Indigenous ‘Nature Spirits’, Bio-regional Animisms and the Legal Personhood of Other-than-human Persons


(Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii. An inactive, million-year old vulcano, Mauna Kea is the largest mountain on earth. While Mount Everest is the tallest mountain when measured from sea-level up, Mauna Kea, when measured from its actual base deep in the Pacific Ocean to its peak, exceeds the Himalayan sacred mountain considerably)

The day before yesterday I was fortunate enough to catch some of the panels of the first day of a jam-packed two-day conference held at my University titled ‘Indigenous Storytelling and Law.’ The conference, which was presented by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies, brought together a great number of native and some non-native litigators, scholars, activists and community members to reflect on and discuss a range of pressing issues affecting native communities, with a spotlight on how indigenous politics, sovereignty, experiences, histories, and cultural, economic and legal practices have come up against those of both state and federal settler colonial U.S. authorities and non-native groups and institutions. Click here to see the fantastic line-up across the two-day event.

kalani flores conference

(E. Kalani Flores delivering his Keynote presentation for the ‘Indigenous Storytelling and Law’ conference at CU Boulder yesterday, Saturday March 19th 2017. Photo courtesy of Dawa Lokyitsang)

I wasn’t able to attend yesterday’s run of panels, but my friend Dawa was and thankfully relayed a little on the Keynote presentation for the conference. The Keynote was delivered by E. Kalani Flores of Hawaii Community College, Palamanui and was titled Mo’olelo: Native Voices of the Land, and detailed his and other native Hawaiians’ longstanding legal battles to prevent the installation of a massive $1.4 billon ‘thirty meter long’ telescope on the sacred Mauna Kea mountain. Activists first took major legal action against the proposed telescope in 2011, attempting to demonstrate among other key facts that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources had failed to follow due-process in conducting a proper cultural impact assessment relating to the proposed telescope project. The results of this first wave of hearings were nullified by the state Supreme Court in 2015, only to be re-opened again with additional multiple testimonies more recently. An article in the Honolulu Star-Adviser, from less than three weeks ago by Timothy Hurley, ‘Hawaiians heard amid state hearings: Cultural practitioners say the telescope plan causes them to feel spiritual pain’ describes what the current trajectory will look like:

“Once the current hearing is over, the hearings officer, former Circuit Judge Riki May Amano, will review the stacks of documents, evidence and testimony and make a recommendation to the Land Board. The parties then will be given an opportunity to agree with or take exception to Amano’s recommendation and make their own pitch to the board. The board will then hold a hearing and make a decision on whether to approve or reject the issuance of a Conservation District Use Permit to the lessee, the University of Hawaii. After that, the project’s destination is likely Round 2 before the state Supreme Court.”

I am ashamed to say that I had not been aware of this case and the extended, fervent  and multi-dimensional legal actions, community organizing and activism it had involved until yesterday. The richness of response and the sheer volume of hearing-related contributions from indigenous community members testifying to the significance of Mauna Kea in their lives is remarkable and inspiring. One of the points Kalani Flores brought up in his Keynote struck me as especially interesting and important, however, and as something which readers of this blog with an interest in the political as well as lived implications of ‘alternative ontologies’ and ‘world-making’ and so-called bio-regional animisms may find especially fascinating.

During his presentation, Kalani Flores described how in 2011 Paul S. Aoki, the First Deputy Corporation Counsel (i.e. legal representative for the Hawaiian state authorities) declared that Mo’oinanea, the tutelary spirit of Mauna Kea, could not testify in the hearings because she lacked standing as a legal person in terms of U.S. state law. In his Keynote Kalani Flores noted that the mistake that he and other native activists had initially made was that they had tried to translate Mo’oinanea into more etic or anthropological, outsider-palatable terms like ‘nature spirit’. Kalani Flores explained that it has instead been better to not use the words of outsiders, but to stick to using indigenous words and natives’ own language as a way of upholding the rights of important beings like the tutelary Goddess of Mauna Kea (this ties into a related comment from an audience member during another conference panel who noted that it was common for native claimants in legal proceedings to have to speak through non-native anthropologist experts – when tribal elders were brought to the witness stand to speak in the name of tribal history and tradition, their claims and knowledge was treated with skepticism or disregarded yet ironically, citations from old white anthropologists who themselves had generated their claims from listening to previous generations of native elders ended up being more persuasive). Part of Kalani Flores’ strategy in conveying the direct and living agency of the mountain’s and region’s important other-than-human persons was to enlist the help and testimony of his step-daughter Hawane Rios, a well-known native Hawaiian singer and traditional cultural performer and practitioner whose inherited spiritual gifts have allowed her to directly perceive and come into contact with the local spirits of the mountain. These encounters have included Mo’oinanea directly taking over Rios’ body and conveying in her own voice the reality of her pain and suffering as a result of desecrating development initiatives. Her is a portion of a transcript of official testimony given by Rios contextualizing her experiences and activism:

“My upbringing is rooted in the traditional dances, chants, and ceremony of my ancestors. I am a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) cultural practitioner who continues to exercise my traditional and customary practices on Mauna Kea. These traditional and customary Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) practices, including pilgrimages to the top of Mauna Kea, pre-date 1892 as evidenced through cultural sites, oral traditions, and several reports. I am only including this information in my testimony because I have to. I am deeply offended that according to this court system, I have to prove the legitimacy of my bloodline and my cultural practices on my ancestral mountain in my own homelands. The Kanaka Maoli people are a living a people. We survived the illegal annexation of our Kingdom, the Great Mahele, the ban of our language and dance and so many more painful atrocities.  Despite all of that we are still here and our beliefs and traditions deserve to be respected.

My advocacy work for the Protect Mauna Kea Movement and my life work as a musician has taken me to the far reaches of the world to stand in solidarity with many movements rising up to protect the rights of the earth. Through these travels I have shared time and space with different indigenous peoples speaking of the devastating affects of the Intergeneration Trauma that was passed down by the people in our respective lineages that experienced the immense suffering of war, violence, rape, forced displacement, and colonization. The trauma that I carry in my DNA has come to the surface time and time again since my family and I entered into Thirty Meter Telescope Case on behalf of the
spirit realm in 2011, through the Protect Mauna Kea Movement these past few years, and up until now. The constant questioning and belittling of my spiritual connection to Mauna a Wākea, my beliefs, traditions, and cultural practices in the court system, the Astronomy community and University community has been wearing on my emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. The pain in me recognizes the pain in my own people and the people from around the world that are dedicating and risking their lives to protect what is left of the clean air, land, ocean, and water.

I felt the immensity of that pain on April 2nd, 2015 when the first 31 arrests of peaceful protectors occurred. I remember running up the Mauna Kea Access Road passing by my fellow protectors standing arm in arm in lines as far up to the summit as they could go. My heart pounded as the police chased us up the mountain to the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope Site. When we got to the summit we took our line and began to chant. In that moment I felt a current of strength, pride, and honor while feeling this sense profound sadness, anxiety, and fear as the police made their way toward us. I can still feel the waves of tears that flowed down my face as my friends and family were arrested and taken down the mountain in State vehicles. It was on that day that the reality set in that we would literally have to lay our bodies down to protect our mountain.

I was reminded of the truth of that reality on September 9th, 2015 when I arrested in prayer in a ceremonial circle of women on Mauna a Wākea. Reflecting on these moments and sharing what I see in the spirit realm is not always an easy process for me because it is a part of my ceremony and gifts passed down to me from my ancestors that I hold deeply sacred. I have chosen to share some of my very personal experiences and messages in this testimony and I ask for openness and respect as I do so.  On that evening as I watched the way the sunset painted the slopes beautiful shades of pink and purple, I felt called to make the journey to Hale Pōhaku. At that time the Hawaiʻi
State Board of Land and Natural Resources declared Emergency Rules that prohibited people from being in restricted areas on the mountain between 10:00pm and 4:00am which included the land across from Hale Pōhaku that had become the gathering grounds of the 24/7vigil of the movement. Before I decided to head up I got wind that the Department of Land and Natural Resource Officers had plans to go up and do a sweep. I was raised to listen to the messages of the ancestors and the land when they come to me so I decided to follow this call regardless of these rules that were so blatantly targeting the people of the movement.

When we reached Hale Pōhaku my feet immediately took me to the hill that carries offerings of pōhaku (rocks) from all of the main islands in the Hawaiian Chain. I began to chant a prayer of clearing and cleansing with my eyes closed and for the first time in the duration of the Protect Mauna Kea Movement I felt total peace and compassion flow into my heart. My eyes opened to see hundreds of spirit beings of the mountain coming over the slopes. I could feel the mountain breathing and releasing all of the heaviness and tension and emitting a breath of healing calmness.  I heard a voice come to tell me to trust the wisdom of the mountain and its waters and to let that powerful energy guide the peace and compassion I felt so deeply through the prayer in my life. This voice was much like the voice that came to me in a ceremony that proclaimed that if the Thirty Meter Telescope was built then the access to the ancient wisdom of the high counsel of the spirit realm would be severed and never to be recovered. This is the one of the many reasons why my commitment is so strong to Mauna a Wākea and one of the many reasons why I was on the mountain that night.”

In Timothy Hurley’s article again, Rios explains how the ‘immense, powerful’ spirit of Mauna Kea’s guardian goddess “didn’t want to leave  my body…The spirit kept asking for healing because there was so much anger and so much pain and so much trauma.” By giving detailed testimony about these experiences, Hawane Rios has thus been able to offer ‘expert witness’ testimony on behalf of the spirits, and has fleshed out and brought to live the visceral, felt connections with land-as-kin so pivotal to native Hawaiian histories, practices and identities.

In thinking about the issue of legal personhood for so-called ‘nature spirits’ I am reminded of early preliminary/exploratory fieldwork I conducted with ‘non-incorporated’ Tibetan spirit-mediums or lhapa (a.k.a pawo/pamo; lhapa/lhamo, lha bab khen etc). Tibetan spirit mediums fall into two broad categories: institutionalized mediums, such as so-called prophetic ‘State Oracles’ like the Nechung/Pehar/Dorje Drakden oracle medium (often called ‘kuten’), who serve as mouth-pieces for more centralized and centrally Buddhist protector deities (sungma/chokyong) and who are often attached to particular lineages and monastic centers and assemblies; and hereditary, ‘village’ practitioners who, unlike incorporated mediums, can self-induce trance, have a somewhat wider repertoire of ritual and healing skills, and tend to become possessed by more distinctly pre-Buddhist mountain deities and zoomorphic helper or ‘sucker-helper’ spirits (for an exhaustive assessment of whether either of these two types of Tibetan religious specialist ought to be afforded the rather vexed label of ‘shaman’ by scholars, see this piece by anthropologist of Nepali shamanism Homayun Sidky).

These days, before researchers at U.S. universities can go out and conduct research they must receive clearance from their relevant Internal Review Board (IRB). IRB committees determine that researchers operating under the auspices of a university will conduct ethical scientific research. I’ll let you in on a little secret (well, maybe it’s not really a secret): the IRB process and framework, especially as it stands in its current form in most universities in the U.S., is widely despised by cultural anthropologists. Don’t get me wrong: good anthropologists are deeply and abidingly concerned with pursuing research that is rigorously accountable and ethical. Yet while IRBs continue to claim that their procedures and standards are as applicable and relevant to clinical medical trials as to open-ended long-term ethnographic fieldwork, many cultural anthropologists feel that the implicit assumptions and guiding logics of IRB assessment are ethnocentric, and that they are less about truly guaranteeing the protection of research participants or the realization of meaningful and ethical social science research and are more about protecting corporate universities against liability should anything go wrong.

The limitations of the IRB process were brought home for me when I ran my proposed preliminary fieldwork with ‘unincorporated’/partially incorporated Tibetan spirit-mediums living in exile by CU’s IRB. While filling out IRB forms and addressing the questions on securing and ensuring informed consent from research subjects, I remember thinking, What exactly does informed consent mean for spirit-mediums? Tibetan spirit-possession is by definition amnesic, a fact which complicates many of the assumptions about knowledge, agency, and individual personhood which seem to be implicitly folded into the IRB’s unitary, rational actor ‘medical human trials’ style vision of research. I realized that the way that the IRB’s system and language was set up precluded the possibility of spirits as ethical persons or agents. Either spirits had to be removed from the equation or spirits had to be collapsed into mediums as the same persons. Neither of these two scenarios adequately captured the Tibetan milieu I was examining, and both arguably did a disservice to the very people and their forms of knowledge and experience which the IRB was apparently committed to protecting.  No one at the IRB ever suggested I would need to get informed consent from the deities or helper-spirits themselves or that it might be a problem that mediums might approve of and consent to my research but their possessing spirits might not (incidentally, this issue HAS been discussed by anthropologist Urmila Nair, who conducted doctoral dissertation research on the ‘politics of spectacle’ at work at the monastery of the Nechung state oracle in Dharamshala. Urmila describes how her research could only fully proceed when the protector-spirit himself, and not just his medium was happy that she had conducted the necessary ritual procedures to execute her research without negative repercussions).


(Different kinds of evidence – Now deceased Tibetan spirit-medium Pawo Nyima Dhondup holds out a dish with two grey-black slugs on it which the helping animal spirits who recently possessed his body enabled him to suck out of the upper left arm of an American woman, Barabara Weibel, who came to seek healing from him some years ago. This photo is from Weibel’s blog, where you can read a fuller account of the healing seance Nyima Dhondup la performed for her. For readers interested, I discuss some of the implications and complexities of the transnational attention this particular lineage of Tibetan spirit-medium ‘shamans’ have received and offer some cursory musings on ideas of knowledge, agency, and individual personhood arguably at play in the context of Tibetan spirit-mediumship in the latter parts of a previous post on this blog).

As it turned out, I got an even more blatant demonstration of the limitations and absurdities of the IRB process later on – when I first ran my proposed fieldwork in Northern India by the IRB in 2011, I had to amend and resubmit my project application numerous times, as the board at the time – despite not reading Tibetan – insisted that I fournish them with multiple iterations of Tibetan language versions of my oral informed consent script before they would sign off on my proposal. Less than a year later, I set about getting approval to do similar research in Nepal. Because my research plans were identical to my previous application but just taking place in Tibetan refugee communities in Nepal, I submitted exactly the same documentation, just with minor edits to account for the change of location. This time around a different IRB panel rejected my entire application and informed me that I did not need to apply for IRB approval because the activities I proposed undertaking in Nepal did not fulfill the IRB’s official definition of scientific research. In other words, I didn’t need ethical clearance for my scientific research project because apparently the primary method of my discipline – participant-observation – wasn’t actually a form of valid scientific research. If one Internal Review Board could think my project was real science one year and another could think it was just me going on a holiday and hanging out with people a few months later, I’m left wondering how exactly IRB standards are supposed to mean anything at all. Still, at least I can now say that careful experimentation has proven that Anthropology is not a real science You heard it here first, folks!


(The Whanganui River, which now has legal standing as a person. Now to the next battle: to see if U.S. authorities will let it rent a rental car while holidaying in America)

The Mauna Kea hearings tie into a different happier piece of news as well – namely the recent legal victory enjoyed by native Maori communities in New Zealand. In a final resolution as part of the Te Urewera Act following the longest running legal battle in New Zealand’s history (170 years!), Maori were able to secure formal recognition of the legal personhood of the revered Whanganui River. This ‘legal revolution’ “recognising the Maori connection to the environment and shifting assumptions about human control of the natural world” means that the interests of the River will now be managed by an indigenous group and will be jointly represented by one native and one New Zealand governmental official. In a remarkable move, the Act defines the importance and nature of the River and the land in which it exists using indigenous terms and categories like mana and mauri (For readers who might want a little more context on such terms, anthropologist and Maori ally John Reid has given a very nice TED talk called ‘The Power of Animism in which he breaks down these indigenous concepts and offers a rebuttal as a non-native and anthropologist to non-native detractors who say  animism is useless, superstitious nonsense that has nothing to do with actual reality or empirical facts. If you’d like to hear more about Reid’s work Gordon White – a fellow Kiwi – also did a great longer interview with Reid on Rune Soup a few months back which is well worth listening to)

E. Kalani Flores and Hawane Rios’ efforts, along with the success of the Te Urewera Act, offer examples of how indigenous categories, knowledge, history, or ontologies can speak back to (non-native) legal precedent and received wisdom in ways that can benefit both historically dispossessed communities and whole ecosystems. They also demonstrate the ways in which animism is being reconsidered and re-invoked by both indigenous and non-indigenous activists, litigators, and researchers as something  more than just an embarrassing or outdated colonial legacy, the ways in which, when ‘animism’ is considered in terms of natives’ own histories and languages, it is being shown to have more philosophical and political weight, relevance and profundity than many anthropologists even only a decade or two ago were willing to acknowledge. In an era where the legal personhood of corporations is business-as-usual but that of mountains and rivers is not, it strikes me that these ideas and actions are more important than ever.

My deepest prayers, respect and congratulations to those who have been sacrificing so much to secure recognition and redress in Hawaii and New Zealand, and who have refused to accept that indigenous knowledge should by definition be subordinate to the knowledge-and-power systems of colonial states – a luta continua!

*This just in: the High Court of Uttarakhand Province in India has also just declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers ‘living, legal persons’. Take a look!

And an even more recent follow up in India, this time involving glaciers.