Native American Heritage Month is coming to a close. Though it shouldn’t be isolated to once a month, it’s a time to celebrate and uplift the diverse cultures and traditions of Indigenous and Native people. It’s also a time to recognize Indigenous sovereignty and reflect on the history and impact of settler colonialism. However, without land rematriation—the actual return of stolen land—these are hollow gestures. Reckoning with the harms inflicted on Native and Indigenous people from colonization must move past acknowledgment, as these communities still feel the effects of being pushed near extinction. Today, there are efforts to help restore artifacts, cultural foods, and land to right a great injustice.
From 1778 to 1871, the United States signed upwards of 368 treaties with various Indigenous peoples. The treaties were based on the fundamental notion that each tribe was an independent nation. But as white settlers began moving onto Native lands, these treaties were abandoned and replaced by greed, dominance, and oppression (History). Another major contributor was the Indian Relocation Act of 1830, which forced around 100,000 Indigenous people from five tribal nations out of their homelands. Indigenous communities were forcefully separated from their land, and an estimated 15,000 Indigenous people from various nations died of disease and other causes during these forced marches (Atlas Obscura).
• Use the Native Land app to identify to whom the land belongs. Then, research how you can best support them or the Indigenous community closest to you. Or how to rematriate the land back.
One of these broken treaties is the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, an agreement between the U.S. and Native communities historically known as the Sioux (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota) and Arapaho. It established the Great Sioux Reservation, a large swath of lands west of the Missouri River, and designated the Black Hills as “unceded Indian Territory” (Smithsonian Magazine). But when gold was found there, the U.S. government changed its mind and redrew the boundaries of the treaty, stripping the people of their land.
In the five generations since the treaty was signed and broken, the Sioux Nations have steadily lost reservation lands to white development. They now live in small reservations scattered throughout the region.
Meanwhile, the U.S. grew this region of South Dakota into a national tourist attraction by creating Mt. Rushmore, designed to be a “testament to American exceptionalism,” and centering presidents who themselves contributed to the violence and disenfranchisement of Indigenous communities (National Geographic). Protests at Mt. Rushmore during the 4th of July weekend in 2020 amplified the modern-day land back movement. Local tribes are still demanding the closure of this monument, in addition to the return of the stolen lands it occupies (NDN Collective).
Efforts to reclaim these lands – both in the U.S. and abroad – have been happening for generations. The magazine Briarpatch published a 100-year history of the land struggle with key wins in both the U.S. and Canada. The Esselen tribe of Northern California reclaimed 1,200 acres of ancestral land after 250 years (The Guardian). And last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approved a plan to demolish four dams on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California, restoring river health and declining salmon runs (Oregon Public Broadcasting). This is the world’s largest dam removal and river restoration project, with removal scheduled for 2023. An effort made possible through the efforts of the Tribal communities throughout the Klamath Basin over the past 20 years (Undam the Klamath).
Giving land back is a straightforward way to repair the legacy of violence and harm against Indigenous communities. But it’s also a way to repair our relationship with the environment. Indigenous communities have been stewarding this earth sustainably for generations and never produced the level of emissions and toxins we’re dealing with today. They also have an innate knowledge on how to encourage reforestation, preserve our waters, manage fires, and preserve biological diversity. In this way, land back is more than returning territory, but expanding tribal management and centering Indigenous communities in the heart of climate justice. Read more in Lakota People’s Law Project.
In the absence of a land return, other initiatives are focused on the rematriation of seeds from native lands. European settlers, and later, U.S. government officials, would attack Indigenous communities’ food supplies to force them to move. Some would leave without these precious seeds, and others would relocate only to discover their seeds couldn’t grow in new terrains. For many Indigenous people, seeds represent the connection to the land and the ancestors that stewarded them. Efforts like The Indigenous Seed Keepers Network are working to bring those seeds back to the people and their lands and cultivate the Indigenous food movement (Atlas Obscura).
Once realized, comprehensive land back can transform modern-day Indigenous communities. It has the opportunity to untether these lands from a history of white supremacy and systemic oppression, including local law enforcement. It has the potential to re-establish access to basic utilities like clean water and air and redefine what leadership looks like. But more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. I can’t imagine what it’s like to watch a nation celebrate erasure and land theft each year, but I can commit to advocating for reparations. This is work we can rally for today and throughout the year.
“Land is more than the diaphanousness of inhabited memories; Land is spiritual, emotional, and relational; Land is experiential, (re)membered, and storied; Land is consciousness—Land is sentient,” said Sandra Styres (Kanien’kehá:ka) in Literacies of Land. “Land refers to the ways we honor and respect her as a sentient and conscious being. Therefore, in acknowledgment of the fundamental being of Land I always capitalize Land. I have come to know Land both as a fundamental sentient being and as a philosophical construct.”
• The U.S. government offered a series of treaties to Indigenous communities across the country but broke nearly all of the agreements.
• The forceable removal of Native and Indigenous communities from their lands has stripped people of their culture, prosperity, and connection to their ancestors.
• Initiatives like land rematriation aren’t just reparations but a clear way to dismantle white supremacy and center Indigenous communities.