For Indigenous nations across Turtle Island, as we call North America, land is inextricably tied into our identity as peoples who thrived for millennia before the arrival of Europeans. It is no secret that a genocidal campaign of conquest—fueled and justified by the Doctrine of Discovery that declared all land not occupied by Christians as terra nullius (nobody’s land)—dispossessed millions of Indigenous peoples from their homelands in the name of the United States’ policy of western expansion and Manifest Destiny.
But as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That is why we draw hope from the recent return of long-dispossessed Indigenous lands from New York State to California.
The Nation previously reported on the return earlier this year of 1,100 acres around Onondaga Creek to the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York, land within the nation’s original treaty footprint, which had been seized over the centuries as part of a land grab that polluted nearly Onondaga Lake.
Now Oakland, Calif., has begun the process of “rematriating” five acres of parkland to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, the East Bay Ohlone tribe and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Nation. Corinna Gould, chair of the Lisian confederation, said, “The easement allows us to begin to heal the land and heal the scars that have been created by colonization for the next seven generations.”
These are the most recent fruits of a growing LANDBACK campaign, which has seen Indigenous nations aligning with non-Indigenous allies to begin that process of healing.
In 2019, Eureka, Calif., returned all of Indian Island in Humboldt Bay to the Wiyot people nearly 160 years after it was taken and the people killed or forcibly removed.
And in New York City, Indigenous leaders are discussing identifying land they could declare as sovereign territory for more than 150,000 Indigenous residents counted in the most recent Census. While New York City sits on the land of the long-dispossessed Lenape Nation, Indigenous city residents come from across the United States, Mexico, and beyond, including those of Taino descent who emigrated from Puerto Rico.
LANDBACK is happening in all these and many other places, including individual non-Native landowners finding ways to return land to Native nations. That ongoing campaign is the subject of a free Zoom webinar this Sunday called “Rethinking Thanksgiving: From Land Acknowledgement to LANDBACK,” assessing where we are today and where we are going.
The webinar is organized by, among others, the Onondaga-led American Indian Law Alliance; the NDN Collective, an Indigenous led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power and which houses a LANDBACK campaign, which sits on sacred ancestral land in South Dakota; the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in Oakland; the Arizona-based Tonatierra, which campaigns for Indigenous rights and land restoration across the Western hemisphere; and Indigenous Solidarity Network, which includes Catalyst Project, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and Resource Generation.
We are aware this movement takes place under the shadow of climate change and land degradation fueled by corporate greed and disregard for nature’s fragility that threatens the planet. As Indigenous rights activists have stressed in demonstrations surrounding COP27—the United Nations–sponsored climate change conference wrapping up in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt—it is Indigenous peoples who maintain stewardship over lands in which the greatest biodiversity remains.
The loss of land and territories of Indigenous peoples is a global issue, and the quest for LANDBACK is a generational fight. That includes the Amazon, where recent Brazilian elections ousting President Jair Bolsonaro carry the hope for a reversal of his disdain for the sanctity and sustaining importance of the greatest remaining rain forests.
It is encouraging that Indigenous voices are being heard in recent years, in part because of the developing consciousness of disenfranchised groups working together. We know we are stronger standing with others, and we have benefited from that expanded consciousness.
And we know that the growing threats posed by climate change and corporate greed have focused attention on Indigenous peoples’ stewardship of their land, and a sacred respect for the food, medicines, and spiritual sustenance drawn from that land.
But we are not naive. Two steps forward are often accompanied by two steps backward.
In the US Supreme Court, there were encouraging signs in sovereign rights cases involving the economic rights of the Yakima Nation in Washington State, and the rights to criminal jurisdiction on their own land for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma. These are largely due to Justice Neil Gorsuch who, to a degree rarely if ever seen on the high court, believes that treaties forced upon Indigenous nations actually mean what they say, no matter how states and others try to ignore them.
But in the most recent Supreme Court decision, the rights of Cherokee citizens on Indigenous land in Oklahoma, which their forebears had been forcibly moved to, appeared to overturn more than a century of Indigenous rights as it relates to nations’ relationship is with the federal government. Ignoring all precedent, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that states can ignore tribal sovereignty in handling criminal cases of Indigenous citizens on tribal lands.
“Tribes are not private organizations within state boundaries,” Gorsuch wrote in a blistering dissent. “Their reservations are not glorified private campgrounds. Tribes are sovereigns.… Tribal sovereignty means that the criminal laws of the States ‘can have no force’ on tribal members within tribal bounds unless and until Congress clearly ordains otherwise.”
The Supreme Court is also considering an attempt to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires preference be given to Indigenous families in Native nations regarding foster-care placements. That evokes the now-discredited horrors of the forced removal of Native children to Christian boarding schools designed to, in the words of the founder of Pennsylvania’s infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
While we consider land handed back to Native nations to be sovereign, there is ambiguity on the side of the United States and state governments over whether the land returned to Indigenous nations becomes sovereign or simply self-ruled, which would imply the grant of autonomy could be withdrawn by the entity that granted it.
An earlier promise by the county government in Syracuse, N.Y., to return 11 acres on Onondaga Lake to the Onondaga Nation was never acted upon. That is why the Tadodaho of the Onondaga, Sid Hill, writing in The Nation, tempered his excitement at the return of the land around Onondoga Creek: “We are clear that, despite the joy we feel at this first return of our land to our stewardship, we view this as only a first step toward a broader acknowledgement of our land rights.”
This ongoing LANDBACK work has been unbroken since the arrival of Europeans to this continent. Today, in these moments of climate chaos and reckoning with injustice, we know this LANDBACK work is in the interest of all of us.