Indigenous social movements across Turtle Island have been pivotal in the fight for climate justice. From the struggle against the Cherry Point coal export terminal in Lummi territory to the fights against pipelines crossing critical waterways, Indigenous land defenders have exercised their rights and responsibilities to not only stop fossil fuel projects in their tracks, but establish precedents to build successful social justice movements.1 The essential backbone of these movements is grounded in an Indigenous Rights framework.
This Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities approach is based upon the concepts of Indigenous Sovereignty, which exist regardless of the actions of settler nation-states. Indigenous Sovereignty endures as long as Indigenous Peoples endure, and understanding these concepts illuminates why advocacy to prevent the extraction, production, processing, and release of carbon is based not solely on the notion of inherent rights, but on the responsibility and obligations of Indigenous Peoples and Tribal Nations to the land itself.
Indigenous Sovereignty and the collective right of Self-Determination are guided in principle by traditional Indigenous knowledge — the spiritual ways, languages, cultural practices, legal systems, and social, economic, and political structures of Indigenous Peoples. These principles determine how Indigenous Peoples act and relate to surrounding ecosystems and to other human beings, on a personal level and a collective nation-to-nation level.
Sovereign Indigenous Nations have existed since time immemorial, exercising their inherent rights and responsibilities by managing these relationships with mutual respect.
Destructive actions like fossil fuel extraction and the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure on Indigenous territories, lands, and waterways directly attack traditional Indigenous knowledge by seeking to untether spiritual ways, languages, cultural practices, legal systems, and social, economic, and legal systems from relationship with those lands and water. An Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities framework links the struggle to protect the land with the ever- present struggle to resist settler nation- state acts of violence and colonization fueled by an extractive economic system.
By resisting such acts, Indigenous land defenders and Nations disrupt the goals of the world’s most powerful institutions — nation-states and multinational corporations. This is done with a strategic framework that protects the land, builds collective power, confronts white supremacy, and challenges tenets of capitalism and Eurocentric materialism.2 These fights demonstrate how a movement built upon an Indigenous Rights framework far exceeds the goals of environmental protection and provides a road map to decolonizing our current economic paradigm.
Whether by physically disrupting construction, legally challenging projects, or effecting procedural delays, Indigenous land defenders and Nations utilize a multi-tiered approach to resist fossil fuel projects. These tactics demonstrate that Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities are far more than rhetorical devices — they are tangible structures impacting the viability of fossil fuel expansion.3
Indigenous Sovereignty should not be conflated with Tribal Sovereignty. The United States legal system recognizes the sovereign status of Indigenous Nations and their political structures, albeit in limited fashion. This legal recognition — contextualized and existing within the U.S. system of rights — determines the boundaries of Tribal Sovereignty. The Canadian legal system recognizes the inherent right of self-government, at present viewed by the Canadian government as limited to negotiated agreements creating municipal styles of autonomy. Tribal Sovereignty in the United States and the inherent right to self-government in Canada are not without agency, but there are important differences.
Due to the unique histories of Indigenous Peoples’ interactions with the United States and Canada, Tribal Nations and First Nations have a wide range of reserved rights that have been recognized and upheld within the eyes of nation-state court systems.4 These legal battles, coupled with grassroots expressions of self-determination, have stopped and delayed the expansion of fossil fuels, and also exposed the financial liabilities of such expansion when Indigenous Rights are violated.5
Self-Determination is internationally recognized as a basic human right. Specifically, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reaffirm the right of all peoples to self-determination, and lay upon state parties the obligation to promote and to respect this right.6 This is a key component in the assertion of international pressure on nation-states like the United States and Canada to avoid policies that seek to erase Tribal Sovereignty in the United States or render meaningless the inherent right to self-government in Canada. It is vitally important for Indigenous Nations to utilize all available measures to protect their Indigenous Sovereignty and jurisdictional authority, and for all international actors to support their right to do so.