with Native culture bearers, scholars, movement leaders, and non-Native allies on the most important issues and solutions in Indian Country. Bringing Indigenous voices to global conversations. Visit the Indigeneity Conversations homepage to learn more.


Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel

Co-Hosts and Producers: Cara Romero and Alexis Bunten

Senior Producer: Stephanie Welch

Associate Producer and Program Engineer: Emily Harris

Consulting Producer: Teo Grossman

Studio Engineers: Brandon Pinard and Theo Badashi

Tech Support: Tyson Russell

This episode’s artwork features a tintype portrait of Casey Camp Horinek by Will Wilson. Mer Young creates the series collage artwork.

Additional music provided by, connecting producers and content creators with Indigenous composers.


ALEXIS BUNTEN: Hi, Everyone. Welcome to Indigeneity Conversations, our native-to-native podcast dialogues from Bioneers. I’m Alexis Bunten, co-host and also co-director of the Bioneers Indigeneity Program along with Cara Romero.

CARA ROMERO: Hi Everyone. This is Part two of our conversation with tribal elder and matriarch Casey Camp Horinek about her remarkable work in the tribal rights of nature movement. We had such a wonderful time talking with her about what led her to this work, and about the roots of the rights of nature movement. 

We talked about how we launched our tribal-led Rights of Nature initiative at Bioneers through our Indigeneity Program. And the difference between customary laws and laws set forth in tribal constitutions.

AB: On this episode, we discuss why a native led movement is really the best for all of us in the United States and beyond, and the best hope for the planet. Federally recognized tribes have a unique political  and legal relationship with the US federal government that gives us the potential to lead the way in protecting ecosystems for generations to come and all Americans really. 

Casey also talks about the journey her tribe is taking as they explore ways to determine the best approach for their community to incorporate rights of nature into their legal framework.

CR: So now, we’ll go to our conversation with Casey. We pick up where she tells us about the experience that her tribe had as they explored ways to approach adopting rights of nature laws.

CASEY CAMP-HORINEK: When we started looking at this Rights of Nature thing, our first thought was we wanted it in the constitution. But knowing all of the hoops that they try to make us jump through in order to get from A to Z, to get something done, was what made us decide to just go directly for a statute. We had done the community organizing here at home, and my brother Cart always called it a kitchen table organizing, We all started sitting at mama’s table, or my table, as it turns out, and kind of talking to one another and batting things back and forth, and seeing the best way, the worst way, and the way forward. And then we kind of expanded into – well, we don’t have a word for cousin, so it would go to the brothers and sisters beyond, and the uncles and aunties, and grandmas and grandpas. Our kids were always running through the rooms, and they’d listen, whether they seemed to or not. Then it would expand to a community meeting, and eventually work its way to council. So I understand your process. I think it’s the same wherever we are.

But then when we decided—I believe we have to understand more than anything else right now, critical timing is happening. We do not have time to jump through the hoops that the BIA and the federal government and these IRA constitutions are trying to demand of us. That’s why we went for a statute. And its wording was not exactly what we chose it to be to begin with, but understand with anything that you put in your own statute or any resolutions that are passed to get you there, any of those resolutions can be tweaked. So you go ahead and put it in whatever language is the best language you have today, get it passed, get it moving, get it into the BIA’s records, get it to a place where you can already say I’m exerting my sovereignty now. And then if you need to, and you find a better way to present that, go through your tribal council again and say it looks like these words need to be adjusted a little bit; let’s do it this way. In five minutes or less, they can rescind that resolution and replace it with the next resolution with the words that you want.

When we got ours in place, we found that we should have and did eventually include our original tribal territory that we were blessed to be able to caretake in Nebraska. Because we know we have to stop KXL from coming through our traditional territory and destroying the Ogallala aquifer. We knew that our people came from Nishu or the Missouri River, where DAPL was trying to cross. That’s what took us there. When we formed the Cowboy and Indian Alliance or helped to reform that and were part of that resurgence, probably six or eight years ago, one of the things that we utilized up there was the sacred Ponca corn that my son Mekasi had brought back with a nephew Amos. Through agriculture we had – it’s a very ‘nother long story, but when we were forcibly removed, that was in the caretaking of some Lakota who found our fields and started taking care of the corn that was there. So Mekasi in a ceremony, in a dream, was told where to plant it. And we made this alliance with a wonderful white farmer and his wife, Art Tanderup and Helen Tanderup, and they lived on Ponca territory, original territory, but they’re the caretakers now. And we planted that through ceremony. My son Mikasi and family planted that, and it is deemed now in the Department of Agriculture as a sacred site because sacred Ponca corn is planted there. That is nature asserting its own rights, what Mother Earth is telling us needs to be happening. So, there are many forms that we can reclaim.

CR: I agree with your sense of urgency. This is the time that we have to stand for the land, that there is very little time left. I mean,  I am bearing witness in my young 43 years to the devastating changes in our other brothers’ and sisters’ landscapes. I know being from Oklahoma, I have witnessed that landscape. I have lived in Oklahoma, and now is the time.

I love Rights of Nature because it really flips the paradigm from all of this property law into all the laws that we know to be true; that we are in service to nature, and that we must help her protect herself.

We’re protecting our children. We’re protecting all the things that we know in our blood memory have to be protected, not just for ourselves. These battles are not just for tribal peoples on their ancestral lands. They’re for certainly for future generations, certainly for the health of our children, but really for all people.

Missouri River (photo credit: Laura Gilchrist)

AB: I’d like to add a little bit more about why it’s so innovative. Rights of Nature law is proactive and it’s really seventh generation; you’re looking to your lessons, what you’ve learned, what’s been passed down from the past; we’re thinking about protecting what’s here now for future generations. And it’s set up to protect ecosystems and not to pay individuals for damages done. So even if there is a damage done, if it is prosecuted through Rights of Nature, damages paid would be to restore the ecosystem and to make it regenerative so that it can be healthy and live on its own terms, by its own rules.

Sometimes you hear the word customary law, sometimes you hear the word traditional law, sometimes you hear the word natural law, sometimes you might hear the word original instructions. Any of those terms are all the same thing. I wanted to clarify that to begin with.

And then when you layer on impositions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the US federal government on tribes, then within the, I guess you could say, Western legal system, you’ve got two other layers on top of that. You’ve got tribal law, which is how a tribal nation governs itself within its own trust lands, sometimes called reservations, sometimes called other things. And then you have federal Indian law, and federal Indian law pertains to these IRA constitutions that federally recognized tribes have adopted, and this constitution, just like the federal government has a constitution, is a document that establishes that tribes deal directly with the US federal government. They’re not like a city or a town that has to go to the state first, through the state before they get to the federal government. Tribes, as sovereign nations, deal directly with the federal government. 

And so this is one of the reasons why tribes adopting Rights of Nature language into their tribal constitutions is so exciting, because what’s happened in the United States is when we’ve heard all these exciting stories about cities and towns and municipalities and boroughs doing their own grassroots organizing and adopting Rights of Nature law, it immediately gets contested by the polluters, by the frackers, by the multinational corporations, and they have a lot of money to fight those little cities and towns, and they’ve been losing, because they have to go through the state level and all these appeals to get to the federal government. 

Now if a tribe adopts Rights of Nature law to their constitution, it goes straight to the federal government. Now I don’t know the exact number, but we have over 100 tribes with IRA constitutions throughout the United States. If 50 of those 100 and something tribes adopted Rights of Nature language into their constitution, none of those corporations would be able to keep up with that. 

With the NO DAPL Dakota Access Pipeline occupation by water protectors in 2016, for the first time ever, Americans from all walks of life, all backgrounds, different ages, different socioeconomic categories, different races, ethnicities, people understood that if the Missouri River was polluted, that when it goes through reservation lands, that that river has to come out somewhere, and it has to go through about a thousand more miles of the US before it reaches the ocean, and that that would affect all of us. It would affect grazing animals, it would affect water supplies, it would hurt everybody. But if these tribal lands have Rights of Nature measures, they can make these fights for the rivers, and the air, and the ecosystems, and the earthquakes because of fracking that’s happening in their lands, it ripples out and it protects everybody else.

CCH: You know, I think that there are—there are areas that we really need to kind of weigh in a different manner than we ever have before, because we are having to use the colonizers’ words when we address our feelings around the Rights of Nature. And I remember I was with 100 women globally. I believe it was 2010 or ’11, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network had invited us, and Shannon Biggs, who I now work with closely in movement rights and Pennie Opal Plant, we’re talking about Rights of Nature and looking at it as a possibility for us, and trying to convince me.

And my immediate pushback was I don’t think we can do that because any law that is made is just another fence put around us, just another reservation status, just another BIA construct, just another federal government trick.

Nature has its own rights and will inevitably heal herself, and hopefully take humans along on this ride. And by recognizing these Rights of Nature, we’re including ourselves in her journey as a living entity, because as humans, if we breathe, we’re part of the four winds, we’re part of the Thunder Nation, we’re part of…it just is exciting to me and gives me chills to really feel what this breath of life means, like an infant when its born, and that first [INHALES] that happens. It’s so sacred. And it’s coming from the womb, from the water, that salinated water, just with the same pH factor even as the Mother Ocean.

So if we drink and fill ourselves with her, with this sacred water, oh my goodness, how blessed are we to be part of her and to have her nurture us. If we eat something today, as I know I did, berries from the bushes, the incredible blessing of the buffalo, and the wings, the eggs I had this morning, and the wheat that came in that even, the grain. Those have roots in our Mother Earth. They come from the ancestors. They come from even the unborn that are part of the cycle of the mother and the father. It is so powerful that the sun rose today, that the moon mother is guiding the rhythms of life. And we’re part of this. We’re part of this revolving Earth as she nurtures us unconditionally. And if any of us have any ideas that simply recognizing, recognizing not giving rights, but recognizing the rights of all that that is called nature, get over it, feel it, and ask through your prayer and through your innate, as my relative Cara said, blood memories, if this is the path that will move us into a sacred future for the seventh generation, recognizing that we, too, are the seventh generation from [Her language], from before us.

It’s a beautiful opportunity that we’ve been given to begin to have this understanding seeping through and weaving through, just like the sacred water herself does. We’ll go around these obstacles. We’ll come together and be part of this ocean of understanding. [Her language]

CR: Casey, can you tell us a little more about the doctrine of discovery?

CCH: I think many of us are going to have to talk about this, because it’s like examining this beast from all angles. And the beast, to me, is the vehicle that was used in order to overrun this continent and many other continents, and to be able to find in their way of creating their law a legal way to do all of the murderous, Holocaust victimizing that they did to the indigenous people of what’s called North America and Africa and Australia, South America, everywhere. They used Christianity. They used a way of saying that the papal bull edict, and maybe one of you know the actual year that happened in the early teens of their Gregorian calendar, that the pope says, “This is my law now – if you come upon a shores of a place that you are – I really don’t use air quotes much, but discovering deserves air quotes – then those—if those people are not Christianized, then they don’t even count.” They, of course, did not see the value in a sacred tree or in the sacred waters, or in any of those things that we feel related to and we know in fact that is part of this sacred system of life that we exist in as human beings, but certainly not humans. And in fact, allowed them to come on these shores and use their understanding of even women, that women were property. That’s the way they looked at it. And other humans were property.

Chief Standing Bear, 1877

And I remember when I was young, hearing about the first Native American to be called human under the eyes of the law was in fact a Ponca, in 1878, who had escaped from the reservation. His name was Standing Bear. He was captured. He was returning his son’s bones to the ancestral lands after he was—after he died from the forced removal. And they had to do a writ of Habeas Corpus to take him to court. And the judge had to then rule that indeed he was a human being with constitutional rights in order for that writ of Habeas Corpus to work. And so, in 1878, we were then called human.

Although, it didn’t work. We’ve never had full—what their constitutional rights are supposed to have engendered us with, even as sovereign nations supposed to have our government-to-government relationship. It’s all a sham.

But certainly the first sham that allowed them to inflict all of the ownership of us and the territories that we protected came through the doctrine of discovery. And it has been with the indigenous hive mind, so to speak, to have that rescinded.

And I believe that first we must do that internally, and this is after talking to my family, my sons Mikasi, Jeff, Julie and Suzaatah, and my companion, that we need, as traditional people, traditional leadership to first reject that within our territories, and then reject it internationally, and then perhaps that person who is God on Earth, called the pope, might see the folly in this and rescind it.

AB: I agree. And I’d like to add a little bit more to this as well. From my understanding, the doctrine of discovery was a law put in place by European colonizers when they encountered Indigenous Peoples living here where we live, in what is now North America. And it was a way to take legal title of our ancestral territories and pass it down between white men. 

And the way that the papal bulls fit into this is there were a series of edicts in the 1500s set out by the pope in the Vatican that were in the service of the Vatican and the Catholic Church gaining more power and more money in partnerships with the monarchs in Europe at the time. And these papal bulls said that—They basically proclaimed that any people – they wouldn’t have even called them people, I think – they encounter in these new places full of riches that they discovered with the land and resources that could be exploited, if they are not “Christian” or Christianized, or recognized as humans in the eyes of God, they would not be recognized as humans in the eyes of the—of the settlers, of the colonizers, and therefore, they were considered like animals, lesser than, which is of course a false premise that’s absolutely not indigenous at all. We are a part of nature. Human beings are no better or higher or more evolved or more progressed than a rock or a—or a fly, or any other creature, or living being or plant on this planet. So it builds up that idea of humans being better than. 

Well then, once you can dehumanize us, then Indigenous Peoples became the first slaves. Our lands could be taken. We could be killed, flogged, made examples of to terrify and cause trauma for generations that are still here. 

The same thing happened when treaties were made between sovereign European nations and tribal nations. At some point the colonizers did realize that we have nations, and even though treaties have been used against us, now we’re using them in our favor to have those sovereign nation-to-nation relationships with the federal government. So we can take these laws and we can use them to our advantage and turn them on their head. 

And also, I guess the last thing I would like to point out, I mentioned that Indigenous Peoples were the first enslaved peoples in what is now North America, it’s important to also point out that legally sanctioned by the federal government slavery has existed through the 1960s in Alaska on the Pribilof Islands to the Unangan people there who I’m related to, and that was allowed by the government. It was only recently stopped. So first to be enslaved and last to be enslaved.

And of course the rest of us are enslaved by the lies we’re taught to believe, but that’s another conversation. [LAUGHTER]

So, well, we’ve kind of gone over the background of the Rights of Nature movement, we’ve talked about all the amazing organizing that Cara has done with her tribe, the Chemehuevi, that Casey has done with her tribe, the Ponca. I’d like to talk to both of you now about what’s happening now and what are we looking forward to in the future, and how can people get involved.

CCH: Learning a new kind of organizing is what I’m doing now. For instance, being on this particular type of organizing that we’re doing today. You know, COVID has given us many opportunities and created many, many, many families in mourning. Here in our territory, the ones we’ve lost, it’s painful, the illnesses it’s caused, the harm to even our ability to sit for four days with our loved ones, and to feed, it’s difficult to even imagine how different things are.

And at the same moment, I’m trying to understand it as a season of being. In the past, in our original ways, we did have particular meanings for particular seasons. Obviously in the spring, you planted. Obviously in the summer you grew, you roamed, you hunted, you fished. And in the fall, harvest. In the wintertime it was time to come inside and to be with your extended family, and to tell the stories of the ancestors, to tell the parables of understanding what the animals are teaching you, to pass on the wisdoms that you had, and to listen to the voices of the youths.

And in many ways, this COVID has created a [glitch] like the wintertime, where we’re beginning to share the wisdoms, that we’re listening to the voice of the youth, that the youths are at home instead of being confined in the schools, although they still have to deal with that formal education, which is kind of a tricky thing for me because our natural world is such an educator of its own. But we have this moment where the Earth has shown us how quickly she can heal if humans would just take a step back. And it shows us that our—this thing they call a carbon footprint can be much lighter if we quit traveling, if we quit using the fossil fuel industry in order to help us to live our lives in a different way.

Tintype portrait by Will Wilson. Collage artwork by Mer Young.

You know, I’ve been doing webinars with the Break Free from Plastic, with movement rights, with the Condor and the Eagle, with Bioneers, with EarthWorks, with many, many others that are all with the same message. And that’s the sense of urgency that Cara mentioned, the understandings that both of you have talked about of how to realign ourselves with the natural world again.

And it bears the teachings that we have had. I’ve talked to my young ones of some of the stories that I’m not going to relate here, but about the staying at home during these times of mourning, about the staying of home in the time of transition, where we don’t disturb what’s going on out there, because the deer still know how to live in a good manner. They have broken no natural laws, and the same with the fish, and the same with the winged ones, and on and on and on. Only humans have broken the law.

And so with us being confined inside, we are in some ways relearning a little bit about how we’re supposed to live, and we’re sharing through, instead of the—this sacred web of life that we have talked about in our ceremonies, those of us in the Plains at least, we’re talking about these webinars, and we’re communicating en masse with one another about how to recognize a way forward. And it’s a valuable moment, even to acknowledge those in mourning, and that we feel them, and to help them through this period of time.

So those thoughts come to me, and that’s how I’m getting through this moment. And it’s helping me also to restructure how—what the next move is going to be. We’re going to, within our areas, recognize the rights of what’s called the Salt Fork River. But when we were removed here, it was called [NATIVE TERM], and the other river over here, where they converge was called [NATIVE TERM]. And we feel that’s going to help protection, not only of us, but everyone downstream, as you were speaking about. We all live downstream in some fashion or form, downwind and downstream. So, that’s what, in our particular little corner of the world, we’re doing right now.

CR: I wanted to just recap a little bit about today, and just reinforce that today—that now is our moment. Now is our moment to rally around not only this idea of protecting our land at all costs but rallying around each other, as we need protection from ourselves really. We need to be protectors of our landscape. And that people may realize that US Native lands are often the most biodiverse left on the globe, that we are stewards and protectors of the most pristine landscapes that we have left, and that we are working to protect these landscapes, that we’re working to protect them for all people, and that they’re often the segue between clean and dirty energy, so that these are protections of tribal lands are becoming even more important.

I hope that people understand that the tribal Rights of Nature movement and being tribally led is leading the way for all peoples. And I hope that [INAUDIBLE] also a way to heal ourselves and for all peoples to re-indigenize to our place, and to stop being colonizers, to start learning to indigenize and uphold all those traditional laws, those original instructions for all people, because we’re really all a part of this protection, and many of us are away from our lands, from which they originated. But now’s the time to indigenize the way they hold relationship to the lands that they are on. And I really believe that Rights of Nature is for all people to protect their lands. I hope the pope rescinds the doctrine of discovery and hears this message. And I hope that people understand all the importance of honoring the treaties in the United States and beyond.

AB: We’ve talked about how the doctrine of discovery and the papal bulls, and treaties, and all of these legal works put into policy hundreds of years ago are continuing to affect us today as Native Peoples and as non-Native guests living on indigenous lands. And we were all subjected the privatization of nature and of the lands on which we live. And what Rights of Nature really does is take that property/owner mentality out of our ecosystems, out of the way Mother Earth should work. It should work as a living, breathing entity that exists and regenerates. But so long as land is considered private property to be extracted from, we’re going to keep killing it, and we’re going to keep killing ourselves. 

Except, as Grandmother Casey said, nature’s always going to be there. It’s going to thrive. It’s more powerful than us. So even though we as humans are committing ecocide, we’re really committing suicide. 

So what’s really exciting about Rights of Nature is that we are thinking about nature in a new way, in a more indigenous way, in a way of relating to nature, in a way that’s true to nature’s natural laws, and that to me is really the takeaway and what’s really exciting. And it’s also really exciting that Indigenous Peoples all around the world are leading this movement, not just for their own ancestral homelands and territories, but for everybody. 

A big thank you to Casey. Thank you so much for spending time with us. I always love spending time with you. I’d like to offer you the [CROSSTALK] kind of land statement. If you have any final words or thoughts you’d like to share before we say goodbye.

CCH: Thank you. It’s been wonderful spending time with you all. And it’s an honor to learn. And I always learn from all of you young people who are the new leaders, the ones that are going to take us into this next generation and bring on the generations behind them to understand where we are in this. It is a natural portion of prophecy for me to feel part of this.

Now we were told when we were young to prepare. Time of purification was going to happen. I wasn’t sure in what form it would be, or if it would be in my lifetime, but we were told to prepare. And the Earth herself is preparing to have her purification. The beginning is what they call climate change. But that started a long time ago. And the generations before there was something we could look in the past at and see how to come forward. And we’re doing that again. We are regenerating and rising, and being resilient by looking at the past, not in terms of, oh, we’ve got records of weather, so we can see what’s happened there and forecast the future. No. We’re looking at what has worked before, and how can we recreate that situation in today, and how today’s working.

So if we look and we see that the weather is changing because of a certain behavior that humans have participated in, how do we change that behavior? Well, we begin to move towards renewable energies. In this day and age, voting is important. We really don’t have a choice. And I was taught that if you don’t, then you have no reason to cry. So those voting things have to happen internally. What do you vote for personally? Do you vote for a change in the way that we relate to the world around us? Or do we continue to be the brainwashed people who are forced into a certain form of education, certain form of dressing, and on and on? Or do we break free from that and see what has worked and what needs to work next? And then we take it to that level, and we warrior up. Quit waiting for someone else to show you a way. Go internalize. Sit inside yourself. Meditate, as they say. And find what your spirit needs you to do. It is time to protect. It is time to go forth, take to the streets if you have to, take to city halls if you have to, create the policies within your community that will endanger that seventh generation philosophy that we all have been taught, no matter what the words are that we use, and set a place at a table that is going to be there for your great-great-great, for the simple things that we enjoy – air, food, water, earth, and the sacredness of all.

I have to sing a song for you. And this song is very, very simple, and I’m only going to sing one verse, because all it says is: My Mother, you’re good. [SINGING]

For the Mother of all of us, the one true Mother we share, our Mother, the Earth. We’re here for you Mother Earth. My Mother, you’re good. [her language] Love you girls. Thank you for all you do.

CR: Thank you, Casey…

AB: Thank you everyone for joining us for this episode of Indigeneity Conversations. I hope you found this informative, and if you haven’t listened to Part 1 of our conversation with Casey Camp Horinek, please check it out. Go to our website, and you can hear that episode and see and hear more from Casey.

CR: We have other episodes there to listen to and share, and we offer other original Indigenous media content. You’ll also learn about the Indigeneity program and all of our initiatives, including curricula and learning materials for students and life-long learners.

It’s been such a pleasure to share with all of you today. Many thanks and take care!

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