On July 6th, 2022, the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma Business Committee (the governing body of the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma) unanimously adopted a statute recognizing the “immutable Rights of Rivers” for two rivers that flow through Ponca territory and downstream throughout Oklahoma: Ní’skà (the Arkansas River) and Ni’ží’dè (the Salt Fork River), as well as other water bodies flowing through their territory (Movement Rights 2022). According to Movement Rights, since the beginning women have been the the keepers of the Waters for the tribe; as such, the Ponca Pa’thata Women’s Society will assume “their hereditary responsibility to serve as the guardians of the two rivers.” (Movement Rights 2021). This rights of Rivers law follows the 2016 Rights of Nature law that was adopted by the Ponca Nation in 2016.
Casey Camp Horinek, Shannon Biggs & Pennie Opal Plant of “Movement Rights” explain that “for the Ponca people, rivers are themselves considered sacred feminine entities.” (Movement Rights 2021). Casey Camp Horinek, a Ponca elder and the Ponca Environmental Ambassador, presented the Rights of Rivers law, as well as the 2016 Ponca Nation Rights of Nature law, to the Ponca Business Committee. Camp Horinek explained to Movement Rights that this law “is just another step in protecting the sacred waters which are the life sources of all things on Mother Earth, not just for our tribe. We have so much to learn from our waters, everything upstream impacts everything downstream, we are all connected” (qtd. in Movement Rights 2022).
The Ponca Nation has experienced severe environmental degradation and health hazards, as a result of environmental impacts from fossil fuel industry in the region. Fracking, pipelines, refineries, and toxic waste injection wells have leeched toxic waste into the ground and water sources. The threat of contaminated drinking water is such that the Ponca tribe has purchased drinking water from nearby Ponca city for decades. Movement Rights, this impact played a large role in the decision to adopt the Rights of Rivers statute. Shannon Briggs, co-founder of Movement Rights, explains that the adoption of this new rights of Nature law is about recognizing the “human responsibilities to protect the health of ecosystems and waterways that ensure all communities can survive and thrive.” (qtd, in Movement Rights 2022).
Moving forward, the Ponca Nation invites other sovereign Indigenous Nation/Tribes in Oklahoma to join this law, and intends to promote an intertribal effort to protect the rivers. The Ponca Nation is also planning to host a statewide gatherings later in 2022 (the “Convening of the 4 Winds”) which will bring together 200-400 local and regional tribal communities with the purpose of “promoting discussion about Indigenous-led water protection, tribally-led scientific studies and ceremony and the role of Rights of Nature in supporting healthy river systems for all.” (Movement Rights 2022).