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Tribe Gives Personhood To Klamath River


A Native American tribe has granted personhood to a river in northern California making it the first known River in North America to have the same legal rights as a human, at least under tribal law. The Yurok Tribe based near the southern border of Oregon confirmed the new status on the Klamath River. For years, water management systems and climate change have led to lower water flows in the Klamath and fewer salmon - one of the Yurok's main food sources. We're joined now by Yurok Tribe General Counsel Amy Cordalis, who is also a tribal member.

Welcome to the program.

AMY CORDALIS: (Speaking Yurok) Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does the status of personhood mean for a river?

CORDALIS: What it means is it gives the right to the river to exist, to flourish and to naturally evolve and a right to a stable climate free from human caused climate change impacts. What that means is that anytime the river is hurt, for example, there's a toxic pollutant that is, gets into the water of the river, we could then bring a cause of action against that polluter to protect the river.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So would the Yurok Tribe be able to take legal action against polluters of the river further upstream beyond their territory?

CORDALIS: Well, that gets into some jurisdictional issues, but we certainly would make the argument.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What prompted this? Why did they decide to take this action?

CORDALIS: One, the Yurok people have always lived along the banks of the Klamath River. And in our creation story, the creator told us that as long as we lived in a balance with the natural world we would never want for anything. And we live that way for a very long time. Of course, you know, after the invasion in the 1800s and development occurred outside of our control that balance has been thrown off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand that the situation with the salmon, though, has really prompted a lot of concern. Can you explain a little bit about what's going on and how it's been going this year?

CORDALIS: The salmon runs are the lowest they've ever been. Even this year, it was anticipated that the returning salmon runs were going to be strong, but they never showed up. We don't know where they are. We have been doing all we can to protect the river and, you know, working within existing legal frameworks. And it's not enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should note that this is not the first body of water to be granted personhood. Toledo, Ohio voters approved a referendum to grant personhood for Lake Erie in February, although that is being challenged. Is this an idea that's gaining traction beyond Native Americans?

CORDALIS: Absolutely. The New Zealand Government granted rights of a river. And really what I think this is, is a reflection of a change of societal values. So we're in a climate crisis. And we need new tools to respond to that crisis. And in this country right now, corporations have rights as a person. And that's because historically our country valued commerce. And so I think it's a logical next step in this era of climate change to give the same kind of legal recognition to the natural environment and to nature.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Amy Cordalis. She's the general counsel for the Yurok Tribe in Northern California.

Thank you so much.

CORDALIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.