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Why We Should Transfer ‘Land Back’ To Indigenous People

Above Photo: March 16, 1970: “Indians picket the Army — Indian and part-Indian youngsters picket the Army’s Fort Lawton here Sunday as MP’s in the background guard the fort after 78 Indians were arrested in a dawn demonstration. The Associated Press.

“Land Back.”

You may have seen this slogan recently on T-shirts or hashtags, but its roots are as old as the colonization and displacement of Native people in the U.S.

In recent years, Washington has seen several new Native land reclamation efforts, ranging from ancestral land purchased by tribes themselves to land returned to tribes that was purchased by conservation groups or other entities.

At their core, Land Back initiatives are intended to support the sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous people. The reclamation efforts begin to remedy the injustice of government policies that stripped land, language and culture from Native people. They also recognize the urgent need to approach our environment and ecology in a more sustainable way that protects life for seven generations and beyond.

Jaime Martin, the Snoqualmie Tribe’s executive director of governmental affairs, described the Land Back movement as “a whole spectrum of policies, actions and initiatives all working to restore and reclaim Native ancestral lands.”

I thought about the Land Back movement’s echoes to the past as we worked on the latest installment of The Seattle Times’ A1 Revisited Project, which examined the newspaper’s lack of coverage of the occupation of Magnolia’s Fort Lawton by Native activists in the early 1970s**.**

In one of the photos of the protests, activists picket with signs reading “This Land is Our Land,” and “We Want Our Land Back.”

As we are seeing today, Native people then fought to preserve their communities and culture against efforts such as the federal “termination” and relocation policies that stripped Native people of their tribes and lands under the promise of assistance like job training.

Washington Land Reclamation Efforts

The Snoqualmie Tribe’s 2021 purchase of 12,000 acres of ancestral forest land near the Tolt River Watershed in the foothills of the Cascades in east King County is one example of a land reclamation effort. It comes after the tribe’s 2019 purchase of the Salish Lodge and land around Snoqualmie Falls.

Like many other tribes, Martin said the Snoqualmie tribe, or sdukʷalbixʷ in Lushootseed, was promised land in the 1930s that the federal government never delivered.

“The Snoqualmie people have stewarded and been present on these lands since time immemorial, but over the past few centuries there have been a series of efforts to remove us from these lands,” she said. “Through legally owning the ancestral forest, we can now care for it and deepen our reciprocal relationship with our ancestral lands.”

Hanford McCloud, the governmental liaison for the Nisqually tribal council and former tribal council member, said their tribe also suffered from failed promises. In the early 1900s, two-thirds of the tiny slice of land the tribe retained through the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty was condemned and given to the Army, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Last year, the tribe worked with the Nisqually Land Trust to purchase 2,200 acres of land along a tributary to the Nisqually river.

McCloud said that given the urgency of protecting the watershed and all the people and life that are supported by it, “it is important that we do buy this land back. Not only buy it back, but rename it too.” But it’s still a “slap in the face” that Native people would have to buy back their lands in the first place, he said.

The land is not just a place. “You need that land, that water and that connection to your culture,” he said. “What our people wanted was the connection to the land. That’s all we wanted. We didn’t want to be taken from the mouth of the river and the base of the mountain and put somewhere else in the valley that did not belong to the Nisqually. And that’s what they wanted to do to us.”

He said of the now-ubiquitous land acknowledgments, “for me, a land acknowledgment is land back: You give us land, and we’ll acknowledge the fact that you’re on our land. … You stole the land, you manipulated the land. And now we’re here to help fix that.”

Manifest Destiny

To understand the Land Back movement, you have to understand how we got here. Land was taken from Native people in the Americas using the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny as justifications.

As McCloud said, “That’s kind of how all this started. They came over on a ship, and they put a flag in the ground and said, ‘We think this land is ours.’”

Later, with populations destroyed by violence and disease and Native removal policies under way, some tribes signed treaties with the U.S. to protect what they could of their lands and fishing and hunting rights. But as Joshua Reid (Snohomish), a University of Washington history professor, said in 2020, “The simple fact of the matter is that every single treaty is a broken treaty. There’s not a single one that has been faithfully upheld with everything that was negotiated.”

As happens every time I write about Native sovereignty, there will be those who say this is all ancient history and even, “might makes right.” When I wrote about the Duwamish Real Rent initiative in 2020, for example, I received numerous emails arguing that since there are disputes among tribes about Duwamish recognition, that those supporting Duwamish tribal members were foolish and being scammed.

But it’s not truly sovereignty if non-Native people are dictating how and where tribes use their hard-fought resources; it’s for tribes to decide. And it’s not surprising that with the artificial scarcity of resources created by colonization there would be disagreements over how to allocate them.

Conservation And Business Efforts

On the northeastern side of the state, the Colville Confederated Tribes are slowly reclaiming some of their land taken by the federal government.

The 12 bands that were forced onto what is now the Colville Reservation by Executive Order in 1872 included the sńʕaýckstx (Lakes), sx̌ʷýʔłpx (Colville), sʔukʷnaʔqín (Okanogan), škwáxčənəxʷ (Moses-Columbia), šnp̍əšqʷáw̉šəxʷ (Wenatchi), šntiyátkʷəxʷ (Entiat), ščəl̕ámxəxʷ (Chelan), sp̓aƛ̓mul̓əxʷəxʷ (Methow), nspiləm (Nespelem), sńpʕawílx (Sanpoil), wal’wáma (Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce) and palúspam (Palus) Indians.

After gold was discovered on the north side of the reservation in 1892, Congress removed half of that land as well.

While the Colville reservation is the state’s largest at 1.4 million acres, the Colville Confederated Tribes estimates the original land base of the 12 bands at about 39 million acres across parts of Washington, British Columbia, Oregon and Idaho.

Last fall, 9,200 acres of land were returned to the tribe through a partnership with Seattle-based Conservation Northwest, which received the land from a rancher under the condition that it be protected from development.

Colville Confederated Tribes Chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson (sx̌ʷýʔłpx (Colville), sńʕaýckstx (Lakes) and sʔukʷnaʔqín (Okanogan) said their tribe has been chipping away at reclaiming their traditional territories, but a gift of 9,200 acres is huge.

The land helps to reestablish the connection between the reservation and the Cascades and helps create a corridor for wildlife like the lynx, which are being reintroduced, and sharp-tailed grouse and potentially wolverines. He said elders have also gathered first foods on the land as well.

While the tribe is deeply grateful for the gift, he said, it’s frustrating that tribes have to buy or be gifted land that was taken from them.

“The reservation was open for homesteading and so with that we’re gonna have to buy up land within the bounds of our reservation, we have to buy it up to convert it back to trust property.”

Erickson said the Land Back movement has helped raise awareness from land owners around how they can support Native sovereignty, and an increasing number of land conservancies and trusts have reached out to learn how they could support the tribe.

“I think there’s been a big movement and I want to keep that momentum going. I think people have been really open to the idea of Land Back,” he said. “I can just say that we really appreciate it here.”

Back on the west side of the state, the s√qʷáx̌səd (Squaxin Island) tribe also received a land gift, this time from the Port Blakely timber company. The company returned to the tribe 125 acres of tideland and 2 miles of shoreline last year.

“I think [Port Blakely] recognized some of the injustices that were done and how they actually acquired it back in treaty times, and it was an awakening in regards to trying to make an impact on social injustice, and what better way then to return land to the local tribe, their neighbor tribe,” said Ray Peters, Squaxin Island intergovernmental affairs and Tribal Council liaison. “So we were quite moved by that gesture for them to make that gift back to us.”

New Urgency

Matt Remle (Hunkpapa Lakota), a Seattle-based journalist, activist and editor of Last Real Indians, said while the language might be new, the Land Back movement is not.

Native people have fought for their lands forever and even when they win in the courts, for example, what’s missing is “the land back part,” he said.

What might be new today is the climate crisis has brought urgency and concern on the part of non-Native people around land stewardship and sustainability, he said.

“There seems to be a greater understanding that those who lived in close relationship with a land and geography for tens of thousands of years probably best know how to live with that land.”

As an example, Remle noted that Suquamish and Duwamish people lived in the Seattle region for 10,000 years, but over just the last 150, the waterways became polluted and toxic. In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency named the Lower Duwamish waterway a Superfund site, for example.

He also said that when tribes have to buy their land back, it becomes in reality more of a real estate transaction than an example of that Land Back movement, a transaction that the vast majority of tribes don’t have the financial resources to do.

McCloud, whose Nisqually family was involved in the 1970s Fish Wars over fishing rights, said sustainable stewardship of their lands is core to the tribe’s commitment.

“That’s why we fight so hard for the land, and the resources of the land,” he said. “Because [the land doesn’t] have a say. So the Indigenous people as stewards of this land, that’s our duty, and one of the responsibilities to speak on behalf of.”

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