Land back

For generations, Indigenous-led actions have been pushing for land back across the US and Canada. Riley Yesno explores how that spirit has been turned into a movement – embodied in schemes to redistribute wealth from non-Indigenous hands.

Image created by Julie Flett for We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp, published by Orca Book Publishers.

In 2018, Blackfoot meme creator Arnell Tailfeathers from Manitoba made a post on Instagram which contained a simple phrase: ‘Land Back’. It caught on quickly, perfectly capturing the essence of Indigenous people’s long struggle to reclaim their stolen land across Turtle Island – what is currently called the US and Canada. In just a few years, the use of those two words would snowball as they quickly became a rallying call.

Defining Land Back is both easy and complicated. Put most simply, Land Back is any action taken with the purpose of returning jurisdiction, authority, and resources to Indigenous people. This might include taking land back into Indigenous stewardship, restoring Indigenous people’s legal rights to their land, or the active refusal to follow colonial laws on traditional and unceded territories.1

The word action is especially important to emphasize when it comes to Land Back. Action is what makes this approach different from most state-led and non-Indigenous efforts at decolonization, signalling the active dismantlement of colonial ideals and structures. Decolonization is both a goal and a process, and Land Back could be considered one mechanism to facilitate it.

According to Canadian government figures, in 2020, over 11 per cent of Indigenous people over the age of 16 were living below the poverty line – double the rate of non-Indigenous people. In the US, too, economic conditions for Indigenous people are bleak. There, one in three Native Americans live in poverty versus about one in ten for the general population.

Symbolic gestures fail to reckon with the severity of these realities, but too often non-Indigenous groups pursue apologies, renaming landmarks or education efforts, rather than the transformative changes that meet decolonization demands.

Material restitution

While the most obvious manifestation of Land Back is just that – returning stolen land back to Indigenous people – there are other ways Indigenous-led projects are redistributing resources, or returning the wealth produced from those lands to Indigenous people. These include community land trusts – non-profit initiatives which reserve lands for the benefit of a specific group. California is home to perhaps one of the largest and more well-known land trusts of the Land Back movement – the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, established in 2015.

The Trust is based in Huchiun, in unceded Lisjan territory currently known as the East Bay in the San Francisco Bay area, California. Led by urban Indigenous women, it uses the practices of rematriation (restoring sacred relationships with their ancestral land), cultural revitalization and land restoration, and aims to ‘heal and transform the legacies of colonization, genocide, and patriarchy’. Sogorea Te’ wants to ensure that its people’s relationship with the land can continue far into the future. As co-founder and director Corrina Gould says: ‘My ancestors have always been here [...], and we continue to stand our ground.’

Sogorea Te’ collects money from non-Indigenous people and institutions such as churches, schools or businesses living or operating on traditional Ohlone territory. This ‘Shuumi’ (meaning gift) is voluntary and paid either annually or on some other recurring basis.

Sogorea Te’ currently has about 5,000 people giving Shuumi. The money goes into purchasing and maintaining traditional lands for Indigenous people’s benefit. For example, Shuumi has been used to plant urban medicine gardens, run cultural revitalization projects and generally return lands to Indigenous people’s use. Gould speaks to the importance of these initiatives in enhancing cultural sovereignty so that Indigenous people ‘can begin to teach ourselves how it is that we are supposed to live on this land again’.

Too often non-Indigenous groups pursue gestures such as apologies, renaming landmarks or education efforts, rather than transformative changes that meet decolonization demands

Non-Indigenous people sign up to give Shuumi for a range of reasons. It could be that they see initiatives like this as a way to be a part of the necessary healing and building of good relationships with Indigenous people, or it could be that they want to give back in recognition of the benefits they receive for living on colonized land.

Local resident Amy Hutto told Sogorea Te’ that their work ‘has profoundly altered my view of Huichin (Oakland) by helping me to imagine what life was like before colonization, and reimagine what could be going forward when we follow the wisdom, guidance and leadership of Indigenous women.’

Real renters

Another land trust initiative called Real Rent Duwamish (RRD) uses the concept of ‘rent’ to encourage non-Indigenous people in Seattle to recognize their relationship to the lands where they live and act in solidarity with the Duwamish people.

The Duwamish remain unacknowledged by the federal, state, and local governments. In 1855 the Point Elliott Treaty was signed, promising them land, healthcare, education and fishing rights, but it is still not honoured.

Currently, RRD says they have over 21,300 people paying this ‘rent’ – nearly 3 per cent of the city’s population. The ‘rent’ goes to Duwamish Tribal Services to ‘support the revival of Duwamish culture and the vitality of the Duwamish Tribe’.

RRD is run by individuals who call themselves the Duwamish Solidarity Group (DSG). Their goal is to ‘undo institutional racism and white privilege’, and to do this, they support and develop authentic relationships with each other and with the Duwamish People in ways they determine best achieve justice and community.

Rather than seeing Indigenous people and their work to reclaim power as a case of charity, initiatives like this emphasize responsibility to one another and the land. It is about developing ‘authentic relationships’ as DSG describes, rather than simply a donation made by non-Indigenous people who then continue their lives without consideration for Indigenous causes. Intentions rooted in restoring and building new relationships are a way to honour the broader, wholly-transformative goals of Land Back.

Sogora Te’ and RRD note that since not all people have the same financial means, they are not expected to pay the same amount, or to pay at all. Both organizations offer other means for people to be involved with their programming, such as volunteering time and labour to run events.

Showing up

Not every territory has an organization similar to Sogora Te’ and RRD. So how can we ensure everyone can play a role in Land Back – not just the wealthy or the proximate?

One place non-Indigenous people can start is to research the formal protocols and procedures established by the original inhabitants of the land they are on. These may look like a traditional Indigenous government issuing permits to non-Indigenous people who want to hunt, camp, or forage on their lands (as the Tsihqot’in Nation in British Columbia has created for mushroom foraging taking place on their territories); or maybe it looks like guidelines that resource extraction industry and other governments must follow if they wish to discuss partnerships (as Neskantega First Nation in Northern Ontario has done, particularly in relation to mining).

These examples and other protocols, procedures and permits make Indigenous people’s demands and leadership decisions public and explicit. By respecting and following these guidelines just as you would colonial laws and rules, non-Indigenous people affirm Indigenous authority over their territories. This, too, is Land Back.

Beyond an obvious ethical and moral obligation to uplift the efforts of those who have been the most harmed by colonization, Land Back is an important part of protecting the planet, as Indigenous people are the world’s best protectors of biodiversity. Further, groups like Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon, in partnership with Oil Change International, have highlighted how in recent years Indigenous-led direct action efforts have made a substantial impact in warding off climate change. They write that in 2021 alone, Indigenous land and water defence ‘stopped greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to nearly one-quarter (24 per cent) of annual total US and Canadian emissions’. We need to ensure Indigenous people have the resources and capacity needed to pursue this leadership.

All over the world, Indigenous people are demanding control over their lands, resources, and futures. However, rarely are these demands met with peaceful responses by those in positions of power. Instead, Indigenous people who stand their ground and assert themselves as the rightful leaders of their territories are met with hostility and violence from state police and military forces, as well as members of the public.

In these instances, another way to support Land Back is through showing up to protests; pressuring colonial leaders to remove their forces from Indigenous territory; donating time, energy, or money to the movement; or contributing to legal fees or other costs associated with keeping people’s homelands protected.

In some ways, these moments are the true tests of how meaningfully non-Indigenous people are committed to decolonial futures – it is here that the stakes are highest. Fear or uncertainty can lead many to stand on the sidelines of Indigenous struggles. But Indigenous people do not get the privilege of standing on the sidelines. For us, Land Back is an ongoing project – both day-to-day and in instances of crisis or heightened tension.

Where is the government?

In Canada, at least, there are a few ways Indigenous people can try to assert their rights to their territories through state-sanctioned processes. These include means such as an ‘addition to reserve’ process or ‘modern land claims’ negotiation.

So, if the state can get on board, why are the likes of Sogora Te’ and RRD necessary? First, there is the problem that these processes are costly – time and labour-intensive (often taking over a decade to negotiate) – and do not often guarantee the return of lands. More fundamentally, however, these actions do not get to the root of the problem – that Indigenous people should not be subject to the whims of colonial governments, which may or may not support their demands. They should not have to fight through legal and governmental apparatuses imposed on them to make them less hostile or to secure justice. Instead, those powers and resources should already be in Indigenous people’s hands so they can immediately shape their futures on their terms.

Often, when conversations about Land Back come up, people feel a sense of fear. Does Land Back mean I have to give up my life on these territories to Indigenous people? In short, no. The goals are about rectifying wrongs from colonization, allowing Indigenous people to thrive and building better communities for all.

Indigenous people are often intimately aware of the violence of displacement – we are not looking to replicate the same experiences that colonialists created. Instead, Indigenous belief in Land Back comes from a place of generosity and hope – a hope that we Indigenous people will lead us to a better future and the generosity to share that future with all the other people who have come to call our lands their home.

Riley Yesno is an Anishinaabe scholar and public intellectual from currently called Canada. She lives and works in Toronto, where she spends her time writing and completing her PhD in Political Science.

1 Unceded land refers to territories that were never formally signed away by the Indigenous people who inhabited them before European settlers – in other words, this is land that was stolen.

This article was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.