In 1938, the Bonneville Dam flooded away areas where Pacific Northwest Indians had been fishing salmon on the Columbia River for generations, places and practices integral to their cultures. As the century wore on, Indians were increasingly targeted by state fish and wildlife officers for breaking game laws--and just for being Indians. These struggles became collectively known as the fish wars.
Pacific Northwest tribes went to court, and in a landmark 1974 decision, federal judge George Boldt found that treaties signed with the U.S. Government in 1855 entitled Northwest tribes to access to the traditional hunting and fishing grounds beyond their reservations, as well as to 50 per cent of the total fish harvest.
The Boldt Decision made native rights integral to salmon policy in the Northwest. Preservation of salmon has since been tied to the promises made to tribes in those same 1855 treaties, and groups like the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission are key players in the struggle to save salmon from extinction. Treaty rights may prove to be one of the few remaining bulwarks against the Bush administration's radical changes to salmon preservation and restoration efforts.
American environmental philosopher David Orr has suggested that environmental degradation violates the U.S. Constitution by depriving citizens of "life, liberty and property" without "due process of law." In the January/February 2004 issue of Orion Magazine, he wrote,
...a truly conservative and revolutionary reading of the U.S. Constitution would build on the idea that we are trustees poised between our forebears and our posterity. In trust we are obliged by decency, fairness, justice, and affection to protect, preserve, and honor the ecological prospects of existing life and that yet to be. It is absurd to believe that the framers, seven generations ago, would have wished us to preserve the letter of the Constitution of 1788 while permitting the destruction of the very ground on which that document and life itself depend.
Links between environmental destruction and the rights to life, liberty and property may soon be central to changing U.S. policies on global warming. The Arctic Council's Arctic Climate Impact Assessment confirmed that the Arctic is melting. Circumpolar native peoples--Saami, Inuit, Chukchis and more--may find their communities and cultures wiped out. The infrastructure of coastal communities is already being destroyed, and the study confirmed that ice-dependent animals, like the ringed seals hunted by the Inuit, may face extinction.
This week, at the international climate conference (COP 10) being held in Buenos Aires, Inuit leaders announced that they are seeking a ruling against the United States from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They charge that the U.S., as a major contributor to global warming, violates the human rights of the Inuit by threatening their existence.
The New York Times reports,
Representatives of poor countries and communities - from the Arctic fringes to the atolls of the tropics to the flanks of the Himalayas - say they are imperiled by rising temperatures and seas through no fault of their own. They are casting the issue as no longer simply an environmental problem but as an assault on their basic human rights.
... Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the elected chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the quasi-governmental group recognized by the United Nations as representing the Inuit, said the biggest fear was not that warming would kill individuals but that it would be the final blow to a sturdy but suffering culture.
"We've had to struggle as a people to keep afloat, to keep our indigenous wisdom and traditions," she said. "We're an adaptable people, but adaptability has its limits.
"Something is bound to give, and it's starting to give in the Arctic, and we're giving that early warning signal to the rest of the world."
If the Inuit effort succeeds, it could lead to an eventual stream of litigation, somewhat akin to lawsuits against tobacco companies, legal experts said.
Could the Inuit case recast U.S. response to global warming as profoundly as the Northwest tribes changed U.S.-tribal relations, and salmon policy, when they won the Boldt Decision?
The Times' Revkin writes,
The American delegation at the Buenos Aires conference declined to comment on Tuesday on the petition or the arguments behind it. "Until the Inuit have presented a complaint, we are not responding to that issue," a State Department official said. "When they do, we will look at what they have to say, consider it and then respond."
Christopher C. Horner, a lawyer for the Cooler Heads Coalition, an industry-financed group opposed to cutting the emissions, said the chances of success of such lawsuits had risen lately.
From his standpoint, he said, "The planets are aligned very poorly."
Maybe we'll look back some day and call this the beginning of the "seal wars."