Niibi Center Hosts Anishinaabe Law Conference

by Chelsea Fairbank

July 24, 2023

I had the privilege of attending the First Annual Anishinaabe Law Conference, hosted by the Niibi Center on White Earth, June 25th & 26th – 2023. The conference provided a forum where Water Protectors, tribal lawyers and non-tribal lawyers, and nationally and internationally renowned Indigenous legal scholars could begin a formal dialogue concerning what customary, or natural law, is and looks like in practice. Among the honored speakers were Tom Goldtooth, Diné of the Dibé izhiní clan on his mother’s side, Kekek Stark – Turtle Mountain Ojibwe and member of the Bizhiw clan, and Rebecca Tsosie who is of Yaqui descent.

Together these speakers brought together decades of expertise on the international, national, and regional levels which designed a tapestry of knowledge to think with what customary law can and does look like towards the natural world and towards each other. Customary law can be thought of as the ways specific nations and communities conduct themselves through shared agreements on how to preserve and protect the waters, animals, plants, and lands around them. Sometimes this is called ‘natural law’. Mr. Stark reminded us that tribal communities have “rich bodies of knowledge” where “local, collective, and individual memory becomes actualized”. This is the heart and nexus of customary law which travel across the natural world and through our relationships with one another.

Dr. Tsosie spoke about the capacity we all have to heal and transform, always going towards the ancestors and the future at the same time. She shared a powerful story of an Australian Aboriginal prophecy where the stars, which form the constellations, represent Indigenous nations globally coming together as a path towards the future. I see customary/natural law as a fundamental component of this emancipatory path. A path filled with justice for human communities and, importantly, justice for all the beings and forms which sustain human lives so generously on this earth.

Mr. Tom Goldtooth wove these teaching together through speaking about the Rights of Mother Earth, also known as the Right of Nature. He shared about how Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across the globe are utilizing this powerful legal discourse to defend Mother Nature while also insisting on social justice for communities experiencing corporate or state violence. Mr. Goldtooth reminded us of the crucial moment in time we are all living within where, “We are on this quest to steady our relationship with Mother Earth.” This quest is shared amongst us and travels throughout generations before and after us. What an honor it is to be a part of this difficult and joyful process. Other ways natural, or customary laws, were described was through the understandings of thunder, fires, right relationships, integrity, and the ongoing education processes fundamental to the daily practices of customary law. These laws function on the personal, community, tribal, spiritual, and inter-tribal levels.

For me, practicing customary, or natural law, is one of the most important strategies to move our world beyond the distortions of the last 500 years of colonial worldview. A worldview that has brought havoc onto ourselves, our personal relations, and our relations with the beings of the natural world – ancients who have existed much longer than ourselves. “Colonization is a matrix which wants to hold us back from what our hearts want,” (Goldtooth, 2023). Customary and natural law is one of the potent pathways back to our hearts and back to the heart of Mother Earth. The Annual Anishinaabe Law Conference on White Earth is a place to explore these potentials for many years to come.

Originally published in the Aug 2023 edition of the Anishinaabeg Today (vol. 28, no. 8) pg. 2,%202023%20c.pdf

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