Buffalo Environmental Law Journal


Joseph Kowalski

First Page


Document Type



In Copyright


The much-overlooked laws and lifeways of Indigenous people show that concepts of environmental sustainability have long been a part of the human tradition. By studying the Indigenous jurisprudence of societies that maintained these traditions into the modern era, much can be learned. Rather than making laws in regards to the land, the land itself was the source of the law, for the environmental laws were built around a relationship with the land.

Through most of human history, the western world had a similar relationship. However, the Holy Roman Empire’s interpretation of Biblical scripture, which at that time was law, forever changed that relationship. After the beginning of the Westphalian Nation State which is the global model for a nation based on the Treaty of Westphalia, and the spread of this model via colonization, every state has a mindset and legal system largely at odds with the natural world.

Through both allowing the remaining Indigenous societies to continue their traditions and incorporating some of their principles into the law of states such as New Zealand’s granting of legal personhood to the Whanganui River, the effects of this history and the threat to the global environment can be overcome.