With every passing month, the Land Back movement — an effort to restore stolen territory to Indigenous nations — sets new bold precedents, making it all the more realistic as a policy platform moving forward.
On July 9, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that 3 million acres of land, nearly half of Oklahoma, is Native American land. Later in July, the Esselen tribe was able to reclaim a 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur on California’s north central coast. The land has old-growth redwoods and wildlife that is at risk, like the California condor and red-legged frog. A year before this return of land, the northern Californian city of Eureka returned stewardship of the 280-acre Duluwat Island to the Wiyot tribe. In the same year, the United Methodist Church in Upper Sandusky, Ohio returned a mission church and parts of the Old Mission cemetery to the Wyandotte Nation. These recent wins show that wide-ranging support continues to grow for the Land Back movement.
For the Lakota, there may be no site more sacred than the Black Hills. Pe’ Sla, the heart of everything and the center of the Black Hills, is the place of the peoples' emergence into the world, and today, home to Mount Rushmore. The Lakota People’s Law Project has joined the tribe's call to return the Black Hills to those from whom they were stolen. For far too long, the Black Hills have stood as a glaring example of the U.S. tradition of dishonoring the treaties it signed with Native nations. In 1877, the U.S. federal government seized them, violating the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which had declared the lands be reserved for the "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians.”
In 1980, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the Black Hills were taken unconstitutionally, but the land was never returned to the Oceti Sakowin. The government offered a settlement instead, which the Oceti Sakowin rejected, stating that “the Black Hills are not for sale.” You can sign our petition calling on the federal government to right this historical wrong here.
Discussions about reparations have become a larger part of the public consciousness in recent years. Yet, to date, there has never been a good faith attempt at restorative justice under American democracy. Even the few attempts at reparations for disenfranchised communities have come at the cost of another community’s resources. For example, the 40 acres and a mule promised to formerly enslaved people were, in fact, 40 acres of stolen Indian land. It is time for both Black and Indigenous people to receive adequate reparations for the historical injustice that built this country. If the United States is ever to truly reckon with its past, then repatriation of land to Indigenous people must be a part of this effort.
As Lakota matriarch and LPLP organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk often says,
“The only reparation for land is land.”
The land that Indigenous people stewarded, that has since been occupied, cannot be converted into a numerical value. There is no acceptable price for the Black Hills, and monetary reparations will never be enough. The Land Back movement calls for a much deeper reckoning. This approach to addressing historical injustices fundamentally rejects the premise of land ownership and confronts colonialism head-on. Opposed to the traditional nation-state models, for Indigenous communities, natural resources and land are not commodities that exist for the benefit of the individual or collective.
For those who believe law and order is of primary concern, Land Back is an actionable solution that genuinely respects the rules of society and the nation. Returning territory to Native nations is about the U.S. government honoring treaties and relinquishing stolen land. The United States broke its own law by seizing Native land, violating the Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the Constitution, which states that federal law is superior to laws passed by state legislatures.
“Over the past 500 years, Indigenous voices have been completely ignored or deliberately brushed under the rug. Sometimes [protest] is the only way we have to communicate to the world that this means so much to us — our children’s rights to clean water, healthy ecosystems, and having land back in 2020. The Black Hills, 1.3 million acres, are federal lands,” said Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, in an interview with PBS NewsHour.
When land is returned, the land is not merely returned to its “rightful owners,” but rather to Indigenous Nations that are able to resume their stewardship of ancestral earth.
Source: Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1, no. 1 (2012).
Land Back as Climate Action: Water
As governments around the world fail to adequately address the climate crisis, Indigenous communities continue to lead the way forward. We are seeing in real time how Indigenous land stewardship effectively protects and respects Mother Earth.
As sea levels and ocean temperatures rise, Indigenous knowledge systems remain critical in restoring aquatic and marine biomes. Scientists are finally asking Indigenous communities what to do to prevent further degradation. For instance, on the eastern coast of the United States, the oyster population is struggling after years of overharvesting and living in polluted waters. By pumping water through their gills, oysters trap contaminants and particles as natural filter feeders, which helps to keep the water clean for the entire ecosystem. As key players in marine habitats, oyster beds — and their destruction — form a critical link in the chain of ecosystem collapse.
Nearby communities, like the Muscogee Nation, have relied on oysters and estuaries for generations. Since the U.S. government forcibly removed the Muscogee Nation from the Chesapeake Bay to Oklahoma, knowledge of many traditional harvesting practices has been lost. Researchers have found evidence suggesting that the oyster population and health of the reef did not start declining until the late 1800s, after the Muscogee Nation was forcibly removed from their land. In a recent study that investigates historical remains of sustainable harvesting, archaeologists found that Native Americans’ harvesting practices have likely helped promote the health of oyster reefs for thousands of years.
“Our culture provides us a unique and valuable way to view conservation,” RaeLynn Butler and Turner Hun, Muscogee Nation citizens, wrote in an email to the Scientific American. “These places don’t just represent biological diversity or a food resource, they represent culture and lifeways of our forbearers.” Butler is currently the manager of the nation’s Historic and Cultural Preservation Department, and Hunt serves as the department’s archaeological technician.
On the western coast of the United States, there are similar overharvesting problems with seaweed and the abalone sea snail. For thousands of years, coastal Indigenous communities, like the Pomo Indians, have sustainably lived off of abalone, kelp, and other marine algaes. Today there is a severe decline of the red abalone, which threatens traditional Indigenous life systems and signifies a floundering ecosystem. Aggressive abalone poachers and black-market, non-Native sea-hunters contribute to the rapid decline in the abalone population. Sea stars, sea urchins, and kelp forests are all becoming harder to find as each step of the food chain is affected by overharvesting of abalone.
“No one used to bother us. We take what we need and know when we’ve had enough. Why do you think we’re still here?” said Eddie Knight, a tribal citizen of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, to Topic.com, highlighting the difference between consumption for sustenance and consumption primarily for profit.
Indigenous oyster, abalone, and kelp harvesting are just a few practices that demonstrate that there is a way to live off the land sustainably, a way to consume sustainably. In the Arctic Circle, Indigenous communities similarly challenge the assumption that whaling and sealing cannot be done in an ecologically friendly way. Unlike in trophy or game hunting, traditional Indigenous practices find a use for every part of the animal, respecting both the animal and the environment.
Indigenous practices must help inform habitation restoration and serve as an example of how to consume plants and animals more responsibility.
Land Back as Climate Action: Fire
Australia’s northern savannas are some of the most fire-prone regions in the world. The tropical savannas account for an average of 70 percent of the annual land impacted by fire in Australia. However, Aboriginal fire management techniques have historically helped to cut Australia’s wildfires in half and have contributed to a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in the northern part of the continent.
Traditional Aboriginal fire management methods rely on strategically burning swatches of land early in the dry season to ultimately reduce grass fuel. Planned small burnings create firebreaks that help stop more severe fires late in the dry season from expanding. The practice encourages burners to be aware of how hot the fire is to ensure nutrients and seeds in the soil are not destroyed. Cool burners work to avoid trees and logs where insects and animals live, and when burning already charred land, they ensure that invasive species are not the only plants that repopulate the soil.
“Fire is a tool and it’s something people should see as part of the Australian landscape. By using fire at the right time of year, in the right places with the right people, we have a good chance to help country and climate. Importantly, people need to listen to science — the success of our industry has been from a collaboration between our traditional knowledge and modern science and this cooperation has made our work the most innovative and successful in the world,” Willie Rioli, a Tiwi Islander and Indigenous Carbon Industry Network steering committee member, said during this year’s Savanna Fire Forum at Charles Darwin University.
Aboriginal fire management is attuned to landscape variance and the importance of preserving biodiversity, while Western hazard reduction burning is often reactive and broad sweeping. The former method is more targeted and burning is conducted on the ground, while the latter often involves planes dropping incendiaries. In a study examining 30 bioregions in Australia, researchers found that hazard reduction burns only reduced how much land bushfires damaged in four regions. In contrast, cool burning strengthens ecosystems. Its regenerative nature is evidenced by increased kangaroo populations and visible regrowth in areas where cool burning was done.
Above: Tomahawk wildfire in Pendleton, California, May 16, 2014 photo by Tyler C. Gregory
Indigenous fire management practices are also extremely effective in North America. For over 13,000 years, the Chumash, Hupa, Karuk, Miwok, Yurok, and many other tribes across California have used intentional burns to reduce the risk of large wildfires, help renew local food, and create habitat for animals. In an archaeological study in the Great Plains, researchers found evidence indicating that Indigenous fire burning methods enhanced climate variability in prairie fire landscapes.
Where Indigenous communities steward the land, fire and water is better managed. Returning more land to Indigenous people and having Indigenous leaders’ input on land management strategies is essential in combating a cataclysmic climate crisis. Land Back restores Indigenous Nations’ sovereignty and encourages more connection with the earth.
“The cornerstone of any climate justice coalition is Indigenous rights and sovereignty,” stated Julian Brave NoiseCat, an Indigenous Green New Deal architect and activist, writing for The Guardian.
Climate justice work is only just if it centers Indigenous communities. And while Indigenous traditional technologies are often high-impact and low-carbon, Indigenous people are bearing the brunt of catastrophic climate change. Large fires and ecosystem collapse will continue unabated if we allow the climate crisis to progress. Now is the time to turn to experts: the Indigenous communities that know what to do. Many tribes’ land management practices show what sustainable connections to local ecosystems can look like and that those practices, if done correctly, can reap benefits for generations.
The demand for Land Back is larger than just a call for returned territory. The movement is also about returning resources, buildings, and smaller swaths of land, with a much larger benefit attached. Land back is about expanding tribal management — an essential element of climate justice work. Indigenous stewardship of land never produced the kind of emissions and toxins we are dealing with today. A revitalization of Indigenous management techniques is a critical piece of a more sustainable path forward.