Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Mashpee Wampanoag youth group works to protect a beloved fish

Isaiah Peters (left), Talia Landry (center), and Braydon Napowsa Pocknett (right) at a Mashpee Wampanoag gathering to celebrate the return of herring.
Courtesy Dasia Peters
Isaiah Peters (left), Talia Landry (center), and Braydon Napowsa Pocknett (right) at a Mashpee Wampanoag gathering to celebrate the return of herring.

Seventeen-year-old Isaiah Peters is worried about local herring.

"I went to get some herring, I got like around like 15 of them and I was gutting them and then I realized halfway through that most of them, their roe, their eggs were just mis-colored and polluted."

The roe was a pasty grayish pink color—not the vibrant range of whites, oranges, or reds that Peters had seen in healthy fish.

"So it’s like you can’t even eat those fish after that because they’re so mutated and polluted that you’re going to get sick if you eat it. So that’s just a big sign of what our ecosystem’s facing right now," he explained.

Isaiah Peters took a picture and sent it to the Tribe’s Natural Resource Commission. Herring have been a dietary mainstay for Wampanoag people in spring since time immemorial, and Peters decided he wanted to try to do something for these fish that are so clearly struggling. Around the same time, Wampanoag educator Talia Landry learned about a legal movement known as Rights of Nature.

"Rights of Nature is giving natural beings the same rights as individual beings," Talia said.

Essentially, Rights of Nature is a legal instrument that allows a government or group of people to act as legal guardians for natural beings like rivers, mountains, wetlands, forests, or fish. As one explanation I read put it, under the current system of law in most countries, including the U.S., nature is considered property and most of the time property owners are not legally stopped from damaging or destroying it. But Rights of Nature recognizes that while ecosystems and natural beings might be treated as property by current legal systems, they’re actually beings that have an independent and inalienable right to exist and flourish — a belief that Landry says lines up well with long-held Wampanoag values.

Braydon Napowsa Pocknett processes herring.
Courtesy Dasia Peters
Braydon Napowsa Pocknett processes herring.

"It’s not giving natural beings rights, it’s just stating that they have rights, and we’re using the Western law and what the legislation is now and what we are as a tribal nation, a sovereign nation, to create a law to protect and state that natural beings have rights so we can protect those natural beings," Talia said.

Landry and the Wampanoag youth she’s working with are focusing first on herring not only because it’s such an important species to the tribe for food, fertilizer, bait, and other necessities, but also because of its bigger spiritual and ecological significance. The arrival of herring in the Wampanoag calendar marks the start of a new year and the arrival of new life — and the fishes’ health is tied to the health of all beings.

Jyrzie Alves is another Mashpee Wampanoag teen involved with working to get herring legal rights:

"A couple of past summers, we weren't able to swim in our ponds or anything like that because they were being polluted by cyanobacteria," he said.

He added, "And our ponds are connected to our rivers. So that's kind of what really started it and made us want to get into herring, because — even just going down the herring, it's like you can go down there and there used to be so much and now you barely see any."

Herring populations keep declining — not only because of water quality but also because of dams and poorly constructed fish ladders. In April of 2023 Alves, Peters, Landry and others involved with the newly formed Mashpee Wampanoag Native Environmental Ambassadors youth group drafted a Rights of Nature State of Emergency Resolution which passed unanimously with Tribal Council. Now they’ve drafted an ordinance, which if it passes, will be one of the first Rights of Nature laws enacted in our region.

"Rights of Nature is already incorporated in at least 29 countries. So America is pretty late within, the, you know, Indian country in the United States, there's multiple tribes that have adopted Rights of Nature resolutions and laws," said Talia Landry.

"The Ponca Nation is one. The Yurok Tribe is another within establishing for the Klamath River. The Ojibwe have also declared the Rights of Nature for wild rice. Ho-Chunk have adopted Rights of Nature in general for all of natural — everything on the list that you can think of. So it’s kind of spreading like wildfire."

Here on the Cape, Mashpee Wampanoag youth are leading the way, with the Tribe among one of the first governments anywhere to advocate on behalf of a fish.

In 2011 Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its national constitution.Learn more here.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.