Slacker’s Syllabus: The Land Back Movement

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Land Back is a movement among Indigenous people to reclaim their stolen lands.

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The U.S. government has a long track record of seizing land from Indigenous people and violating treaties that granted them land, fishing, and other rights, as well as payments and social services.

640 million

Number of acres the federal government owns, which accounts for around 28% of land in the U.S.

Ballotpedia

This includes National Parks.

Most, if not all, of them were inhabited by Indigenous people, and often created after their forced removal. In 1851, for instance, gold rush merchant James Savage led white settlers into Yosemite Valley — originally known as Ahwahnee Valley — where they murdered members of the Ahwahneechee Tribe. Many survivors were forced to live on reservations.

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Although Natives have fought to reclaim their land since colonizers first made landfall, Land Back memes created by Dene artist Nigel Henri Robinson and Niitsitapi artist Arnell Tailfeathers emerged around 2019. The phrase became a hashtag and a rallying cry at protests.

On Indigenous People’s Day in 2020, NDN Collective launched the LANDBACK Campaign, which is fighting for the return of Mount Rushmore — carved into the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakota — and other public lands to the original Indigenous stewards.

80%

Percentage of biodiversity Indigenous people protect, despite making up less than 5% of the population

Nature Sustainability

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Since Indigenous people know best how to take care of their land, returning it to them could help mitigate the impacts of climate change and preserve natural habitats.

Tribes like the Yurok and Chumash had practiced traditional burning of forests in present-day California for millennia before Spanish, and later, American, colonizers prohibited it. Now, the state is finally starting to recognize it as an effective method for managing devastating wildfires.

But Land Back is about more than returning the land to Indigenous stewardship.

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Another aspect is who we are as Indigenous people, who we are in regards to our culture, our language, our existence.... [It’s] another way of basically saying we’re reclaiming all of who we were prior to Columbus.

YoNasDa Lonewolf, Oglala Lakota and Black human rights activist

Land Back is also about dismantling the white supremacy that drove settlers to steal land from Indigenous people in the first place, and oppresses them to this day.

According to NDN Collective’s LANDBACK Manifesto, it’s about not only the liberation and sovereignty of Indigenous people, but the recognition that their struggle is linked to that of all oppressed peoples. It imagines a future that centers BIPOC collective liberation.

We never say ‘This belongs to us, this Earth, or this land.’ ... We never have an entitlement to it. We always were like, ‘Ok, we can share this.’ But there is respect that has to come with sharing, and we have not received that respect.

YoNasDa Lonewolf

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Fears that Indigenous people will “take revenge” once their land is returned are based on harmful stereotypes.

“They still believe we’re some wild people that are coming to scalp you in the middle of the night,” Lonewolf says. “Anytime we speak up against anything that is wrong, that’s the number one narrative they like to push.”

Some recent Land Back Victories

In July 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that around half of Oklahoma is Indigenous land.

Later that month, the Esselen tribe bought back 1,200 acres of their land near Big Sur in California.

In September 2019, the United Methodist Church in Upper Sandusky, Ohio returned land that includes a mission church and cemetery to the Wyandotte Nation.

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Amplify Indigenous-led organizations, like NDN Collective, the Indigenous Peoples Movement, and the Lakota People’s Law Project.

Learn about the history of the land you live on and the Indigenous people who’ve traditionally inhabited it.

Donate to land tax and land return efforts, like the Shuumi Land Tax, which supports the Sogorea Te’Land Trust’s efforts to create a land base for the Ohlone people of California’s East Bay, as well as ceremonial spaces, community centers, and urban gardens. You can learn more about this and similar programs here.

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Although Indigenous people have been leading the Land Back movement, Lonewolf says that everyone has a responsibility.

Indigenous issues affect all of us.