Orange Alert

The Personhood of All Beings

Wali Lecturer Presents an Indigenous Approach to Protecting the Environment

Sept. 26, 2019, by Diana Napolitano

Robin Kimmerer
Robin Kimmerer

The planet is in crisis. Climate change means droughts, storms and floods that last longer and are more destructive. Animals, birds and insects are disappearing. Pollutants contaminate the air and our waterways. Despite worldwide attention to these dire environmental issues, they seem insurmountable.

However, indigenous communities around the globe have long sounded the alarm and advocated steadfastly in court, in the media and in peaceful protest for environmental justice for people and for all of nature. Drawing on traditional ecological knowledges and different approaches to questions of rights and personhood, indigenous communities aim to restore and protect the environment for the benefit of the entire planet.

For example, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is opposing the Army Corps of Engineers and an energy company to stop the nearly 1,200-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline, stating that the pipeline presents a threat to the water supply and to sacred cultural resources.

The Whanganui Iwi, an indigenous group in New Zealand, won a landmark case in 2017 after many years of struggle. The result? New Zealand’s Parliament passed a law that gave a river legal standing in recognition of the Whanganui Iwi’s cultural relationship with it.

In the Syracuse area, the Onondaga Nation has been pursuing full justice for Onondaga Lake to remedy more than 200 years of pollution dumped into its waters, which are sacred to them and all Haudenosaunee. The Onondaga Nation continues to work for a complete restoration of the lake’s health, its watershed and its ecosystem.

The philosophy undergirding such actions is that humans are just one part of life on Earth and that all beings (including nature—the land, air and water) have rights deserving to be upheld. This view calls into question existing environmental law and regulatory action. It demands a new approach to environmental justice and protection, one that begins with the premise that nature has inalienable rights, too.

Join Professor Robin Kimmerer as she discusses these ideas, and more, during the Wali Lecture on October 3. Kimmerer, distinguished guest lecturer for this annual Physics-Humanities Center partnership, will re-examine “We the People” as the foundation of environmental protection.

Questioning what it means to be a person—and who “the People” are—Kimmerer will discuss indigenous concepts of personhood and reciprocity. By expanding the circle of citizenship, we all still may achieve justice for the land.

“Widening the Circle: Indigenous Knowledge on the Personhood of All Beings and Justice for the Land”

2019 Wali Lecture presented by Robin Wall Kimmerer

October 3, 2019
4-5:30 p.m.
Peter Graham Scholarly Commons, 114 Bird Library
Free and open to the public

Kimmerer also will lead a workshop on October 4, currently filled to capacity. To be added to the wait list, please email


Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Kimmerer is founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She is of European and Anishinaabe ancestry and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Kimmerer teaches courses in botany, ecology, ethnobotany, indigenous environmental issues and applying traditional ecological knowledge to conservation. She holds a B.S. in botany from SUNY ESF, an M.S. and Ph.D. in botany from the University of Wisconsin, and is the author of numerous scientific papers on plant ecology, bryophyte ecology, traditional knowledge and restoration ecology. She has written several books and essays.

Media Contact

Diana Napolitano