On February 23, 2017, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (“Tribe”) was forced to disband its nearly year-long protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened the integrity of its ancestral lands. The Tribe sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, but the court ruled against the Tribe and failed to protect its interests. While the United States was forcibly removing Indigenous protesters, other countries were taking steps to protect Indigenous populations. In unprecedented legislative action, New Zealand took radical steps to protect the land and cultural rights of the Indigenous People of New Zealand, the Maori, by passing the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act. Through this act, New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River and established a new legal paradigm for protecting Indigenous peoples’ unique cultural and land rights.

This Comment discusses how, historically, the United States’ legal system has failed to articulate and protect Native Americans’ unique cultural, religious, and land rights. This Comment analyzes the existing framework in American jurisprudence that could underpin the potential adoption of a legal innovation similar to the Te Awa Tupua Act in the American context. This legal framework includes extending standing to natural objects and creating special legislative carve-outs to protect Native American cultural and religious rights.

Finally, after analyzing how the Te Awa Tupua Act functions, this Comment advocates for adopting a legislative framework similar to the Te Awa Tupua Act to ensure that the unique cultural, religious, and land rights of Native Americans are properly vindicated in the United States.



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